By the time you read this, Mike Riley will have been formally introduced as the new coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Much has already been written and said about Riley – a guy who was completely off the radar in the Huskers’ coaching search. I don’t have much to add that has not already been said elsewhere. Besides, I think it is time to more forward. Today. Now.
To that end, I have some to-do items and friendly suggestions for all of the stakeholders in the Nebraska Football program
Head Coach Mike Riley
You have the most to do, so you go first.
Earn the trust and respect of your players. As you probably know, Bo Pelini was extremely beloved by his players. They were shocked and hurt when he was fired, so some may view you as the bad guy (or the agent of a bad guy). Job one will be to get your new players to trust you, respect you, and ultimately buy into the culture you’re going to create.
How do you do this? Well Coach, I’m hoping you know the answer better than some amateur writer. I’m putting my trust in you that you can get this done.
Hire the best damn staff you can. The need to hire a talented staff full of teachers and recruiters is of the utmost importance. You’ll probably get some pressure from the fans to look at an offensive coordinator who works down the road from where you used to coach. You can investigate that if you want. Frankly, I’m more concerned about putting this program in a position to win titles than in the number of guys with Nebraska ties.
I assume you’ll bring some guys from your Oregon State staff, and that’s fine – especially if they are the best person for the job. I would humbly suggest that you give serious consideration to a handful of Bo Pelini’s assistants. There are some guys there who can help you.
Also – I absolutely love your idea to hire a full-time special teams coordinator.
Immerse yourself in the culture and tradition. You said you are a history major, so you have come to the right place. Nebraskans value and cherish the rich history of this program, and a healthy respect for where Nebraska has been will serve you well.
Learn to love walk-ons, Blackshirts, Runzas, and red hot dogs fired out of an air cannon. Talk in reverent tones in how Devaney’s 1971 team kicked the crap out of the Alabama team you played on. Speak with respect of what Tom Osborne did. Give some love to the players from the Solich, Callahan, and Pelini eras. There are lots of good guys from those teams that are worthy of your respect.
Recruit, recruit, recruit. Salvage this class and land some surprises. Make a (positive) statement for how you will do things at Nebraska. I’m hopeful that you are a helluva coach, but your job – and your ability to meet the standards of Nebraska fans – will be much easier if you bring in NFL-caliber talent.
Decide what you want to be, and build your team around that. I have my ideas on what would work both offensively and defensively, but nobody is playing me $3 million for my football strategies.
Use the talent at your disposal – and make no mistake, the cupboard is far from bare. Understand the conference you’re playing in, and the weather concerns of this great state. Then build a winner.
Tear down the wall. You’ll hear a lot about the “us against the world” mentality that Pelini often operated in. As a result, this team often felt into that mindset. The result was an unhealthy, toxic environment that led to mistrust, players and coaches on the defensive, and ultimately, Pelini’s dismissal.
You need to blow up that wall. Get the team out of their bunker and into the light. Let the fans and media embrace your program and throw their tremendous support behind you.
It’s okay to still be hurt by what happened on Sunday. It’s okay to still feel a love and loyalty for Coach Bo. I’ll even tell you that it is okay to question if Nebraska is the best place for you going forward. These things are natural.
Here is what I suggest:
Throw yourself head first into bowl preparations. By Sunday night, you’ll know who you’re playing, where, and when. Hopefully it is a good team in a fun destination. At some point (maybe as soon as Monday) you’ll start diving into your practices and prep for that game. Do whatever you can to improve yourself and prepare yourself to play a great game.
There’s going to be a lot said about the direction of the team during the bowl preparations – coaches hired, schemes discussed, etc. Try to block that out and focus on the here and now.
If you want to dedicate your performance to Pelini and the coaching staff that recruited you, developed you, and gotten you to where you are today, you should absolutely do that. I’m guessing the last 30 days haven’t been a lot of fun, and the season has probably been disappointing for you. But you owe to yourself and your teammates to finish this season strong. Give it all you got.
Think about your future. Once the game’s over, feel free to consider what is best for you – academically and athletically. Maybe you think that your skill set will not work in Coach Riley’s schemes. Maybe you don’t feel a connection with the new coach. As I said above, it’s natural to question these things.
