Jim Riley watches a state basketball game at the Devaney Sports Center in 2001.

From an early age, Jim Riley wanted to assure that everybody had an opportunity to compete and participate.

So he started a rodeo club while attending South Dakota State. He coached baseball on a base near Nuremberg, Germany, while serving in the Army.

His greatest impact, though, can still be seen and felt today at every high school in Nebraska.

For 25 years (1976-2001) Riley served as the NSAA director. He helped pave the way for the addition of several sports and activities, led the charge on Title IX and equality in Nebraska sports and oversaw the expansion of the NSAA staff.

"He absolutely loved the sports and the competition," said Riley's son Kevin. "Whether it was speech, debate, one-act plays, he just loved it. That was his passion."

After being diagnosed with cancer last fall, Riley, 86, died Friday in Lincoln.

A visitation is set for 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday at the Butherus, Maser & Love Funeral Home (4040 A St.), and with the family from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Joseph Catholic Church (1940 S. 77th St.). The funeral is at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Joseph.

Up until his death, Riley's passion for sports shined through.

He was an avid golfer, and well after retirement, loved attending high school sporting events, especially the state basketball tournaments. In his bedroom was a 4-foot panoramic photo of the Devaney Sports Center during the height of a state tournament game. It was given to him after his retirement from the NSAA in 2001.

Riley, who was born in Texas — he still had his Texas twang up until his death, Kevin Riley says — moved to South Dakota in his teens. He attended South Dakota State and later joined the Army. He was assigned to coach baseball, the 39th Infantry Falcons, while stationed in Europe. The Falcons were European champions in 1955 and 1956.

A cowboy through and through, Riley married his high school sweetheart Mary in South Dakota before the couple moved to Crawford. Riley coached three sports there before coaching basketball at Norfolk and later at Omaha Westside.

He joined the NSAA as an assistant executive director in 1970 before being promoted, while in his mid-30s, to executive director in 1976.

Over the next 25 years, the NSAA added nine sports for girls and increased its state championship tournaments — including the girls state basketball tournament — from six to 21. Classes were added, and Riley also oversaw the installation of the wild-card points system.

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High school activities were prospering, but it wasn't an easy time either. Title IX was a breakthrough for girls athletics, but it also created concerns for schools. Riley was there to help ease those concerns.

"There were a lot of issues involved in adding girls sports," said Jim Tenopir, who took over for Riley as NSAA executive director in 2001. "Not only from the standpoint of cost, there were issues with regard to where we're going to get the coaches, where we're going to get the facilities for that expansion.

"Jim's steady hand is the thing I recall."

Riley also saw the importance of keeping high school athletics under a stand-alone activities association, despite feeling pressure from some to have the State Department of Education take control.

He always was looking forward, too.

Kevin Riley recalls helping his dad at state track meets. "It was very forward for him to be buying lightning detector equipment," Kevin said.

The NSAA job took Riley around the state as he would handle the training of officials, when the NSAA had two or three full-timers. He'd take one of the kids — David, Lynn and Kevin — along with him.

The staple snack combination on those trips: a Snickers and a Coke.

"Mom was the diet organizer and, boy, as soon as we hit the city limits, we'd stop at a gas station," Kevin Riley said.

Riley's services also went beyond state borders. He was on a national rules committee for the National Federation of State High School Associations, and he served on the U.S. Olympic volleyball committee.

Riley was a cowboy, an athlete, a coach, a teacher, an administrator and a family man. He lived a full life, Kevin Riley said.

Himself a fierce competitor, Riley also brought life to high school athletics.

"One of the things that always impressed me was his decision-making was based on what was the best interest for the kids," said Tenopir, who shadowed Riley before taking over as NSAA director. "If there were issues, and there were and are a lot of issues to face in high school activities, he was one to not overreact, he was one to certainly understand where the issues were and try to address those head on."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsGrell.


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