After being fired, the first thing former Nebraska football coach Mike Riley did was crack a joke at a press conference.
He followed the athletic director who terminated his employment that morning, answering questions from a few dozen reporters. All the while, Riley cheerfully wore the gear of the university whose football team he’d just been officially informed he’d no longer be coaching.
Whomever Nebraska Athletics leadership chooses as the university’s next football coach would be wise to emulate the classiness, even keel and upbeat attitude Riley displayed throughout his time as coach, even as the storm surrounded him and spit him out for good Saturday.
To be clear, Riley was fired for not winning enough games. His 19-19 record elicited memories of the dark ages of the Bill Jennings’s tenure in the late 1950s, and would not be acceptable to many programs of lesser stature than that of Nebraska.
For comparison’s sake, set side by side the forced departures of Nebraska’s last two football coaches.
Bo Pelini, whose mercurial temper ultimately did him in, took his players to a local high school and cursed a blue streak at the administration that let him go. On the contrary, Riley maintained calm in expressing disappointment that his tenure in Lincoln didn’t end with more wins.
Talking to the press so candidly and professionally mere hours after his dismissal was a stunner. In recent memory, the only Husker coach to make himself remotely that available following a firing was former men’s basketball coach Doc Sadler, who broke into tears while reading a prepared statement.
As steady a presence as Riley was, though, he wasn’t able to stabilize the football program.
With athletics programs — for better or worse, but correctly — being viewed as the “front door” to any university and a major driver of applications by prospective students, the on-field results simply didn’t justify keeping Riley. That’s despite the hefty $6.6 million buyout he’s owed, among a total of $14 million-plus contractually due to fired NU coaches and administrators.
Riley’s cheerful, disarming demeanor may have won over Nebraskans and earned the football program favorable coverage. The likable head coach brought some good ideas and strong recruits — but in the end, not enough victories.
If class alone won games, Riley would have brought to Lincoln the championships fans and administrators expect. But it doesn’t, hence the end of his three years at Memorial Stadium.
His successor would be well served by winning big games and titles — while channeling the professionalism, class and Midwestern sensibility of his predecessor that was so well received by Nebraska fans and officials, and respected nationwide.