Mike Riley has it all.
He’s a recognizable name in the college coaching world, he has an NFL background, he played under legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and his Oregon State teams have been hugely successful throughout his time in Corvallis, Ore.
At least, that’s if you consider a 93-80 record with just one 10-win season over 14 years to be successful.
Apparently, Nebraska does, as the Cornhuskers chose to hire Riley the same week they fired Bo Pelini. That hire happened to come almost simultaneously with Florida hiring former Alabama assistant and current Colorado State coach Jim McElwain.
The Gators chose a man who turned the Rams into a 10-2 team, while the Cornhuskers settled for a name with mediocre results.
For a program like Nebraska, firing Pelini in the first place does make some sense. The Cornhuskers are historically one of the best programs around, but didn’t find themselves competing for national titles during Pelini’s seven-year tenure.
He never had an awful season — going 9-4 three times and 10-4 three times before finishing the 2014 regular season with a 9-3 record. But Pelini was never quite great, even though he did tally Gator Bowl wins over both Clemson (2008) and Georgia (2013) during his time in Lincoln, Neb.
That’s right, Pelini beat Georgia — a powerhouse team from the almighty Southeastern Conference — less than 12 months ago, then went 9-3 since, yet was fired after a win over Iowa to finish out the season. With those results in mind, Nebraska decided Pelini didn’t even deserve to coach his team through a bowl game this season.
Instead, the Cornhuskers opted to hire a man who couldn’t even guide his team to bowl eligibility in place of a coach who’s never missed a bowl game as the head honcho.
Pelini never lost more than four games in a season, Riley has never lost fewer than four. On Riley’s Oregon State biography page, there is an accomplishment listed with his record for each season.
In 1997 — Riley’s first year as the Beavers’ head coach — his accomplishment is listed as “total revamp of the program.” Oregon State finished that season 3-8. The next year, the Beavers came out of nowhere to play to an impressive 5-6 losing record.
Riley left Oregon State the next year for a three-season run as an NFL head coach with the San Diego Chargers — with whom he compiled a 14-34 record, just missing out on the Super Bowl with a whopping 1-15 record his second year — and then spent one year as an assistant with the New Orleans Saints.
He coached his way back to Oregon State in 2003 and won back-to-back bowl games — the touted Las Vegas Bowl and the what-even-is-the-Insight Bowl. Then in 2005, Riley’s Oregon State managed to miss a bowl game by going 5-6.
In total, his Beaver teams missed bowl eligibility six times. Pelini’s Cornhuskers won at least nine games each year he was in charge, and only six wins are necessary to make a bowl game.
In short, Nebraska fired a man who hadn’t had a bad season in order to hire a man who has rarely had a good one.
According to ESPN, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said Riley is the “one coach who fit all the characteristics” he was looking for to lead Nebraska’s “tradition-rich football program.”
Well, congratulations, Shawn, you found your guy. Although, I must say, I’m surprised a coach whose career is chock-full of mediocrity fits the mold to coach one of the top-five winningest programs in college football history.
Nebraska pulled the trigger on a name, instead of finding someone who is actually equipped to lead its program to the promised land.
The Cornhuskers fell into the trap of hiring a name with an NFL background, but just ask Lane Kiffin — that doesn’t always work out. Florida, on the other hand, followed the path more likely leading to success. Sure, Riley hasn’t been awful, but he’s never proven to be able to raise a program to the next level.
McElwain has, and Pelini at least never sunk a program to the depths of a losing record.
Riley could be perfectly successful, but I’d be surprised to see the Cornhuskers back in the national picture during his tenure, especially with savvy hires like McElwain raising the competition to the next level.