Mike Riley has earned a pleasant reputation with both players and fans. But Nebraska's first-year coach will look to balance patience and program-building with the ultimate on-field expectation of Husker devotees: that he pummels plenty of opponents along the way.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

By Sam McKewon / World-Herald Bureau
Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015

LINCOLN — Nebraska football coach Mike Riley has the highest-profile job in the state — a job fit for a pulpit, bully or otherwise — but there are times on the practice field that he’ll practically disappear.

You don’t hear him yelling. You don’t see him pointing or stalking or exhorting. Embedding himself in a pack of 300-pound men, he blends in, silent, lurking.

“You’ll lose track of where he is, and then he’ll just pop up behind you,” cornerback Daniel Davie said. With a word. A tip. A technique. A joke. A smile. He talks quietly. Players lean in.

The new boss — not much like the old one — might slip a player’s jersey over his shoulder pads or chat up a student trainer for 10 minutes. He might stand in the middle of a circle of university suits and hold court because, why not? It’s part of the deal. It’s neat. It’s an adventure. At least until he coaches his first game in a packed, pressure-filled Memorial Stadium, anyway.

Practice ends, and Riley ambles over to the media with a half-crooked grin and a “Hello, everybody!”

He gives specific, direct answers. If a question frustrates him, the tension travels subtly down to his hands. It’s not in his voice or in his facial expression.

Reporters see the same comportment that boosters, fans and students do. What Oregon State fans, boosters, students and media became accustomed to during Riley’s two stints in Corvallis.

Courtesy. Patience. And, yes, that one word.

“He’s probably the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong said.

Amiable. Pleasant. Agreeable. Nice. It even fits the state’s relatively new tourism slogan. Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice. Visit Mike Riley, now entrusted with a program starved for conference titles and national relevance.

“He’s quiet; he’s calm; he’s caring,” Armstrong said.

And yet “nice” chafes at Riley. Just a little. It’s dogged him, that word, particularly at Oregon State, where nine wins was an achievement, not the expected standard, as it is at NU.

“I don’t know about all that, with the nice guy thing,” Riley said at Big Ten media days. “I always tell people, I just hope they see a guy who loves what he does.”

Later at the same event: “There are all different kinds of personalities that have been successful — or not — in my profession. Frankly, with teams I’ve coached in the past, if we’ve won, ... I’m a good guy and all that, and if we’ve lost, I’m too soft. Might as well be yourself — and let it fly from there.”

He allows the same latitude to assistants. Some bark. Some growl. Some, like offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, are a chip off the old Riley. Some, like linebackers coach Trent Bray, know what it’s like to play for and work for Riley.

"He is a nice guy," said NU linebackers coach Trent Bray of Mike Riley. "But don't mistake nice for weak. Or soft." (Credit: Ryan Soderlin/The World-Herald, above and at top)

Mike Riley facts

Born: July 6, 1953

Family: Wife, Dee; son, Matthew; daughter, Kate; grandchild, Elijah Jo

Education: Alabama, bachelor’s of social science, 1975; Whitworth College, master’s physical education, 1977

Playing experience: 1971-74, Alabama, cornerback

Oregon State coaching record

YearRecordWin %

  Bowl record: 6-2

Photos by the Associated Press

“He is a nice guy,” said Bray, who played for the Beavers from 2002 to ’05. “But don’t mistake nice for weak. Or soft.”

Rather, Bray said, Riley is “very demanding.” Underneath the nice exterior, Bray says, is a firm man of rigorous standards, tidy organization, high expectations and low tolerance for certain transgressions.

“He puts the responsibility on players,” Bray said. “He doesn’t just coddle them. When you play for Coach Riley, you make the choices; you do the right things. If not, the next guy who does will take your spot.”

For it is a ruthless game, and for a coach, a ruthless business. No country for soft men. The son of a lifelong football coach, Riley knows this. He’s never wanted to be anything else but a coach, but to reach the inside of Nebraska’s North Stadium palace he’s had to take, at times, a winding journey.

He learned the value of trust, for example, at his first full-time job, as Linfield (Oregon) College’s defensive coordinator.

“I was called the defensive coordinator, but I was not the defensive coordinator,” Riley said. “The head coach was the defensive coordinator, the offensive coordinator, everything. But after three years, I got a little bit more and a little bit more and by the fifth year, I’m calling the defenses. And the sixth year, I wrote the playbook. He kind of weaned me.”

In the Canadian Football League — where he won two Grey Cups — he learned how to be a head coach, how to have a plan for what to say. With the San Antonio Riders — of the short-lived World League of American Football — he learned how to do more with virtually nothing, as the franchise was on such a shoestring budget. As USC’s offensive coordinator, Riley saw up close the pressure of a top-flight football program. As the San Diego Chargers’ coach, Riley experienced the gut punch of a 1-15 season.

