Shortly after the Black Friday game against Iowa, it’s all going to come to an end. Fans know it. Bill Moos knows it. Even Mike Riley himself knows that, when the scoreboard reads quadruple zeros on Nov. 24, he’ll be exiting Nebraska’s iconic Memorial Stadium for the final time.
Nothing has been made public, but it doesn’t need to be. The tone says it all. Just listen to Riley’s press conferences, or read any of the statements Moos has made to the media. Everyone knows what’s coming.
With Riley on the verge of being stamped out of Lincoln — his situation essentially cut-and-dry at this point — an old thought starts swimming around in my head again. Something I was thinking on Dec. 4, 2014 bulldozed its way back to the front of my mind over the last few weeks.
“Nebraska can’t seriously believe Mike Riley is the answer, can it?” That’s what I was thinking three years ago, when ex-athletic director Shawn Eichorst made the decision to bring the Oregon State head coach to Lincoln.
It made sense from an image perspective. Eichorst decided to part ways with a brash and belligerent Bo Pelini, who had represented the program in somewhat of a cartoonish fashion, regularly bellowing on the sideline until his face turned Cornhusker red. Steering away from that personality is understandable.
Eichorst made Riley the face of the program, a well-mannered, folksy guy who would have no trouble restoring Nebraska as a spit-and-polish program. The hire, from that standpoint, was a home run.
Still, Nebraska was entrusting a then-61-year-old coach with moderate success to lead one of the blue bloods of college football back into the national conversation. Eichorst left a $10 million contract on the doorstep of a guy who won just 54 percent of his games and had a losing record in the Pac-10/Pac-12 while at Oregon State. A pretty hefty offer for a guy who was the lowest paid coach in his conference and was on the back end of his career.
But Eichorst believed Riley could propel the Huskers back into national prominence. He sold Riley as the future of Nebraska football and the coach who could restore glory in an above average program.
“I have no doubt that Mike will assemble a tremendous staff and lead our student-athletes to win B1G titles and compete for national championships in the years ahead,” Eichorst said during Riley’s introductory press conference.
And that’s where I have some trouble.
Three years later, after watching Nebraska post a 19-17 record and on the edge of recording its second losing season in three years, I’m wondering if Eichorst ever believed Riley could handle a program of this magnitude. Did he ever, truly, believe this move would put the Huskers in position to compete in the national spotlight? Or was he just tired of dealing with Pelini’s shenanigans and simply wanted a calmer, more even-keeled head coach in place?
After seeing the product that’s taken the field this season, it has to be the latter, right? This was much more about “please” and “thank you” than “Xs” and “Os.” Unfortunately for Riley, he had no idea what he signed up for, and now, his name will forever be attached with one of the worst eras in Nebraska history.
Despite popular opinion, Moos said that he’s not interested in making a coaching change midway through the season. He’s not made any public statement about the coaching situation or Riley’s future, but he knows what he has to do when this tumultuous year ends. That doesn’t mean he’s cutting Riley’s time short to get a head start on the search process.
“Mike Riley deserves to finish the 2017 season,” Moos told ESPN.
He’s right. Riley has taken enough hits as the punching bag for an angry and unapologetic fan base, and he shouldn’t have to experience the public shaming that comes with a midseason dismissal.
It serves as somewhat of an apology from Moos for Eichorst’s mistake, acknowledging that this was a gig too demanding for a coach with Riley’s background and credentials. It’s a parting gift for someone who was pulled in over his head and was never able to catch his breath.
Riley entered Nebraska under the wrong terms and conditions. He should be able to exit on his own.