Nebraska football news conference, 11/25/17

Former Nebraska head coach Mike Riley (left) and his wife, Dee Riley, take the elevator down from the sixth floor following a press conference after he was fired by Huskers athletic director Bill Moos on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, at Memorial Stadium.

FRANCIS GARDLER, JOURNAL STAR

Mike Riley wanted to say goodbye.

So he did it the only way he knows how.

About five hours after he was fired from the most prominent job in Nebraska — head coach of the state university's football team — Riley addressed the media and a state that deeply embraced the man Riley is, if not always the football his teams played on the field.

"As you get into a place, what it really becomes is the people. We have a life that people see that's like this; that's out there in front of everybody — the season, the games, the press conferences. But we have a day-to-day life with people that, real life is going on with them," Riley told the room. "And what I'll miss about this place specifically are the players that I've been with, the coaching staff I've been with, the life we have in the community."

It's a community that Riley and his wife, Dee, will very likely leave soon. Dee has been at Riley's side through most of the last three seasons, quietly looking on through her husband's trials and triumphs. She arrived at Memorial Stadium at about noon Saturday, dropped off by an acquaintance that was driving a car with, of all things, Iowa license plates.

Riley and Dee get to be full-time grandparents for now, though the 64-year-old Riley said he still feels "real young and ready to coach." 

If he is on a sideline again remains to be seen. But Riley seemed comfortable with whatever the future holds.

"I'm not overly concerned about me right now," Riley said. "The people around me are really, really important to me, from the coaching staff to the team to my family ... . We'll see what the future brings."

Riley has long been a man comfortable in his own skin, and it showed from the start on a surreal Saturday.

He entered the media room on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium as he would for any other news conference, a cup of Pepsi waiting for him at the podium, and a few more people than normal waiting to hear what he had to say.

From the beginning it was incredible. First, he thanked the media for coming. Then, on one of the darkest days of his career, he cracked a joke.

"You can't ask me any questions about the game," Riley deadpanned. "I came in to watch the film this morning and got interrupted."

"I came in to watch the film this morning and got interrupted," he said.

It was a disarming moment, seemingly lifting a weight from a crowd unsure what to expect from an unexpected occurrence. It had been barely 15 minutes earlier that Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos, at the end of a 40-plus-minute news conference of his own, casually announced Riley would address the day's events.

Over and over Riley talked of his thankfulness for the people he encountered throughout the state. Of the pain of meeting with his players one last time Saturday morning. On what it means, essentially, to be fired from a profession that has consumed the vast majority of his life.

He could have been bitter or angry or any emotion other than what he was: grateful.

Riley was the same person Saturday he was Dec. 5, 2014, the day he was announced as Nebraska's head coach. The same person he was in 2016, as he gracefully led the program through the tragedy of Sam Foltz's death. The same person he was in 2017, when he remained a steadying force as his program began to crumble around him.

"I learned that this is a special place. The opportunity to be here, it's like that old song, I think: I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance," Riley said. "And I loved it. I loved the opportunity to coach here."

It's beyond rare for a coach to speak at the news conference announcing his firing. It hadn't happened in Lincoln since former men's basketball coach Doc Sadler tearfully read a prepared statement after being dismissed in 2012, a moment still brought up on occasion because of its awkwardness.

Saturday's news conference wasn't awkward because Riley didn't let it be. In his final moments as the most-public face in Nebraska, he was as he always is: disarming, engaging, calming, down-to-earth.

"Dee and I have been fortunate in our life to have been different places, and enjoyed the communities, enjoyed the football. We're very blessed and fortunate to have had those experiences. And this is like that," Riley said. "We're not going to look back at this in any way except we're glad we took the opportunity, and go from there."

It was eloquent. It was calming. It was quintessential Riley.

It brought to mind the most well-known inscription carved into Memorial Stadium's walls. The one that boils down to this: It's the journey, not the destination.

In the deed the glory.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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