Nine wins a year wasn’t enough to keep Bo Pelini employed at Nebraska.
It seems a fine win total for most programs, but for the once-glorious Huskers, nine wins doesn’t cut it. And even though he was one of the winningest coaches in America during his seven-year tenure in Lincoln — winning at least nine games each season and thrice winning 10 — zero BCS/New Year’s Six bowl appearances and zero conference championships meant Pelini was done.
Enter Mike Riley, a hire that certainly raised eyebrows, as he didn’t achieve an overly impressive amount of success in his long stay at Oregon State, doing little better than a couple near misses at a Pac-10/12 championship (two second-place finishes) and staging a college-football-rocking upset every now and then.
Riley was 93-80 with a sub-.500 conference record in his 14 seasons in Corvallis.
Riley has been hired to best Pelini’s nine-win benchmark on an annual basis, but only once did he do that with the Beavers. And all that 10-win season got him was a spot in the 2006 Sun Bowl.
Riley surely did more with Oregon State than anyone else had, though, and Nebraska’s higher-ups are hoping he’ll similarly elevate the current state of things in Lincoln. It’s been a quick transition for Riley, who spent more than a decade coaching in the Pacific Northwest. Now it’s up to him to bring glory back to the Great Plains.
"It has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I haven't transitioned in a long time. So I forgot what all the newness was about a little bit. But it's been fun,” Riley said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “First impressions about Nebraska are things that you already know, the passion for the place, the involvement and the engagement of the fans and the people there. It's been really interesting to see and be a part of. The other part of it that is the people that are affected most about a transition are probably the players. I've been really impressed with this team, the closeness that they've had with one another. The feelings that they have about the place that they're at. They really believe in Nebraska. And they are a good, close knit group that believe in each other. So that's kind of a fun team to get to join from that standpoint."
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Those players weren’t too happy when Pelini got the axe, taking to Twitter to voice their displeasure. And when an audio recording of Pelini at a post-firing meeting with the team leaked — more talked-about because of Pelini’s disparaging comments directed at athletics director Shawn Eichorst — it was clear how meaningful the relationship between Pelini and his players was.
On top of how upset the players were that Pelini was fired, the incoming Riley is practically the anti-Pelini. Pelini could routinely be spotted screaming, yelling and cursing on the Nebraska sideline. Riley brings to mind Mr. Rogers when he talks.
"We just went from coach Bo, who is an awesome coach, more of a younger guy, more fiery guy, in-your-face-type guy to an older guy who — at the time, what I was reading — was a nice, laid-back guy. That's kind of a big difference,” wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “I was really looking forward to meeting him. Then once I met him, I was like, 'This guy's awesome, can't wait to play for him.’
“So it was kind of a big change, but change happens. At first, the guys were kind of all over the place, but we pulled together. And we know what was important and we have to buy in to this new staff and new coach, and just as these months have gone by, we've gained more respect and more trust for them and for coach Riley. So it's been a good process."
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As good as the transition has reportedly been, there have been challenges, and many of the same challenges Pelini faced will soon present themselves to Riley. Riley has announced that five players will be suspended for the season-opener against BYU. Star return man De’Mornay Pierson-El will be sidelined for weeks with an injury, and injuries have affected much of the receiving corps. Then there’s a tough Big Ten schedule featuring marquee games against Michigan State and Wisconsin, as well as tough opponents like Minnesota and Northwestern. The opener against BYU and a road trip to Miami will be stiff tests, too.
So smashing through the nine-or-ten-win ceiling will be one heck of an ask in the first year of the Riley Era. And while no coaching change should be accompanied by expectations of instant success, if Riley continues to win at the same level Pelini did, will Nebraska regret making the change?
"Change happened, and we kind of had to buy in right away,” Westerkamp said. “There's no waiting around.”
In a demanding environment like Nebraska, how long will fans wait around for Riley?