When Nebraska athletics director Shawn Eichorst fired Bo Pelini after seven winning seasons, one of the main reasons was made perfectly clear: Pelini won games, but he didn’t win the games that mattered.
"There are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field," Eichorst said last November. "And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most. I think we gave coach ample time, ample resources and ample support to get that done. Now we are headed in a different direction.
"At the end of the day, I didn’t see enough improvement in areas that were important for us to move forward to play championship-caliber football. We just for whatever reason weren’t good enough in the games that mattered against championship-quality caliber opponents. I didn’t see that changing at the end of the day.”
Nearly a year after Pelini was fired, the Huskers won’t even have an opportunity to play in the games that matter.
In his first season, Mike Riley — Pelini’s successor — has struggled to win any kind of games. Nebraska is 3-6 through nine games, having lost six times before November for the first time in program history. The Huskers will have to win out to even reach the postseason, something Pelini did in all seven of his seasons. That seems unlikely with Michigan State and Iowa — a pair of undefeated teams — remaining on the schedule.
Nebraska’s record certainly is skewed. A very good argument could be made that last weekend’s 55-45 loss at Purdue should have been the Huskers’ first defeat of the season. The first five losses each came by three points or fewer, with wild endings going in the opponents’ favor. And many of those game-winning scores — four, to be exact — came in the games’ final seconds.
But that skewed record has been accompanied by less than stellar play, as well. The pass defense has been among the Big Ten’s worst, and running the ball has been a challenge. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has passed for a lot of yards, but his completion rate is one of the league’s lowest. There have been, at times, poor decisions made by the coaching staff.
Regardless of how the losses came, the unprecedented amount of losing in Lincoln has made Riley’s future and job security a topic of conversation.
Now, it seems rash to consider ending a coach’s tenure after just one season, but in a place where expectations are so high that Pelini’s nine- and 10-win seasons couldn’t satisfy them, is it more of a possibility?
According to what Riley’s bosses are saying, no, it isn’t.
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Eichorst released a lengthy statement earlier this week, thanking fans for supporting the team during this already-lost season and throwing his support behind Riley and the program’s direction. Chancellor Harvey Perlman gave his support, as well, in an interview with the Omaha World Herald, saying that Riley has a lot of problems to clean up that were left by Pelini, including a "not great" culture and poor recruiting.
“My goal in taking the job was to establish good football and a program that everybody could be proud of,” Riley said during his weekly press conference Monday. “That has always been my intention, (and) in this deal that is what we wanted.
“My personal perspective about this is that we just take what we have, look at it, and our obvious goal was to win all the games and we’ve not done that. But then, it is like I said, we have to look immediate, what we want to do with our team today in practice and try to win the game this weekend. And then try to have those goals long term and then all the rest of it, whatever it is, whatever you call it rebuilding or renewing it’s different obviously. Nobody likes the different result right now.”
When Eichorst picked Riley, it came as a bit of a head-scratcher. Certainly Riley had the experience of coaching in a major conference and is a terrific face of the program with a winning personality. But his past success was limited. Pelini won at least nine games in seven straight seasons at Nebraska. Riley won nine games just four times in 14 seasons at Oregon State.
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There were issues with the culture of Pelini’s program, though — issues Perlman alluded to — and thoughts that Riley would be able to change things for the better. With wins now in short supply, Riley was asked if the culture had changed for the better from last season.
“Part of my deal about that is I’m not going to compare and contrast. I said this right off the bat to you, and I said it to the players, I never want to talk about good and bad,” Riley said. “It will be different because we are different people. I doesn’t even matter if I replaced Bo or if I replaced Nick Saban. We’re going to have a program of things we believe in. That part of it, there’s no need to even compare.
“We’ve got some things about the way it’s going to be that are just not to be compromised, and it doesn’t even matter where we are. That’s the beauty of what we can do in college. Being involved for me in college sports is a little bit different. You can have that. I think in general, I know everybody wants to win and I know in general, if you have people one-on-one in a corner and say what do you want here, they want that. They want what we bring, and I’m proud of that and we won’t lose that. That has nothing to do with not winning. We can’t cloud that.”
Regardless of how badly this season finishes — two more losses would mean the program’s lowest single-season win total since 1961 — it’s hard to see Riley’s tenure ending after one season. Often these things just take time, and Riley deserves that time, a point made by both Eichorst and Perlman. Eichorst used the term “brick-by-brick rebuild” in his statement, and while that’s not what fans and observers were expecting for what has historically been one of college football’s more competitive programs, it’s perhaps closer to reality.
But it’s also realistic to assume that, at a place like Nebraska, Riley would have a hotter seat — at least that would be the view from the outside — than most second-year coaches in a “brick-by-brick rebuild” normally would.