Saturday morning at Memorial Stadium proceeded in an orderly fashion, all things considered.
Mike Riley arrived at the complex shortly before 8:30 a.m. and said he hoped for a normal day.
Athletic director Bill Moos informed Riley in a 9 a.m. meeting that he had been fired from his job as Nebraska head football coach after compiling a 19-19 record in three seasons, the last of which finished 4-8 Friday thanks to a 56-14 loss to Iowa.
At 9:30 a.m., Moos met with the other coaches and informed them that they, too, had been fired, except for newly appointed interim head coach Trent Bray.
At 10 a.m., all of that information was conveyed to Husker players in a team meeting.
The string of updates, though, belies the fact that for all intents and purposes, Moos made this decision two weeks ago when NU went to Minnesota and lost by 33 points.
“I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, it just got out of hand, it seemed to me,” Moos said Saturday afternoon. “The Minnesota game, on the road, (against) an opponent that realistically we, I thought, should have had a very good chance of defeating, and we didn’t play our best game.”
That timeline shows how long Moos has already been working on finding his next head coach. He does not have an exact time frame for finalizing a hire, but said, “the sooner the better,” ideally well ahead of the new Dec. 20 early signing date.
The veteran administrator talked openly about several candidates to a room full of reporters, saying he originally had six in mind and confirming that he has reached out to gauge the interest of Central Florida coach and former NU quarterback Scott Frost.
“He’s in the heat of trying to win a conference championship,” Moos said. “He’s obviously a Nebraskan and he’s getting a lot of attention from several other schools. Scott is someone I am considering, but I’m being very sensitive to that fact that he’s still coaching a team and he’s having a heck of a run.”
Moos also confirmed that he had his people reach out to Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach who Saturday agreed to take over at UCLA after a year as an ESPN analyst.
FootballScoop.com on Saturday reported that Iowa State coach Matt Campbell “is a strong candidate” for the NU job, though Campbell said after his team’s win against Kansas State that "we are in this for the long haul." It is also believed that Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente and his successor at Memphis, Mike Norvell, are on Nebraska’s short list.
Moos also spoke glowingly of Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen — “I served on a NCAA workforce with him and was very impressed” — and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, who “is a real good coach and an excellent recruiter.” The Husker AD said he was not as familiar with recently-fired Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, and suspected Washington coach Chris Petersen is “very happy where he’s at.”
“I’m going to find a real good fit for our next football coach,” Moos said. "This is a unique place at Nebraska, and the right fit first of all has to have somebody with tremendous morals, a good teacher, a good mentor, someone who is competitive, and preferably has head coaching experience in major college football.
“I think those are the kind of people that we can attract and certainly that’s what we’re going to target.”
NU will have to pay to get that kind of candidate. Kelly’s agreement at UCLA averages about $4.7 million per year. Three other jobs among the 25 highest-paying, per USA Today’s salary database, are open — Florida (15th), Arkansas (17th) and Tennessee (20th). Texas A&M (10th) is set to fire Sumlin, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“It’s not an unlimited budget,” Moos said. “I try to be sensible when we’re doing this, but at the same time, we have to compete in the market, and we’re willing to do that. Those are usually pretty big dollars.”
Nebraska will also be shelling out a considerable amount of money to Riley and his staff, in addition to other standing obligations.
At Riley’s agreed-upon buyout of $170,000 per month, he's due $6.63 million from Dec. 1 through the remaining 39 months of his contract, which in August was extended by one year to Feb. 28, 2021. The chances of that number being softened by Riley finding another job are potentially complicated by the fact that the 64-year-old does not necessarily have to continue coaching if he chooses not to, though he said Saturday he still feels young and might want to get back into coaching in the future.
Eight of Riley’s nine assistants — all but safeties coach Scott Booker — are signed through January 2019 and total around $4.24 million in buyouts.
The school also still owes former athletic director Shawn Eichorst about $1.5 million through June 2019 and former head football coach Bo Pelini about $1.9 million through February 2019.
All told, before future employment begins mitigating costs, the school owes Riley, his assistants, Eichorst and Pelini approximately $14.3 million.
