Nebraska coach Mike Riley keeps football in perspective

Riley's familial atmosphere key to Nebraska's success (1:37)

ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill discusses how Nebraska football coach Mike Riley has kept in contact with the father of punter Sam Foltz, who died in a car accident in July. (1:37)

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- It has been three months, and Jill Foltz isn't sure she can talk about her son, Sam. It's still too raw. But she will talk about Mike Riley. She opens the door to her tidy ranch home in central Nebraska, the house with the giant red "N" out front, and takes a seat next to her husband, Gerald, on the couch.

Most nights this time of year, Gerald is out in the fields harvesting his corn and soybeans before the cold arrives. Tonight, he is resting his feet, thinking back to December 2014, when Nebraska named Riley its head football coach. "Who's Mike Riley?" Jill asked at the time. That same month, Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, the biggest of wow hires, and here Nebraska was with this 60-something-year-old guy from Oregon State.

Two years later, the Foltzes can't imagine anyone else in the world running their football team.

On July 24, a police officer came to their door and told them that their son, Cornhuskers punter Sam Foltz, had been killed in a car accident in Wisconsin. That next day, Riley and athletic director Shawn Eichorst were at their house along with about eight of Sam's teammates. They stayed all day, and Riley told the family he would be there if they needed anything.

After they left, Gerald and Jill decided they'd do the same for Riley and the team. They'd go to every football game, home and away, in the 2016 season. Sam's senior season.

They had no idea how excruciatingly painful this would be. But every Saturday, they stand near the team bus, waiting for a bunch of football players who aren't their son. Jill winds up crying every game, and when the emotions become overwhelming, she and Gerald tell themselves the same thing: The team needs them.

Gerald works ungodly early hours as a farmer, and maybe that's why he always wants to be at the stadium just after the gates open. They find their seats, stare at the field and think about what might have been. "Gerald decided that we needed to go to the games," Jill says. "And you know, really, when you think about it, we needed to show these players that our loyalty to Husker football wasn't just because we had a kid on the team.

"So here we are, seven down and five to go, or something like that."

Gerald does his own math and chimes in.

"Maybe seven or eight to go," he says.

He is accounting for the Big Ten championship game and the College Football Playoff, two possibilities that seemed impossible a few months ago. But it's late October, the Cornhuskers are 7-0 for the first time in 15 years, and who knows what can happen?

The Foltzes are happy for Mike Riley, and they marvel at how he has pulled the team together after losing a player who was so revered that he would have been a shoo-in as a team captain this year. And then Riley had to deal with the DUI arrest and subsequent suspension of assistant coach Keith Williams, and a national anthem controversy.

"He just never gets flustered," Jill says. "He's like the epitome of the best dad. He's just even-steven."

Gerald met Riley last fall. About four times a year, the elder Foltz liked to make the 100-mile drive to Lincoln to watch his son practice. But on this particular day, Riley had given the team a surprise day off. Gerald was walking down a hallway with Sam when they heard someone yelling and running toward them. It was Riley. He told Sam to show his dad around the facilities, and heck, take him up to his office.

Gerald seemed in awe. The previous coach who'd just been fired at Nebraska, Bo Pelini, was fiery and short-tempered and not much for small talk. But Riley sat with the Foltzes in his office that day, and they talked for at least 20 minutes, "shooting the bull," Gerald says, about life and football.

"It's what we're all supposed to be doing," Gerald says, "but it doesn't happen at that level, the way I gather from talking to players from other teams.

"He's the darndest guy I've ever run into."

Before we throw cold water on this magical, undefeated season, before we note that the Cornhuskers' previous seven opponents are a combined 20-30 and that Riley's team might be in for a harsh reality check as it enters the teeth of its schedule at Wisconsin and then at No. 6 Ohio State, let's examine how unlikely 7-0 is for Riley and this bunch.

A year ago at this time, the Huskers were 3-6 and had just lost to a Purdue team that would finish 2-10. A somewhat sizeable faction of players did not seem to be buying in to Riley, especially the seniors who were fiercely loyal to Pelini and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski.

