How Mike Riley ended up at Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Harvey Perlman still hasn't watched the video of Shawn Eichorst's Nov. 30 press conference to announce the firing of former seven-year Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini.

Perlman, the university chancellor and Eichorst's boss, flew out of Lincoln on that cold Sunday morning -- the temperature at 8 a.m. had dropped 63 degrees in 18 hours from a Saturday record high of 75 -- for a set of meetings with donors in the San Francisco area.

Shortly after 9:30, Nebraska released the news on Pelini, a controversial decision by Eichorst on the heels of a 9-3 regular season capped two days prior with an overtime win at Iowa.

Perlman knew the move was coming. His wife, Susan, set the DVR at their home to save the press conference, televised locally.

Just then, Eichorst, the 47-year-old athletic director known most in two years at Nebraska for avoiding the public eye, took a deep breath as he walked off the elevator to the press box at Memorial Stadium and into the spotlight for the biggest week of his career.

The hire nobody saw coming

In this age of intense scrutiny, some football programs have given up on confidentiality in coaching searches.

Florida took fans and media along for the ride last week as athletic director Jeremy Foley pursued Jim McElwain. Before the school solved his $7.5 million buyout clause with Colorado State, Florida released photos from inside the plane that transported Foley to visit McElwain.

Plane-tracking websites and coordinated social media efforts -- not to mention old-fashioned journalism -- have threatened to derail searches. It leaves schools in the awkward position of handling mountains of misinformation amid morsels of truth. Some administrators figure, let's just control the message.

Not this time around at Nebraska, which endured a painful, 41-day search after the 2003 season. In a setting as football-obsessed as any SEC stronghold, Eichorst got his man in less than four days.

And nobody saw it coming. The school announced Mike Riley, at Oregon State for the past 12 years, as its new coach just short of 98 hours after it made public the firing of Pelini.

"We've experienced some searches that weren't handled very well," Perlman said. "Now, a lot of that is fortuitous. Things have to break for you. The point is, every athletic director -- every good athletic director -- has a list of guys for every coaching position that he's been looking at for a long time.

"That's why it shouldn't be such a mystery that [Eichorst] could get focused as quickly as he did in this search."

As speculation swirled around Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and many others, Riley's name never surfaced.

His profile -- age 61 with a losing record over the past five years at a Pac-12 outpost -- helped deter suspicion, no doubt. But Eichorst remained a step ahead of all the eyes with swift choices and actions to land a respected coach whose move to the Big Ten has inspired positive reviews nationally.

Eichorst managed about three hours of sleep per night during the search, half his norm. He doubled his daily workout routine to keep his mind fresh.

"I was focused," Eichorst said. "I was locked in. I knew what I wanted."

His methodology -- pending positive results on the gridiron, of course -- could serve as a blueprint for contemporaries. Eichorst engineered something of a perfect-looking search.

And in mere hours, Riley's life flipped radically.

So how did it come together?

'I recruited my tail off like I've never done before'

Eichorst stayed at the stadium after the press conference to prepare for a meeting with the football team that night. But before they got together, he went home -- from where Eichorst worked, when not traveling, for the next four days.

Nebraska players lashed out on social media. Newly appointed interim coach Barney Cotton released a statement saying he accepted the position out of "loyalty to Bo."

"I feel it is my duty to be there for our staff and show love and support for our players," said Cotton, who served on Frank Solich's staff with Pelini at Nebraska in 2003 and returned four years later when Tom Osborne rehired Pelini to replace Bill Callahan.

"I was focused. I was locked in. I knew what I wanted."
Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst

After the meeting at the stadium, Eichorst turned his attention to the search.

"I wasn't looking at people at that point," Eichorst said. "I was just thinking about qualities in people."

By Monday morning, Dec. 1, Eichorst said he "was fixed" on Riley, whom Eichorst noticed in 2004 as an associate athletic director at South Carolina while the school searched to replace the retiring Lou Holtz. Steve Spurrier got the job, but Eichorst never forgot the Oregon State coach.

