It happened long enough ago that it's almost a mere curiosity at this point.

Mike Riley tried his hand as an NFL head coach. It didn't work out particularly well. But that doesn't mean it was an unmitigated disaster, or a waste of three seasons. Riley likely benefited from the experience in ways that will help him as Nebraska head coach.

To put the time frame of Riley's NFL stint in context, Nebraska was preparing to play top-ranked Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl when it was announced Dec. 31, 2001, that the San Diego Chargers had fired Riley.

His record there was 14-34, including 1-15 in 2000, followed by 5-11 in 2001. The Chargers were 8-8 in 1999 after a 4-1 start.

Fast forward to 2013. Riley was asked a simple question: If you could've done anything differently during your time coaching the Chargers, what would it have been?

"I wouldn't have done it," he said with a grin, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

He added, "I realized that I had taken a job not being prepared for it. I hadn't coached in the NFL. I hadn't been a coordinator — I hadn't even coached in the league."

Ah, the league. The big league. The big, bad NFL. It tends to swallow college coaches. Pete Carroll is an obvious exception. He made a smooth transition. But, remember, he had twice been an NFL head coach (New York Jets and New England Patriots) before jumping from USC to the Seattle Seahawks.

Granted, Chip Kelly looks comfortable on an NFL sideline. On the other hand, ask Greg Schiano about the inherent challenges of the jump. Ask Steve Spurrier. Or Bobby Petrino. Or even Nick Saban, who was lured by the Miami Dolphins from LSU in 2005 but left South Florida after only two seasons.

Through their travails, each coach learned about relating to pro-level players. If it meant stepping outside his comfort zone, that alone was an opportunity for growth.

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Riley had been head coach at Oregon State for two seasons (1997-98) before highly regarded general manager Bobby Beathard hired him to coach the Chargers. Riley faced far greater scrutiny in San Diego than he did in Corvallis, Oregon. It's a fact of life in the NFL: Coaches are harshly critiqued.

Another fact of life: Nebraska head coaches are harshly critiqued, more so than Oregon State head coaches. Perhaps the NFL helped steel Riley in that regard.

Or maybe he didn't need to be steeled. Riley strikes me as the type who isn't easily rattled. Saying he seems comfortable in his skin is an understatement. Part of it is his age, sure. But I get the feeling it's just who he is. There's evidence to suggest that's the case.

On Dec. 30, 2001, right after San Diego lost to Seattle 25-22 on a 54-yard field goal as time expired, Riley was smiling and shaking hands with passers-by in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, according to a Seattle newspaper writer, who was somewhat perplexed by Riley's pleasant demeanor under the circumstances.

According to the writer, "The feeling with Riley is he's a nice guy who couldn't motivate his players to become obsessed with winning. ..."

It didn't help matters that Riley ultimately coached under three general managers. What's more, Riley had implored the Chargers to pick Tom Brady in the 2000 draft, but the brass decided otherwise.

All the while, Riley apparently retained his cool despite a situation that obviously was less than ideal for several reasons, really — not the least of which was a rocky situation at quarterback.

Jim Harbaugh — yes, that Jim Harbaugh, the new Michigan head coach — was a 37-year-old veteran playing for his fourth NFL team when he came to San Diego for Riley's first season. Harbaugh was brought in to mentor volatile No. 2 draft pick Ryan Leaf. But Leaf quickly imploded, and Harbaugh ended up as the starter.

"(Riley) did a tremendous coaching job that year with literally no talent on offense," Harbaugh said. "And we were one game away, one dropped catch away (against the Chicago Bears) from going to the playoffs."

Close generally gets you nothing in the big league. Yeah, Riley washed out in San Diego. But he wore the vaunted NFL shield for a time. His current players no doubt respect that part of his tenure, and that always counts for something.

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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