The once marauding Nebraska football machine is being retooled in Lincoln by a cadre of coaches, specialists and support staff. The machine, powered by sellout after sellout at Memorial Stadium, is bigger and more intricate than ever. Coach Mike Riley is the man charged with making it all work. Can he put all the pieces together in a way that ignites a consistent winner? Possibly. Sometimes, where there's smoke, there’s fire.

Rebuilding the Big Red Machine

By Sam McKewon / World-Herald Bureau
Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016

LINCOLN — Mike Riley chalked yard lines onto the field at one of his football coaching stops. In a career that includes three pro leagues, every imaginable level of college football and two countries, he's had to be a jack of all trades, master of several and a consummate juggler of roles. And he relied on a small, loyal team of folks who labored with him in the process.

"We used to wear so many hats and take the lead on so many things," said Dan Van De Riet, director of football operations and Riley's longtime right-hand man, confidant and adviser.

At Nebraska, it's different. You sense it when you head downtown off Interstate 80 and see, off to your left, a fortress with a football atop, gleaming in the dark. That's Memorial Stadium. And housed in it is what's different about Nebraska.

Riley has at his call a vast network of staff members — graduate managers, analysts, social media gurus, even an expert on the saliva in your mouth — assigned to tasks and subtasks, delving deep into the art and science of winning football games.

Whether the investment actually pays off with conference titles and College Football Playoff berths remains to be seen.

But this much is clear: All imaginable resources and all the hands on deck are trying to make Husker football relevant again.

In front of fans at breakfasts and over lunch-hour cocktails, Riley has a tag line of "we're all in this together." He means it.

"When we have more guys thinking about something — and it's thoughtful and researched — we have a good chance of putting these thoughts together and being better for it," Riley said during preseason practice as the machine churned toward the season opener.

"In terms of resources and vastness of operation, it's much greater than Oregon State," said Van De Riet, who started working for Riley in Corvallis.


Hitting on all cylinders

Strength coaches keep Nebraska players in peak condition. The Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab, or NAPL, tries to pinpoint conditions for peak production. The personnel department scours the nation for recruiting targets. The academics and life skills departments focus on the "student" more than the "athlete" part of the equation.

Nebraska staffers are fastidious about using the phrase "student-athlete." Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst has named his senior staff the "Student-Athlete Services and Experience Management Team."

Riley's job, as the man in the middle of it all, is to make sure all the parts move together and add a personal, homespun touch.

"He makes you feel like you're the most important person in that moment," Van De Riet said.

Riley is not a micromanager, Van De Riet said. He lets people do their jobs. But what Riley requires, and the coach himself confirms this, is expertise. He asks a lot of questions of various departments, and, when he asks, he wants blunt, straight, detailed answers.

"When people spend time in their area thinking about it, I like the input," Riley said. "Somebody's just got a random thought — and they haven't put much thought or research into it — I don't know that I necessarily want to hear it."

Said Van De Riet: "He needs information bluntly given to him on a daily basis. He's a guy you don't want to let down. He's got high expectations — everyone's clear on that and aware of that. Coach is very clear he wants to be informed. Be an expert and give him the best information possible."

Football ops guys oversee logistics for the program — travel arrangements and the like — but, beyond that, they often take on different roles. NU's previous director of football operations, Jeff Jamrog, was a coach by trade and put together the Huskers' walk-on class each year. Tim Cassidy, Bill Callahan's right-hand man, was closely involved in recruiting.

Van De Riet — known as "DVD" around the football program — is more of a chief of staff. A key part of Van De Riet's broader role within the organization is to glean information from various sources, advise and update Riley and have a clear sense of how players are doing in the program — socially and academically.

"One of the best people in my life that I've ever run into," Riley said. "He's given me, through the years, great, hard advice ... our players really trust him. They'll go see him before they see me. They know he'll go to bat for them."

Said Van De Riet: "We have a ton of people who are experts in their areas that I'm constantly gathering information from and giving information to so we can keep the wheel running as fast as we possibly can. I've got to keep (Riley) abreast of what's going on in all phases of our program and make sure it's being executed in his vision."

INNER WORKINGS

It takes a village to shape Nebraska’s football team each season — and it extends far past the coaching offices. Husker football is a vast, detailed organization, and while coach Mike Riley is a major cog in the machine, he relies on talented staffers from a variety of departments. Check out our detailed list of key contributors. It doesn’t quite include everyone who works within the organization — there are too many great security guards and custodians to mention — but it gives a sense of how big the Huskers’ machine has become.


The man in the machine

Riley has to make hard choices. In an operation as large as Nebraska's, various ideas come forth, and sometimes they oppose each other. Riley and his boss — Eichorst — like to look at all angles of an issue. Eichorst said it's a desire to be innovative, to always be asking hard questions about how to do something better. Riley's hire of a former NFL general manager, Billy Devaney, is part of that process. So is Riley's decision to give players Mondays off during the season because NAPL's saliva analysis suggests it will cut down on player stress.

Riley said he wants open doors and open discussions. All options on the table. Nothing's personal.

"You can't be defensive about a thought — sometimes it might be better than my thought," Riley said. "When you have competent people, they can deal with it. They usually know the pros and cons. This happens in football a lot. You get in a room and somebody thinks we should block a play like that. Cav (offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh) thinks we should block it like that. I have my own idea. And there might be a disagreement.

"We always say, whatever that is, we're going to come to a conclusion. I may have to make a final decision on something, but when it's decided, we've got to come out of the room in unity to our players."

Riley, Eichorst and the other parts of Nebraska's machine are in unison on one key thing: For NU to maximize its potential on the field, they need elite development off of it. Riley's made it part of his recruiting pitch — NU prepares for life and develops the total person — and nodded as Eichorst shared the vision during summer tour events. The tools that may seem secondary — the life skills, the academic improvements — are, to Riley, primary colors in his program.

"We realize that all our players want to play in the NFL — and that's absolutely OK with all of us — but we have the responsibility of making sure that, whenever their football career is over, that they're well-prepared," Riley said. "Nebraska lives that ideal. It's not just a publicity thing. Nebraska puts unbelievable resources into making sure it's all in place."

He then adds a thought that Nebraska fans may find relevant.

"As we develop young men," he said, "our football will get better."

 

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Contact Sam McKewon

Phone:
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sam.mckewon@owh.com

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Kent Sievers

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Graham Archer, Brandon Olson