While Mike Riley already was well-aware he was no longer in Corvallis after he shocked many by leaving Oregon State for Nebraska this winter, his relocation surely was cemented in his mind when he walked out to the Memorial Stadium field for the spring game in Lincoln and saw nearly 77,000 fans in the stands.
In Corvallis, Reser Stadium's all-time attendance record is 47,245, and it was typical for 5,000 to 8,000 to show up for the spring game.
Riley has played in big stadiums and won in big stadiums and played and won against big-time programs, such as Nebraska. He's just never coached one where winning nine games gets you fired, as was the case with the man who preceded him, Bo Pelini.
“You don’t go into this naive about what Nebraska football means and what the expectations are," said Riley, who at age 61 is embracing the considerable challenge of getting the Cornhuskers back into the national title hunt, a general expectation from a dedicated fan base that has experienced five of those, including three in the 1990s under Tom Osborne.
As for the transition, Riley seems most comfortable with the football part, the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball as well as the getting-to-know-you part of being a new staff with players accustomed to doing things a different way.
“For football coaches … you recruit and then you coach," Riley said. "The comfort level there is pretty good, although you are learning about doing it in a new place, so you’re always gathering information. But the toughest thing is the routine of life. Our family is not yet settled here. We’re still house-hunting. It’s that unusual routine of living that I have right now that is probably the biggest part of the transition."
And, yes, after 14 total and 12 consecutive seasons as the Beavers head coach, not to mention growing up in Corvallis, where he was a junior and senior high football star, there is some nostalgic looking back.
“We had such a routine and a simple life in Corvallis. You miss that," he said. "You’re hoping and learning more about how you will find that in Lincoln.”
Riley said he had been so immersed in his new duties that he hadn't been checking reports on the goings on with the Beavers this spring, with coach Gary Andersen doing a reverse-Riley, leaving a big-stadium, Big Ten team in Wisconsin for Corvallis. But his former quarterback, Sean Mannion, visited the Cornhuskers and gave him some updates and piqued his interest a bit.
“It’s not going to go away immediately, my thoughts about Oregon State, my thoughts about all the guys we coached and recruited there and how the team is going to do," Riley said. "That doesn’t just disappear.”
While Big Ten news has been dominated by Ohio State's national title and Michigan hiring Jim Harbaugh, Riley has quietly inherited a good opportunity. The Big Ten's West Division is wide open, and the Cornhuskers welcome back 17 starters from a team that went 9-4 and nearly upset USC in the National University Holiday Bowl. They have a tough nonconference schedule -- BYU and at Miami -- but they don't play the Buckeyes and have Wisconsin and Michigan State at home.
On paper, Nebraska is well-positioned. The question is whether the team comes together under Riley. Players were pretty unhappy about Pelini's firing and more than a few voiced their objections at the time.
"When the previous staff was fired, guys were extremely upset, as they should have been," receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. "As time has gone on, and being able to be around this new staff, it's easier. Guys are buying in. They trust these coaches now."
Of course, Westerkamp wouldn't say any different, particularly on the Big Ten spring teleconference, even if he were still unhappy. The proof will be in performance.
As for Riley putting a cap on his tenure at Oregon State, where his departure was received with a mixed reaction of sadness and relief over an incoming injection of new blood, Riley is just as you'd expect.
“The good thing for me is I feel great about our time there," he said. "I kind of surprised myself in leaving. I’ll always be connected because that is a place that is dear to my heart.”