Don’t make hasty, impulsive decisions – especially if transferring may cost you a year of eligibility. Talk it over with Coach Riley and his assistants, your family, and other people in your life that you trust to be honest and supportive. Think not only about your playing career, but about your education and your life after football. Where do you want to be, and how will you get there?
If, after all of that, you feel in your heart that somewhere other than Nebraska is right, do what is best for you, and ignore the small percentage of “fans” who are hurt by your decision. Know that most Nebraska fans will respect your decision and wish you well.
Go all in. If you’re staying with the Huskers (and I hope you do) then my advice is simple: go all in. Throw your faith in Coach Riley and his staff. Help them adjust to Lincoln, and help build the culture and team that Coach Riley envisions. Be a leader in offseason workouts and be ready to dominate in 2015.
Trust me, you can buy into Coach Riley and still be respectful to Coach Bo. Besides, if you don’t, your playing time may be diminished.
Help us get to know the new coach and his staff. Mike Riley seems like an interesting guy with a lot of experience and expertise. Write the stories and profiles that help us know who this man is, what he believes in, and what his strategies and beliefs are.
Keep the criticisms honest and constructive. It felt like, to me and other fans and observers of the program, that some of your criticisms of Pelini and his staff were rooted in personal conflict with the coach. Many felt like certain media members took thinly veiled shots at Pelini, his staff, or players. That needs to stop.
Nobody will deny that the media has a job to do, and that job sometimes involves being critical of decisions and asking tough questions. That’s fine. I hope the majority of Husker fans understand and respect this. But the media needs to recognize the role that they (either collectively or personally) have played in the divide in the fan base.
Try to avoid Pelini comparisons. I know that with every decision, change, and strategic move Riley makes, it will be very easy to compare and contrast that with what Bo Pelini might have done. Don’t. You’re better than that. As for those of you appreciating the irony of this, given the previous point, I am hopeful that will be my final comparison.
You have led one of the better coaching searches in recent memory. It was quick, quiet, and efficient. The rumor mill churned out some names, but none of those were leaked from you or your office. But your job’s not done:
Open the checkbook to let Riley hire a top-notch staff. The rumor mill is churning out some big names who would make a splash. It’s unlikely that all of them will come to Lincoln, but do your part to help Riley be successful by giving him a big, big budget for his assistant coaches.
Say “Yes.” If you truly want this program to win conference championships and compete at a national level, be sure to say “Yes” when the coach asks for something. That’s not a veiled accusation of anything that may or may not have happened in the past two years – frankly, I have no clue – but a simple reminder that you need to put your money where your mouth is.
Don’t completely retreat back into your bunker. Be there to support your guy – especially if he loses a game or two this fall. Loosen your stance on commenting on coaches during the season during his first year. Let Coach Riley – and more importantly, Husker fans – know that you support him 100%.
I’ve saved us for last, but that does not diminish the work we have ahead of us.
Embrace Mike Riley (figuratively). I know many of you were hoping for a different coach (Tressel, Frost, etc.) or are underwhelmed by Riley’s resume or W/L record. I get that.
But it is time to move forward. Throw your support behind the coach and help him be successful.
Come Together. Bo-leavers and Bo-lievers: put aside your differences and unite behind Coach Riley. I won’t tell you how you should feel about Coach Pelini or his tenure, but it is time to put that in the rear view mirror.
Relax on the local media. You’ll notice I asked the media to take it easy on Riley and the players. I think it’s needed. But you need to reciprocate.
Not every article, column, or blog is an attack on the program. Let go of your grudges against Dirk, Sipple, Lee, or any other writer who doesn’t agree 100% with your point of view. We are fortunate to have some talented folks in the local media, and I have a hard time believing that any of them are intentionally stirring up conflict for clicks or kicks.
Be patient. I have no idea how Mike Riley will do in his first year or two. Maybe we’ll win the West and go to Indianapolis. Maybe we’ll struggle and barely make a bowl game. I don’t know.
But I do know that judging his first year or two solely by wins and losses is going to be a narrow-minded, short-sighted approach. I’m more curious to see how his system is put in place and grown, how he and his staff develop the talent they have into something more, and the progress they make in big games (not getting blown out will be a great start).
Relax, take a deep breath, and be patient.
Now…how many days are left until the Spring Game?