Who’s Mike Riley? Great Man, Great Coach, Great Hire! By Randy York

Two years ago, when Wisconsin Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez was in search of a new Badger head football coach, the former Nebraska All-Big Eight Conference linebacker had Mike Riley on his short list. “I wanted Mike to talk with me about our job, but he wasn’t interested in leaving Oregon State,” Alvarez told me in a telephone conversation Thursday afternoon. Alvarez didn’t take the rejection personally “because I knew how many great jobs Mike’s turned down in the past,” he said. “Mike is really well thought of in our business. He’s one of the good guys in college athletics. He comes from a great background, has a really good offensive mind, and runs a very good program. I think he’ll be a great fit at Nebraska.”

The quiet, cerebral Riley was a defensive back on three SEC Championship teams and one national championship squad under the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama from 1971 to 1974. Riley’s dad was an assistant coach at Oregon State when Mike was leading his high school football team to back-to-back state championships in Corvallis, Ore. He’s a champion of walk-ons and in a motivational video describes two of “the greatest walk-on stories you’ve ever heard.” You can feel Riley’s passion when he talks about two Beaver walk-ons who once received college football’s highest national awards for receivers (Mike Hass won the Fred Belitnikoff Award) and kickers (Alexis Serna won the Lou Groza Award) on the same December 2005 ESPN night in Orlando. This 3-minute video captures the essence of Riley’s basic beliefs about motivating, teaching and coaching. He believes it’s important for the 99th man on a 105-player roster to know that “it’s going to be fair and he’s going to have a chance and a real opportunity to play.” It’s woven into the very fabric of Riley, who has coached the Beavers for 14 seasons (1997-98 and 2003-2014) with a three-year stint as the San Diego Chargers’ head coach (1999-2001) and a one-year stop as the New Orleans Saints’ assistant head coach sandwiched in between.

USA Today Columnist: Huskers Will Love Riley

“Mike Riley is the most optimistic, pleasant, gracious, accommodating head coach in college football. They’ll absolutely love him in Nebraska,” tweeted former New York Times writer Paul Myerberg, now the lead college football columnist for USA Today. To give an impression of Riley’s perception among peers, Myerberg tweeted that an FBS head coach sent him this text: “I just became a Nebraska fan today.” Myerberg tweeted six concise messages about Riley on Thursday, including one that envisions him “taking all of his many positives and multiplying them because of the assets now at his disposal.”

ESPN.com columnist Travis Haney tweeted: “Big winners this week: Nebraska media.” Like everyone else, including Alvarez, Big Ten Network columnist Tom Dienhart didn’t see the Riley announcement coming or its quickness. “Nebraska is the early leader for ‘kill my coffee on the keyboard’ hire. This will be hard to top, America,” Dienhhart tweeted.

Aaron Taylor Gut Feeling: “Football’s Tim Miles”

Aaron Taylor, Nebraska’s Outland Trophy winner on Tom Osborne’s 1997 national championship team, had good vibes. “Gut feeling that Mike Riley will be the Tim Miles for our football program,” said Taylor, who’s not the only one who feels that way. CBS basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb congratulated Nebraska on Riley’s hiring with this positive point to reinforce what Taylor believes, describing Riley and Miles as “two of the most liked/respected coaches in their sports.”

Another warm welcome for Riley comes from former Husker All-America and NFL defensive back Ralph D. Brown, now a college football analyst for Fox Sports West and TWC SportsNet. “I like the hire,” Brown said. “Mike Riley is a tremendous coach and I believe he will take the Nebraska program where it needs to be.” New York Giant cornerback Prince Amukamara may be sidelined for the season after tearing a biceps muscle last month, but the popular Husker All-American welcomed Riley to the Husker family with a “Go Big Red!”

Joe Schad, ESPN’s national college football reporter who frequently appears on the network’s College Football Live show, was equally enthusiastic. “Nebraska has hired not only an excellent coach in Mike Riley, but one of the most approachable, level-headed, likeable coaches on the planet,” said Schad, who added: “People who know Mike Riley talk about the chance for a ‘fresh start’ and Nebraska is a place where you can win a championship.” ESPN broadcaster Sam Ponder has nearly a quarter-million followers on Twitter, and she was equally effusive in her praise. “LOVE that hire for Nebraska,” she tweeted. “Handful of coaches I’d want my kids to play for/learn from…Mike Riley’s top 5 for sure.”

CBS Columnist: Media Will Love Mike Riley

Dennis Dodd, senior columnist for CBSSports.com, said: “Props to Shawn Eichorst for going strong and swift after Mike Riley. The media will love him…Mike Riley was always squeezing blood out of a tomato in Corvallis. More infrastructure at Nebraska. Love the hire.”

ESPN announcer Sean McDonough describes Riley as an excellent coach. “He’s the nicest guy in coaching,” McDonough said. “He did an amazing job at Oregon State, where he built one of college football’s worst programs into a winner. I’m excited to see what he can do at Nebraska with its resources and tradition. I am certain the great Nebraska fans will embrace this man of enormous character and integrity. This is a great hire!!”

Huskers in NFL Polk, Parrella Respect Riley

Two former Husker players – Carlos Polk and John Parrella – have a unique inside view of Riley because they played for him with the San Diego Chargers. Polk, a first-team All-America middle linebacker from Rockford, Ill., played eight years in the NFL, including his first seven as a Charger. His first year in the NFL was Riley’s last year at San Diego. Polk, now an assistant special teams coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, calls Riley an “excellent hire” because “he’s a man of great integrity. I think he’ll be a great fit at Nebraska. He’s a man who really respects tradition and a coach who knows how to get the most out of his players. He’s also a great recruiter. I’m truly excited to see what he does with my alma mater.”

A 2001 inductee into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame, Parrella spent 13 years in the NFL as a defensive tackle. The Grand Island (Neb.) Central Catholic graduate played eight years with the Chargers, including three under Riley. A former Super Bowl starter with the Raiders, Parrella covered the playing field and the welcome mat in eight words when asked to describe Mike Riley. “Great man!” he said. “Great coach! Great hire for Nebraska!”

Send a comment to ryork@huskers.com (Include city, state)

Follow Randy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/RandyYorkNsider

Voices from Across the Nation

Thank you for the great read on Mike Riley, a wonderful man. I am a 79-year-old lady back here in Eugene of all places. My husband, Wink, is a Beaver. We both couldn’t be happier for Coach Riley and all the joy that he will experience at Nebraska because of the resources he will now have. You have captured the Mike Riley that most of us know in your article. He IS one of the “nice guys” in football and in life, actually. It seems at times in athletics it’s all about winning, money, and a dog-eat-dog attitude. How sad! My husband feels privileged to have known Mike. Please pass on to him our best!!! Wink and Rita Guthrie, Eugene, Oregon



About Katherine Wacker

Katherine Wacker is currently a reviewer for Bethany House Publishers, and Howard Books. She is a Craftsman graduate of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild. She holds a B.A in History from San Diego State-Imperial Valley Campus. In her spare time she likes to read books, watch sports, and do jigsaw puzzles. She lives at home with her parents and three dogs, Charlie, Roscoe and Daisy.
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