LINCOLN, Neb. -- What a stunner.
Mike Riley? For a few seconds Thursday morning, I thought the email announcement was a fake. It arrived at 11:25 a.m. Riley, the 61-year-old Pac-12 coaching veteran who spent 14 years over two stints at Oregon State -- three seasons with the San Diego Chargers sandwiched between -- is coming to take over the program at Nebraska.
Eighteen minutes later, I heard back from Tom Osborne’s office. The former coach and athletic director in Lincoln, with whom I had requested time to discuss the situation earlier this week, “is not doing any interviews right now,” according to his assistant.
What could he say? Osborne will want to hear the news conference, set for Friday morning at Memorial Stadium.
Everyone here will want to hear the news conference.
For some, it won’t matter. Riley enters a tough situation. A segment of the fan base remains loyal to Bo Pelini after his seven seasons. And others are already wondering aloud why athletic director Shawn Eichorst would fire a coach who won nine or more games every season for a guy who did the same thing just four times in 14 seasons for the Beavers.
Let’s just say the immediate reaction was not overwhelmingly positive.
But give him a chance. There’s much more than meets the eye to Riley, according to the people around him.
On the surface, this hire, while completely out of left field, follows a predictable pattern. Eichorst found a coach in Riley who emits a vibe that could not appear more different than Pelini.
Riley is Mr. Positive Energy. Pelini was quite the opposite.
“You’re not going to hear a foul word of out of his mouth,” said Steve Fenk, an associate athletic director at Oregon State whose arrival at the school predates Riley’s first stint.
“Here at Oregon State, we were one of the few schools that had open practices," Fenk added. "You would see kids out here. You would see retired people, people with dogs. He will talk to anybody. He will stop and sign autographs. I realize Nebraska is a bigger deal in terms of fans and alumni than Oregon State, but he’s old school. You’re not going to see him lose his cool. He’s very even tempered.”
Tom Goossen, coach at Arroyo Grande High School in California, sent three players to Corvallis, including quarterback Brent VanderVeen, currently a sophomore at Oregon State.
Riley got active early in their recruitment, Goossen said, and stayed involved.
“There was a calmness to him that I respected,” Goossen said, “and I know it resonated with the kids he recruited from our school.”
So yeah, he’s the anti-Pelini.
Gil Brandt of NFL.com tweeted Thursday that Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, an old cohort of Eichorst, turned down the job at Nebraska a day before it went to Riley. Bielema more closely fits the profile of Pelini.
If Pelini and Bielema are a pair of bulls in a china shop, Riley is the friendly Beaver in a coffee shop.
He drives a Prius, drinks nonfat, no-foam lattes and wears flip-flops to the office in the summer.
While he probably couldn’t run for political office in Nebraska, Riley’s approval rating will soar if he wins football games.
That’s what the skeptics must remember Friday as they watch Riley smile for the cameras and appear smooth doing all that failed to come naturally to Pelini: He wasn’t hired to be anti-Bo.
If that’s what it looks like, fine. But a sharp edge exists to Riley’s persona.
“You would not always know he’s the head football coach,” Fenk said. “But don’t let that fool you. Underneath, he’s very competitive.”
And he's likely a good fit for Nebraska amid today’s college football landscape. Many of the candidates for whom Nebraskans longed in this search would question the situation in Lincoln -- low-population recruiting base, unfavorable weather and a lack of championships over the past 15 years.
When Riley took over in Corvallis in 1997, the Beavers had endured 26 straight losing seasons. He guided them to eight bowl games, winning six. His stadium at Oregon State seated 45,000, and the Beavers struggled to escape the shadow of Oregon.
The Huskers recently expanded Memorial Stadium past 90,000. They sit firmly in the spotlight every day in Nebraska.
Riley’s new home will look to him like a kingdom of riches.
“I think he’ll be fine,” said Corvallis High School coach Chris McGowan, who sent several players to Oregon State and regularly interacted with Riley. “He’s been there and done that. He knows the limelight. And he’s really a smart guy, a good communicator. I think he knows what he’s getting into, and I don’t think he’ll have a problem with it.
“Obviously, you’ve got to win games, and the pressure is on big time there.”
The pressure is on right away to show the state of Nebraska that he’s not just a guy who looks and acts differently than the old coach.
Before he gets to the honeymoon, give Riley a chance to prove this surprising marriage makes sense.