"The group that was probably the most obvious was the defensive line," Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker says. "The players had an attachment to [Kaczenski], and I know a couple of them, they'd go to his house for dinner at night.

"It was weird. For me, at Oregon State when I left to another job, it was hard. But something I believe in is that you've gotta let it go."

Nebraska lost five games by a combined 13 points last season, and the last-second gut punches became so common they were almost comical. In a game against Wisconsin on Oct. 10, 2015, with four seconds to go, Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone nailed a winning 46-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights. That game appeared to be sealed less than a minute-and-a-half earlier, when Gaglianone had missed a 39-yarder.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, a close friend of Riley's since they coached together in the early 1990s, found him after the game and simply said, "I'll call you." Riley should've needed multiple therapy sessions by then. His luck was impeccably terrible. The losses were one thing, but who buys a house in Lincoln, then has to quickly turn around and sell it because his wife is allergic to the paint fumes?

Mike Riley, that's who. And get this: Instead of groaning over having to live in a hotel for months, Riley learned the name of everyone who worked at the Embassy Suites hotel in Lincoln. Riley and his wife, Dee, gushed about how nice the people were, how they became sort of a little family.

That's Riley: never down, never out. Through multiple interviews with people who've known him for at least 10 years, it is believed he has never uttered a cuss word, hearkening back to the days of Tom Osborne. A couple of decades ago, Osborne probably wasn't the only coach to opt for a "dadgummit." But today, it's a true rarity in a profession in which F-bombs are dropped like 40-yard passes during spring practice.

"He's kind of a dorky, little guy," Huskers receiver Brandon Reilly says of his coach. "He says some things that we'll be like, 'What?' Every practice, he says, 'All right, it's time for recess.' He always thinks practice is like recess because we can go out and have fun."

After every victory, Riley leads the team in a chant of "hip hip hooray!" In the rare times last season when the Huskers won a game and engaged in the ritual, they looked at one another and thought it was a little strange. But not anymore. Not in this season that has brought them back to the top 10 and feels just a little bit different, like the old days when Nebraska was relevant.

The team that could not win a close game last season can't seem to lose them now, and Riley says there's a reason for that. He did not know his players in 2015, especially in the early stages. For example, he'd never had a quarterback like Tommy Armstrong, who can run the option. Riley's quarterbacks at Oregon State were dropback passers. He also said that defensively, the Huskers eventually "found a better way to play."

Riley said his Huskers probably had to hit rock bottom before they could go up, and they sank to the bottom of the pit last season on Halloween in West Lafayette against the Boilermakers. Riley did not give an inspired speech after the game; everyone in that locker room knew how bad things had become. The following week, the Huskers knocked off No. 6 Michigan State in Lincoln.

The Huskers were invited to a bowl game despite their 5-7 record, and though the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California, seemed like a participation trophy at the time, they wound up beating a high-quality UCLA team, and it buoyed them into 2016.

"I remember going in the bowl prep, those practices we would have where it's just kind of in between," senior linebacker Brad Simpson says. "Sometimes, it feels like you're practicing for nothing. There were some fights and stuff. It was basically that time when people were sick of football. Some guys were about to graduate and they didn't care anymore, and some guys really wanted to play and stand out. I'm really glad we came together.

"You could see after that UCLA game, after we won, we've actually got a good team here. We're going to come together and do something."

Riley had no idea that the real challenges were still ahead and would have nothing to do with football. He has been coaching for more than 40 years, and nothing was harder than the day he had to gather the team in the hours after Foltz's death. Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were killed in a car wreck while returning from a kicking camp in Wisconsin. LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye was also in the vehicle and suffered injuries.

Riley told his players that nothing he could say would make it better, and that their biggest support would come from the people sitting together in that room.

"It was horrible," Riley says. "I felt so ill-equipped walking in front of a group and talking about their teammate and friend."