“Brutal!” Riley said. “We were 1-15, but the thing I really like about that team is that we never really quit.”

And in 14 years at Oregon State, where he became the program leader in coaching victories, Riley had to build the program from the bottom up, out of decades worth of pigskin ashes. Early in his second stint at OSU, as he took over for Dennis Erickson, he learned what he didn’t want his college program to be. Undisciplined. Unruly. A mess.

It is perhaps that moment where Riley began his walk to full maturity — the coach he is now. Where nice meets firm. Where firm becomes a foundation.

“I was at the point where I said, ‘If this is the way it has to look, I don’t want to do this anymore; I’ll just go be an assistant coach somewhere,’” Riley said. “I didn’t want it to look like this, so we were either going to change it or be done with it. Behavior, attitude — what that picture looks like. I carry that forward to this day. This is not what it’s going to look like. You can look like that, but you’re going to have to do it with another team.”

Then Riley connects this mindset to the kind of football he’d like to see Nebraska play.

“Establishing these things through time, I think there’s a residual to playing that kind of disciplined football,” Riley said. “It all blends together to be a lifestyle.”

You are either on board with this lifestyle — and most Husker players have been — or you’re not. Riley sums it up with a phrase: “Do the right thing.” It is, essentially, an appeal to one’s conscience.

“If they really sit down and think about it, in the cool of the evening, by themselves, when nobody’s influencing them, and they’re thinking about doing ‘this’ or not doing ‘this,’ they know the right thing,” Riley said the night he acknowledged Nebraska would have five suspensions for the season opener against BYU. “They really do. We all can do that. We all know, too, that they’re young, and they can get involved with other stuff that influences what they’re doing, but the real, real crux of the matter is, there is a choice, and there is a right, and there is a wrong. So doing the right thing to me is simple, and it covers a lot of bases.”

And buying in on the front end is important. Part of the proof is in how Riley has assembled his coaching and administrative staffs.

These are his guys, schooled in his beliefs. The Nebraska Way, so long as Riley is here, will be the Riley Way. Six of his assistants, including both coordinators, coached at some point under him at Oregon State. His strength coach Mark Philipp? Worked for five years at Oregon State. His lead and assistant player personnel directors? Worked at Oregon State. Five of the seven graduate managers? Worked at Oregon State. Riley created a special director of high school relations role for his staff to reach out to local coaches, then filled the job with a former Oregon State assistant — with no experience in the state.

Those choices are about trust and time logged under Riley.

“We’re all pretty like-minded,” Riley said. “This thing about a football team, it really is a group effort. I guess one guy has to be called the head coach and he has to make decisions and all that stuff, but you really need a group of guys.”

And the players must buy in. To that end, Riley appears to have succeeded with many on the roster.

“He just wants to talk to you and get to know you, where you’re from,” Armstrong said. Riley reaches out to parents, too. He wants his assistants to do the same. Quickly, he’s tried to build a rhythm there without disparaging his predecessor, Bo Pelini, loved by most Husker players but at such odds with the fan base and administration that nine-win seasons wore on him — and thus, his adoring players — more than did any of his detractors.

In practices observed by reporters, Riley is much less hands-on than Pelini was. Pelini served as the de facto defensive coordinator and spent practices talking at length with defensive backs and occasionally linebackers. In his final season, he ran the punt return team, which had underperformed the season before. In contrast, Riley stands off to the side. Assistants know his expectation for their work.

“I’d call him a CEO,” said defensive backs coach Brian Stewart, who has worked in college and the NFL. Stewart said Riley is a “level five management” type from the book “Good to Great.”

“He has a certain command presence when he talks,” Stewart said. “You know he’s in charge — but you also know he cares about you personally.”

Nice — but firm. Firm is the foundation. So is watchfulness. Just when you think Riley’s blended in to the point of being bland — or even invisible — look out.

Armstrong has a story — similar to Davie’s. It’s from the summer, as he and other quarterbacks sat in their North Stadium meeting room with Langsdorf. As the group watched film, Langsdorf was talking when Riley suddenly cut him off to make a point.

None of the quarterbacks realized he was even in the room. Riley’s office, Armstrong said, connects to the quarterback meeting room, but he’d slipped in so quietly, none of them had noticed.

Where’d you come from, Armstrong remembered asking.

I’ve been here for 10 minutes, Riley responded.

“He’s that guy,” Armstrong said, “who shows up out of nowhere.”


How do Mike Riley’s assistants view him?