"Trusted sources" and electronic research helped confirm Eichorst's beliefs about Riley. Eichorst did not check with an intermediary. He did not ask permission of Riley's athletic director at Oregon State.

"I recruited my tail off like I've never done before," he said.

Eichorst made the phone call at noon Monday. Their conversation lasted about 30 minutes. Riley showed interest and said he was recruiting in San Francisco.

Minutes after the call ended, Eichorst phoned Perlman, still in the Bay Area but set to fly to Denver in a few hours and stay over before a return to Lincoln on Tuesday to celebrate his wife's birthday.

Eichorst asked Perlman to remain out West.

"I knew what direction Shawn was taking," Perlman said.

Flying commercial to San Francisco

Eichorst, after the call to Perlman, booked a ticket to San Francisco. He drove to the Lincoln airport and waited through an hour-long delay.

So the most scrutinized man in Nebraska waited in the lobby, dressed in jeans and a Senior U.S. Open baseball cap -- details reported by the Omaha World-Herald -- and nearly missed his connection in Denver.

Upon arrival in California, Eichorst took a cab to the Hilton San Francisco Union Square. It was after midnight, and he was set to meet Riley at the hotel at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

They talked most of the morning in Eichorst's room. First, it was just the two of them. Perlman joined the discussion around 9.

When the conversation ended, Riley left.

Eichorst looked at Perlman. "I think this is our guy," Eichorst said.

Perlman agreed, though the chancellor stressed that the decision belonged to Eichorst.

"Remember our roles here," Perlman said. "The athletic director hires football coaches.

"I would not make a judgment on a football coach. I wanted to make sure he was a good citizen and he understood the values of the university."

Perlman left the room, and Riley re-entered. Eichorst offered him the job. Riley accepted, pending standard clearance in Lincoln.

The chancellor and the man he hired 26 months prior to handle moments such as these shared a private plane from Oakland back to Lincoln, landing a few minutes before 5 p.m. Eichorst drove straight home. Later, he talked again to Riley, who had shared the details with his wife, Dee. At a high school across town, Pelini met with his former players to say goodbye.

And Perlman made it back in time for wife's birthday party.

Done deal

Eichorst, as usual, dropped two of his three sons at school when he wasn't traveling last week.

On Wednesday, he finalized Riley's five-year deal, discussing the agreement with interim University of Nebraska president James Linder, vice president and general counsel Joel Pedersen and the Board of Regents executive committee.

The coach will earn $2.7 million in the first year, with incremental raises of $100,000 annually. (Pelini was paid $3.1 million this year and is owed $7.9 million over the next 51 months.)

Some of the athletic administration at Nebraska learned from Eichorst about Riley late Wednesday. He stayed home to watch the school's nationally ranked women's basketball team beat No. 9 Duke in Lincoln on TV that night.

Thoughts about Thursday occupied his mind. Eichorst knew it was big.

'I always thought Oregon State would be my last job'

The announcement came just before 11:30 a.m. CT. Eichorst shared the moment with his wife, Kristin.

In Corvallis, Oregon, Riley informed the Oregon State players and athletic director Bob De Carolis just before release of the news stunned observers nationally.

"I always thought Oregon State was going to be my last job," Riley said.

"I had a million things going through my mind. It had been a long time since I made a move in the coaching business, and it was very surreal."
New Nebraska coach Mike Riley

Within hours, he heard from nearly all of his close friends in the coaching business, plus many fans of the Beavers. Riley went home to finish packing for his first visit ever to Nebraska. On approach to Corvallis was the same Embraer Phenom 100 twin-engine executive jet that two days earlier carried Perlman and Eichorst back to Lincoln from the west coast. Riley picked up his daughter, Kate, and 3-year-old grandson, Eli, for the trip.

The flight took approximately three hours and covered more than 1,300 miles.