University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor Ronnie Green says Riley has managed everything that has come his way. When Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry and DaiShon Neal knelt in a peaceful protest during the national anthem at Northwestern in September, it caused such a stir that several politicians, including Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and two university regents, criticized the players' actions. That was rare. In Nebraska, politicians rarely speak ill of the football team. They're more inclined to have at least one red sports coat in their closet.

But from the start, Riley calmly and steadfastly stood by his players. He was grateful Rose-Ivey told him about it before the game.

"I said, 'Great, go for it. Just be prepared to answer to it,'" Riley says. "He did, and I was so proud of him. I was most proud of the way he explained it to the team. It was at our walk-through the day before the game. They kind of embraced him, and he was very emotional.

"The benefit of having coached for a while is that I do have perspective that I have a job bigger than football."

For years, Brenda Tracy would hear people say how Mike Riley was such a nice guy. And it made her sick. She wondered whether she was the only one on the planet who didn't like him. She had her reasons.

Tracy says she was gang-raped 18 years ago by four men, two of whom played for Riley at Oregon State. Tracy hated Riley because he gave the players a one-game suspension.

Riley says he never read the police report; he just saw that the players had been arrested and the charges had been dropped. In 2014, Tracy went public with her story, and suddenly Mike Riley was in the national spotlight. Riley says he felt terrible when he heard it. He knew he had to do something. He had to tell her he was sorry. Sexual assaults on college campuses are on the rise, and Riley wanted Tracy to come to Lincoln to speak to his players.

"I could get in front of the team and give all these life lessons," Riley says, "but nothing would be more compelling than coming from a victim. And she was unbelievably brave. I was really proud of her, and I was proud of our team. I think it was a great day for our team."

Tracy went to Lincoln in June and had no idea how it would go. She was anxious that she might get in front of the team and be traumatized all over again. But it wound up being cathartic. Riley and Tracy embraced, and he seemed to genuinely care.

It could have ended there, and Tracy would be lying if she didn't wonder at first whether the whole thing was a PR stunt. But then Riley called a few times, checking in to see if she was OK.

He invited her to come back, and on Nov. 12, she'll be in Lincoln for the Minnesota game.

"It's interesting that I've kind of become part of his narrative," Tracy says. "My trajectory could've been very different when I went to Nebraska. I didn't really know for sure what I was walking into.

"It was a very pivotal moment for me. It is not something I will ever forget."

Five days before the Wisconsin game on Saturday, Riley sits in his office with his eyes occasionally glancing over to a TV with The Weather Channel on. Dee walks in after a tennis match, and they make plans for lunch.

They met when they were in college at Alabama. Her Southern accent is still fairly pronounced. They hung out together for about two years in a big group of friends, and sometimes, Dee and Mike would walk across campus to get an ice cream cone. It was so easy to talk to him.

"I liked him so much," she says. "Like like-liked him."

They got married and had two kids, and were entrenched in Corvallis, Oregon, when Nebraska came calling. Riley figured he and Dee had one last adventure in them. He's 63 now, but when he wears a ball cap over his mostly bald head, Riley looks a lot younger. Nebraska, he says, will be his last coaching job.

One of the things Dee loves about Riley: There's no drama with him. Not once during 2015, through the paint fumes and the losses and hotel, did either of them question why they were here.

"It's just life," she says. "You deal with what you have to deal with, and you just do the next right thing and don't spend any time agonizing over it. That's the way Mike is, and I love being around him because he's not a worrier. Life is too short not to have fun and not to enjoy people and your family and your friends."

Life marches on, and Riley recently told Gerald Foltz that they miss him at practice. He encouraged him to come back any time he wants. Gerald joked that sure, he'd be back if Riley traded places with him on the combine.

The hardest road trip of the year comes Saturday. The Foltzes will be less than an hour away from the place where their son died on a two-lane road near Merton, Wisconsin. But they will go and embrace this family that Riley has created.

After Sam died, Riley told the couple that their son used to put his arm around him and ask how his day was. No matter what Riley said, Foltz always had the same answer: "It's going to be OK."