Nebraska coach Mike Riley Q&A: 'I understand the expectations here'

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska coach Mike Riley Q&A: 'I understand the expectations here'

Nebraska has turned the page on its football program, opening a new era with Mike Riley at the controls.

[ MORE: Watch the Nebraska spring game at 2 ET Saturday on BTN2Go ]

Riley takes over for Bo Pelini, who personality-wise is the exact opposite of Riley. Known for his cool, level head and coaching acumen, Riley will try to do what Bill Callahan and Pelini failed to do: win a conference championship. It hasn’t been done in Lincoln since Frank Solich in 1999.

Riley arrives from Oregon State, where he was head coach from 2003-2014. He also had a stint in Corvallis from 1997-98 before abruptly leaving to coach the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001. Riley went 93-80 at Oregon State over his two stints with eight bowls in 14 seasons. He was 14-34 with the Chargers with no playoff appearances.

I caught up with Riley, 61, as he finished up his first spring practice at Nebraska and prepped for this Saturday’s spring game.

Q: Have you gotten the sense of the fish bowl you are in?
A: It is unique. I spent a few years in the NFL. And at least in San Diego it wasn’t like this. There is a unique passion and loyalty. They are extremely proud of their history and who they are. There is that T-shirt that says “There is no place like Nebraska.” And they truly believe it. The fact there is no Nebraska State competing with Nebraska, there are no (major) pro teams. All the energy is poured into one place. It is a fishbowl. I was eating out recently, and I took a picture between each bite of my omelet. They are friendly, nice people.

Q: Were you surprised when you were approached about taking this job?
A: Oh, yes. I had a couple of hours heads up from a friend, Paul Chryst, who knew Shawn (Eichorst) and knew of Shawn’s interest. But in general, the word would be “surprised.”

Q: How long was the courtship?
A: Oh, gosh, that was the beauty of the thing. The phone call occurred on Monday. I was in Lincoln on Thursday to take the job.

Q: What is it that appealed to you about taking the job?
A: There are two things. One of them is the place. Because it is Nebraska and because it is brand-new for me. I would not have done this in the Pac-12. The other thing that appealed to me is, my wife was interested. We have had a couple of other opportunities over the years to leave. And for both of us, we opted to stay. And I thought I was going to try to retire in Corvallis. At my age, this could be my last opportunity to do something one more time differently in our lives. That was probably the biggest motivator that I had.

I understand where I am in my life and career. So, if I was gonna try something different, this was probably it. So, we discussed it like that when my wife and I talked about the job. We loved Corvallis. And it was good to go out feeling good about the place and what we had done at Oregon State. So, we wanted to try something in our last shot.

We had been pretty adventurous in our lives, went from a small school in Oregon (Linfield) to Canada to the World League in San Antonio. Our biggest move was probably going from San Antonio to L.A. to coach at USC. Where in the world to do you live in L.A.? We were both kind of country, but we loved it.

My wife surprised me on this on, though. When she was interested, I was more interested. I had to fight some stuff at the end. I didn’t sleep for two nights, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. I had many mixed emotions. It was hard to fight through that.

Q: Did you talk to Tom Osborne?
A: I have since I took the job, but not before taking the job. I had lunch with him and his son one day. And I have gotten to know some the men he coached with, George Darlington, Charlie McBride, Milt Tenopir. I have tried to learn from them history-wise, about the walk-on program and the Blackshirt tradition. Lots of former players have come by practice. It is overwhelming and kinda scary.

Q: Have you ever coached or played in Memorial Stadium?
A: No. We were pretty adventurous at Oregon State, played at Penn State and at LSU and in Texas vs. TCU. But never came here. When I played at Alabama, we played Nebraska and got killed, but it was in a bowl.

Q: What is something you learned from playing for Bear Bryant at Alabama that still resonates with you?
A: I wasn’t a good player at Alabama. I hardly played. Coach Bryant taught us a lot. As a guy who wasn’t a star or starter, he treated everyone the same. So, we all felt part of it. I want all of our guys at Nebraska to feel like I did at Alabama. That was the biggest impact on me at Alabama and how I run my program. I recruited myself to Alabama, I wrote Coach Bryant for three years. I wore him out. I was just glad to go there. I met my wife there. It was a special time. It was a very important time in my life.

Q: Why do you think Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999?
A: They still have done well. Bo had lots of nine-win-plus seasons. I can’t answer that now. We are swamped with teaching and coaching right now. I might be able to answer that later. I understand the expectations here. It is OK to have high expectations. They continued to rise at Oregon State when we were there. That’s a good thing. You certainly don’t want the opposite, when there are no expectations and people don’t care. I saw that in 1997 when we first went to Oregon State. The president played a big role in making things change there.

Q: Are you glad to be out of Oregon’s shadow?
A: I have a lot of respect for Oregon. They set the bar higher. SC did it when Pete Carroll came. That conference was pretty average around that time. Pete came in and set a new standard. And everyone got better. Then Oregon took over and set the bar higher. To have that team setting the bar just 30 minutes away, yes, it’s hard. It’s hard recruiting, it’s hard facility-wise … all that. I tried not to dwell on that. It does no good. We had a good place, good program. But, you couldn’t ignore Oregon’s presence.

Q: What were your expectations of the talent you were inheriting at Nebraska?
A: I didn’t know what the talent would look like or what the kids would be like. I thought maybe they would be highly recruited prima donna guys, hard to coach. But I have found the opposite. These guys like each other, have high expectations and are coachable. The biggest difference between here and Oregon State is depth on both lines. If we had seven offensive linemen who could play, it was a pretty good year. Here, there are more good players overall. We are excited about this opportunity. It is fun to be in a new league and have new venues. It’s kind of refreshing.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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