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Mike Riley has added some new ingredients to the Husker offense and defense for his third season at Nebraska. A quarterback who fits his offense and a fired-up defensive coordinator are both part of the recipe. So how will it taste?
LINCOLN — In the kitchen that is Nebraska football, picture a stove full of sizzling pans and bubbling pots. Next to it, there’s a counter with all the food for a double-digit-win season, a Big Ten West crown and, perhaps, with the right spices, even a Big Ten title.
Hovering over the feast is coach Mike Riley — the head chef who’s always tinkering with the recipe that stretches over several pages as he enters his third year at Nebraska.
As an eater, Riley describes himself as “pretty easy” to please. He likes a good cheeseburger and vanilla shake. He likes Valentino’s pizza — so long as it has some meat on it.
“Canadian bacon and raw tomatoes,” Riley says of his ideal pizza slice.
As a coach, Riley is no simpleton.
In football terms, he’s traveled the globe. He grew up the son of a coach. As a college player, he sat under a master chef in Bear Bryant at Alabama. He’s coached both sides of the ball and walked sidelines in three pro leagues and three levels of college. He’s won titles. He’s been fired. He’s hired relative strangers and fired friends.
Out of his 10-seat storefront café at Oregon State, he occasionally outcooked the three-star restaurants. He’s also served burnt toast at Illinois and Purdue.
His offensive menu is large and full of precise, intricate plays — always ambitious, always a nod to adventure. His defense was, just a few years ago, so basic that a Husker player described it as a “high school” system. He’s replaced it by hiring a mercurial, dynamic chef to redo the theme; thus far, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has lived up to his reputation.
Underneath Riley’s experiences and tweaks, there is always this mantra: Find a better way. A pinch of this. A dash of that. Always tinkering.
Like many pigskin cooks, Riley made this mantra his own, but it has roots in his earliest coaching experiences at tiny Linfield College in Oregon, where the task was simpler and most focused. Something like: Find a better way to stop the veer offense, which was popular and dominant in the 1970s. Riley said he learned many of his best lessons in that job, watching mentors, learning their methods, collecting and adapting as needed.
“I was brought up that way,” Riley said. “I like to think we’re always trying to find a better way to practice, a better way to set up practice, a better way to have a full day of camp.”
Riley says this on a Tuesday during training camp. He gobbles a Gatorade cup of blueberries and strawberries as he talks. He’s walking from practice to an interview with the Big Ten Network. After that, still a full day’s work ahead.
Few jobs are as full-bore and taxing as running a restaurant. Running a major college football program — though it pays better — is one of them.
Hungry customers wait to eat, and Nebraska fans have a refined palate.
They’ve long preferred the classic recipe — running the ball well, stopping the run even better, an emphasis on both lines, and workhorse running backs — prepared by a homegrown practitioner of slow-cooked, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. The master chef’s successor didn’t have quite the touch when he took over the kitchen. In the mid-2000s, the restaurant took on new ownership, which hired a chef who tried and failed with his West Coast menu. The next chef, full of flair (and flared nostrils), had his memorable meals, but was eventually fired for running a messy, disruptive kitchen.
Now it’s Riley’s turn. His table service is most similar to Tom Osborne’s. His menu is closer to that of Bill Callahan. He’s cleaned up the kitchen and restocked the ingredients from Bo Pelini’s departure. He hopes to win NU’s first league title since Frank Solich did in 1999.
He’s spent two years tinkering with the recipe, testing and rethinking the meal, trying to find the right mix of sublime and spicy. Riley calls it “America’s Team.” He went all over America looking for the ingredients.
» Riley looked to New Orleans for one key ingredient: starting quarterback Tanner Lee, a fifth-year junior with a rocket arm whose easygoing demeanor fits exactly what Riley needed. Nebraska outfoxed LSU for Lee, which keeps NU from having to turn over its offense to a freshman.
“Guy’s got talent, likes to work, give us that every day,” Riley said. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
» On either side of the ball, Nebraska’s top skill talent comes from the Washington, D.C. area (receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El ), New Orleans (receiver Stanley Morgan), Georgia (safety Aaron Williams), Texas (safety Joshua Kalu) and California (cornerback Lamar Jackson). At least on recruiting service terms, NU boasts a slight advantage of talent over divisional rivals Iowa and Wisconsin.
» The meat of the lines comes from the Midwest. The three likely defensive line starters — Mick Stoltenberg, Carlos Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun — all hail from the 500-mile radius, as do the likely starters on the interior of NU’s offensive line — guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster and center Cole Conrad.
» Special teams inconsistencies in 2015 and 2016 left a bad taste in Riley’s mouth, so he severed ties with his longtime special teams coordinator, Bruce Read, in favor of an all-hands-on-deck approach managed by safeties coach Scott Booker, who coached special teams at Notre Dame.
» The biggest change is that super-organized, hyper-charged chef, Diaco, who demands a spotless kitchen and a perfectly run prep line. Diaco, himself a foodie — especially of Italian food and its Sunday “meat gravy” — shook up Nebraska’s defense in the spring. He brought his own special spices and cooking techniques.
Riley took a major relational risk — abruptly firing longtime friend Mark Banker — to pursue Diaco. A whirlwind interview process landed Diaco, an East Coast native who did his best work as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. Diaco loves the fit and, in Riley, he finds a leader willing to hear his assistants’ ambitious plans. A nice man who’s also a “tough gentleman.”
“He’s a real football guy,” Diaco said. “He’s a nuts and bolts guy. He’s a tough guy. And he’s a kind man. He has great character and class. I’m learning a lot from him on how to behave, how to have patience, how to listen. He’s a dynamic listener. He’s a spectacular listener.”
Now, Riley and Nebraska have to present the meal. Fans await this version of dinner. In 2015, the preparation and presentation were too sloppy, leading to uneven reviews. In 2016, the recipe was simpler and easier to execute, so there were more solid dishes. There were fewer “wow” moments, and the last part of the meal — including the dessert in a bowl game — fell flat.
NU has the chefs and servers to be more adventurous in 2017. Will it happen? Riley’s vision, true to him, is sublime.
“If we had a vision of a team,” he said, “it’d be that we had a really well-balanced, efficient offense and I’d want you to describe special teams as efficient, to take advantage of the situation — punt where they should, cover, down the ball — and defensively, I want us to be sound. Everybody’s covered, everybody’s in position.”
Balanced, efficient and sound.
Riley’s drawn to the classic comfort dishes, too.