John Robinson, the former USC football coach, remembers those long drives to his home after practice.

The ones when he would dream up what he thought were brilliant ideas for the Trojan offense. He couldn't wait to draw them up and hear what his offensive coordinator, Mike Riley, had to say.

"I'd come into the office the next day and say, 'Mike, Mike, look at this. We're going to revolutionize the game,'" Robinson said Friday during a phone interview from Los Angeles. "Mike would look at it and say, 'That's really, well, you know, interesting. …'

"I'd say, 'So you don't like it, huh?' I'd throw it in the garbage can and go on. But Mike had a way of making it very clear what his point was without pissing off anyone."

Such an approach can carry a guy a long way in this world.

And such an approach tends to earn coaches the respect of their players.

Bottom line, football's a people business. Robinson says Riley can "get through to his players and get them to respond" no matter the player's position.

"Every player who ever played for him at USC loved him," says Robinson, who in 1993 made Riley his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Riley remained at USC through the 1996 season before becoming head coach at Oregon State. During Riley's tenure at USC, the Trojans were 31-16-2, including 21-10-1 in the Pac-10 Conference. They captured one conference championship, shared another and finished second once.

The 79-year-old Robinson naturally thinks Nebraska got the right guy when it hired Riley as head coach. Robinson believes Riley maximized Oregon State's potential in his two stints as head coach there (1997-98 and 2003-14).

As for his play-calling at USC, Riley "was very smart yet pretty simple," while always having a keen understanding of the opponent, Robinson says. Riley also understood players' limitations — a trait that gets overlooked.

Riley, of course, coached without an ego, Robinson says. I'm guessing Nebraska fans already have picked up on that part of Riley's nature.

Does Riley have an obvious weakness?

"I'm sure there is something, but I don't know what it is," Robinson says. "He doesn't have an ego that would try to hide it or not find somebody who could help him shore up any weakness he might have. I think he understands himself pretty well."

Robinson and Riley endured some rocky times at USC, including a 6-6 season (3-5 Pac-10) in 1996. In five years under Robinson, the Trojans were 37-21-2, but 0-5 against rival UCLA. Robinson was fired after the 1997 season.

Nevertheless, he remains an extremely respected figure at USC. He was also the Trojans' head coach from 1976-82, leading them to the 1978 national championship. He now raises funds for the athletic program.

He obviously was thrilled to talk about Riley.

"He's a unique guy in terms of his ability to make a bunch of guys into a team," Robinson says. "That's really the bottom line. We always try to overcomplicate this stuff. If you want to ask one question about any coach, it's, 'Can he turn a group of guys into a team?'

"I think over and over, he's done that. Particularly at a place like Oregon State, where you don't have very many good players, you must maximize all the other stuff."

All told, Robinson led USC to four Rose Bowls. He's interesting to interview because he really does emphasize the game's relative simplicity, while others try to make it seem like a science.

"You know, I think we all give way too much credit to, 'Oh, the guy made this call on third-and-8,'" Robinson says. "Hell, what's important is the coach has his players playing together and has taught them the game."

As part of our special section about Riley that will be in Sunday's edition, I ranked the 2014-15 NCAA Division I head-coaching hires, placing Nebraska's hire of Riley at No. 8 (among 14). I think Robinson would disagree with that rating. Just a guess.

Riley's personality and temperament were a good fit for Corvallis, Oregon, and also should be a good fit for Lincoln, Robinson says. Come to think of it, he says, Riley could fit in about anywhere.

It's another aspect that makes Riley unique, in Robinson's opinion.

"He could walk into a room with just about anybody in it and be comfortable," Robinson says. "He could fit in in Southern California, where there are a lot of weird kind of people, and be comfortable."

You probably get the picture by now.

"I've always said if you go to heaven and look around and Mike Riley's not there, you're in the wrong place," says Robinson, fully aware that Riley is alive and well on the plains.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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