The only remaining member of the staff now is Bray, who had coached under Riley the past six seasons and was a graduate assistant at Arizona State in 2009 when Moos’ son, Bo, played there.
Moos said Saturday that he didn’t have time to get to know any of the other assistants personally since he started at NU on Oct. 23. Nebraska lost four of its last five games after that date — including three straight games of allowing at least 54 points and at least 505 yards to close the season — making the decision to start over virtually a foregone conclusion.
“Observing and assessing isn’t what we are doing on third-and-3 inside the 20, but about what’s going on day-to-day and all of that,” Moos explained. “There are a lot of good things, but there were some disturbing things in regards to the morale and discipline. Discipline isn’t just getting to practice on time. It’s how you wear your uniform. Are you consistent with your teammates or are you drawing attention to yourself? And those little things add up to big things.”
Moos said he still considers Riley a disciplined coach, but admitted he was irked by some of the things he saw.
“I’m a stickler about having clean locker rooms and charter airplanes,” he said. “I think we have really good young men, but some of those things get out of hand when you’re starting to snowball the other way. The Nebraska uniform should be worn with tremendous pride.”
There is also, of course, the on-field performance.
Since climbing to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll thanks to a 7-0 start in 2016, the Huskers have lost 12 of their last 18 games. Riley finished his career with a 12-14 record in the Big Ten and a 1-8 mark against division foes Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.
Moos and Riley met three times over the final five weeks of the season and Moos assured Riley that he would be able to finish out the season, which Riley said he appreciated.
"Bill Moos was great to us to allow us to finish out the year," Riley told reporters Saturday after Moos spoke. "He told us that he was going to do that. Told you he was going to do that. And he did that.
"It wasn’t laid out in wins and losses. But I’ve been in this a long time -- I know what goes on with it. And I do appreciate how they handled it, and how Bill explained it to me and took the time to do that. It was all really well done."
That 54-21 loss to Minnesota, though, tested Moos' resolve and prompted an early morning conference call the next day including Moos, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU President Hank Bounds, a source with direct knowledge of the call told the Journal Star.
Even after all of the assurances to Riley and the public that he would finish out the season, that embarrassing performance made university officials consider a pre-emptive move. Eventually, the decision was made to stay the course.
“I’m certainly disappointed that the football wasn’t better,” Riley said. “I wish we had that opportunity to continue to grow it, which I feel very confident in. … We wanted to do it better on the field than has been done. And wish we had the chance to continue.”
Instead, it will be someone else who takes the reins.
The primary target appears to be Frost. Moos turned on UCF's game against South Florida from his Memorial Stadium suite as soon as the Huskers' loss was in the books, just in time to see the Knights run a kickoff back and win, 49-42, but said, “I don’t have a priority right now.”
Moos seemed to tacitly confirm that he made a trip to Philadelphia and potentially met with Frost last weekend when the Knights played at Temple the same day the Huskers lost at Penn State.
“I’ve never said I was going after Scott Frost. A lot of other people have,” Moos said Saturday. “I’ll let you read my email sometime — that I should be going after Scott Frost. But you know what? That’s a tribute to Nebraskans. He’s one of ours, played for us and has gone on and paid his dues. He’s got a good job that I believe he really likes. He’s got a lot of interest right now.”
While Moos wouldn’t specifically confirm any face-to-face meeting, he did outline his method for reaching out to candidates he’s interested in.
“I have had third-party people involved with several agents, representatives, search firms,” he said. “That’s no secret. I said in my opening remarks that I was assessing things and checking all my options, and that’s the best way to do that, is to have somebody else doing all that legwork on some of these people that I feel could be a good fit.”
Now, it’s up to the 66-year-old, one month on the job here, to find and land the right coach.
“I told the players today nobody wants to go 4-8,” Moos said. “I want to get this program to where we’re disappointed if we go 8-4, and that can happen again. Everything is set here, and I have observed and assessed that.
“This table is set as well as any place in the United States in regards to resources, facilities, infrastructure and fan support. It’s all right here.”