Committed to goals

Tommy Armstrong and Jordan Westerkamp swore to curious reporters at Big Ten media days that they’d never seen their new coach angry. Well, maybe once. When a mid-practice argument turned into a mini-skirmish. But that’s it. Since taking over NU’s program, Mike Riley’s not been so consumed by emotion that he’s lost his temper. So thus the natural follow-up question: How bad does Riley want it? Particularly in sports, outward expression — yelling and gesturing, even to the point of near-tantrum territory — often tends to be the most commonly referenced gauge of internal drive. Riley’s a mild-mannered guy, yes. But those who’ve worked with him for years insist that his laid-back demeanor does not inhibit his drive to be successful. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh chuckles when asked about this. Said Cavanaugh: “Don’t get it fooled. I’ve said it a long time ago: He wants to win. He’s a competitive man. He goes after your jugular.”

Motivates, inspires

Trent Bray was an Oregon State linebacker while Mike Riley coached in Corvallis, Oregon. Bray realized right away that he wouldn’t be coddled or overly nurtured. He could be his own man. “He makes players responsible for themselves. You learn to be responsible. You learn to make good decisions,” Bray said. “You’ve got to learn how to make your own decisions. You’ve got to learn how to make things right. You’ve got to learn how to be responsible.” That can be a daunting challenge for a young man. But Riley himself sets the example. He invests in you — conveying a genuine belief in his ability to help you reach your potential. As special teams coach Bruce Read phrased it, Riley is a “super-caring person.” A meeting-room lecture, a practice-field pep talk, an off-the-field handshake — all of that seems to be a bit more meaningful coming from Riley. So much so that everyone associated with his program finds a way to give just a little extra. They want to prove him right.

Able to delegate

Riley doesn’t micromanage. It’s one of the last things Director of Player Personnel Ryan Gunderson said after a 45-minute recruiting chat with a half-dozen reporters in January. Gunderson and Recruiting Operations Director Andy Vaughn had just outlined their job duties, and they did so with such candor, freedom and authority that it seemed like they came up with the responsibilities and philosophies themselves. “He doesn’t pretend like he knows everything,” Gunderson said of Riley last winter. “He lets us educate him.” There’s a level of trust between Riley and the people he hires. Said linebackers coach Trent Bray: “He lets you coach, he lets you teach — you’ve got to explain (to him) why it’s the best way — but he lets you go. If he feels like you need to do something different or change up how you do it, he comes and tells you.” Riley makes sure he has enough on his plate as well. Special teams coach Bruce Read says he knows there are head coaches who can “dictate and bolt out the door, giving you a meaningless project — (saying), ‘I want to know this, this, this and this.’ And then they’re out golfing.” Riley’s not that way. “He stays in there as long as anybody does,” Read said.


NU’s defense was on one sideline. The offense was lined up along the 20-yard line. The final play of a morning preseason practice had just occurred and Riley made his way to the middle of the field. He called the players to him, so they hear his final words of the session. But Riley didn’t like the way the guys made their way toward him. Not enough enthusiasm, apparently. They were told to try again. And when they did? They yelled as they sprinted to a smiling Riley. There have been instances like this at various points in preseason camp — when Riley’s taken note of something and made sure it lined up with his vision. He hollered across the practice field and told players to pick their helmets off the grass — they had been kneeling, one hand resting on the helmet. Midway through the first scrimmage of the preseason, Riley ushered back the defenders, who lined up along a sideline, telling them to move off the white-painted stripe. Riley’s known to watch the same game-film clips that the offense, defense and special teams coaches analyze. He gives his input, too. “He’s very organized, very smart,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “He comes in every day, tells you what he saw. He gives you tips on what you need to improve on.”

Values inclusion

Riley has had a conversation a few times with special teams coach Bruce Read about personnel groups in the kicking game. Riley wants the best players on the field, but he’d also like to involve as many guys as he can. If you’re not in the top rotation at your position — receiving the majority of practice reps and benefiting from meticulous coaching — there can be a dip in your level of commitment. Special teams is a great way to increase the number of players who’ll have significant roles. So the possibility of a commitment dip is lessened. Said Read: “The more people we can get involved, the more people are invested — the more in tune this group is. The more numbers we get, the stronger we are.” And that notion goes beyond the players. Read, who’s worked with Riley at Oregon State for three stints, said he’s noticed Riley making an effort to interact with people in the football office and in the athletic department. There have been tons of speaking engagements and other PR-related requirements that gave Riley a chance to meet with the fans and alumni who’re connected to the program. “He’s really making sure that in the front office, everybody’s meshing,” Read said.

— Jon Nyatawa


Contact Sam McKewon




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