"I had a million things going through my mind," he said. "It had been a long time since I made a move in the coaching business, and it was very surreal."

Memories from Oregon State mixed with thoughts of the work waiting in Lincoln. The trio landed Thursday at 7 p.m., greeted on the runway by Eichorst and senior associate AD Steve Waterfield, a lawyer like Eichorst who followed his boss from Wisconsin to Miami then Nebraska and fits tightly into the athletic director's small inner circle.

Assembled media and about two dozen Nebraska fans waited outside the gates of the general aviation terminal, craning their necks to see the new coach as Eichorst and the group drove past in a dark SUV en route to Memorial Stadium.

The coach met with his new team and briefly toured the football facilities, though it was too dark to see much of campus. Dee flew in from Birmingham, Alabama. She had been visiting her father. They all stayed at Eichorst's home, where the new coach and his boss talked late into the night about their conjoined future.

Introducing Mike Riley

Eichorst drove Riley to campus Friday morning, arriving around 8 -- an hour before the much-anticipated press conference. By now, the news was more than 20 hours old. Initial surprise and uncertainty had largely turned to curiosity and excitement.

They waited on the third-floor administrative level of Memorial Stadium's north end, where Riley later set up shop, one floor above the office formerly occupied by Pelini. The old staff of Nebraska coaches remained there, preparing to coach the Huskers in the postseason -- a date two days later revealed as the Holiday Bowl against USC.

A framed photo of Riley, welcoming the coach and his family, already graced the elevators that connect the coaching and administrative offices to the waterfall-adorned atrium below.

Stadium scoreboards delivered the same message.

"I know there is uncertainty in our fan base," Eichorst said in answering a press-conference question about Riley's record, "but we have a good football coach."

Eichorst and Perlman watched from the front row of seats during Riley's 30-minute introduction.

"We are in this together to build young men and win championships," Riley told the audience, assembled under the towering ceiling of the skybox-concourse level on the west side of the stadium. "And they don't have to be exclusive of one another."

He dashed off for more interviews and attended two receptions with Eichorst, including an all-staff luncheon in the newest stadium addition attached to its east end.

Riley said he wants to allow space to work for the old staff, into whose offices he and his hires will move in three weeks. According to various recruits and media reports, several assistant coaches will follow him from Corvallis, though Nebraska has announced none of the additions.

Friday night brought some relaxation at Eichorst's home. Both families gathered to eat barbecue and Chinese food. They shared a drink, watched Oregon rout Arizona in the Pac-12 title game and discussed family, football, Nebraska and life in general, according to Eichorst.

Still, he didn't sleep well, wired from the adrenaline of the week.

The future starts now

Life returned to normal for Eichorst last weekend. For Riley, it was anything but. The introduction was over, and the time to work had arrived. Upon his Sunday return following a brief return to Corvallis, only the next eight days remained to recruit off campus before a month-long dead period. Riley had to get organized, with many stops to hit this week and coaching hires to consider.

Riley has met dozens of his new players and talked briefly with several Nebraska coaches. It remains unclear if any will be asked to stay on board.

Shortly after noon Monday, exactly one week after Eichorst and Riley talked for the first time, the coach left Lincoln on United Airlines flight 5185 -- the same route and number that Eichorst flew to meet Riley seven days before. It was Riley's first recruiting trip for Nebraska.

On the ground in Denver, he visited cornerback Eric Lee of Valor Christian High School, an early commitment to Nebraska who ranks 144th in the ESPN 300 and as the No. 1 prospect in Colorado.

Riley coached Lee's old high school teammate, quarterback Luke Del Rio, who transferred this year from Alabama to Oregon State. Maybe the connection meant something to Lee. Maybe not.

But on Tuesday night, Riley received a call from Lee to reaffirm his commitment.

He's all-in on Nebraska, a victory for the new coach. If Riley's plan works as well as Eichorst's blueprint to land him, many more will follow.