The writing was on the wall long before the final seconds ticked off the clock at Memorial Stadium last weekend. All the 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern did was etch the writing into another layer of disappointment and apathy that had once been the proud football legacy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Mike Riley experiment blew up in the face of another sellout crowd that is getting tired of watching mediocrity Saturday after Saturday. A wise man once told me, “Once you begin settling for mediocrity, settling for the norm, then your chances of being the best that you are capable of being is gone for a very long time.”
Perhaps Riley is not the one to blame. Perhaps he is merely the scapegoat; another person to blame for the fall of the great football program that began years ago.
An entire generation has watched the Huskers be successful on occasion and fail miserably on others, but no one in the past 18 years has actually seen Nebraska football at its finest.
We have seen coaches walk into programs all over the country and turn them around. We need to look no further than Central Florida, where Scott Frost took a winless team two years ago to an undefeated and ranked team in 2017. It all comes with picking the right coach, with the right players and the right administrative support behind him.
Another similar situation occurred very close to home over a half century ago. Nebraska had struggled mightily under the coaching of Bill Jennings to a 15-34 record between the 1957 and 1961 seasons. Nebraska football was not the “Pride of the Plains” then that it soon became, so few people really cared much that the Huskers were floundering. It was just something to do on a Saturday afternoon.
Enter Bob Devaney. All he did was go 101-20-2 as head coach in Lincoln. His first four season records were 9-2, 10-1, 9-2 and 10-1. Of course, he led Nebraska to its first two national titles in 1970 and 1971. All of that came after a series of losing seasons. He turned the culture of Nebraska football around literally overnight.
When Devaney retired Tom Osborne was promoted from an assistant to head coach. Only people living in caves for the past 40 years have never heard of this football legend. Osborne posted an amazing record of 255-49-3 in his tenure at UNL. As we all know, he led the Huskers to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Nebraska was to college football in the mid- and late 1990s what Alabama is to the sport now.
Nebraska was a missed field goal against Florida State and fourth-and-1 pass by Texas in the 1996 Big 12 Championship from potentially winning five national titles in a row. That would have put Nebraska in the same elite talk as the UCLA men’s basketball teams of the 1970s under the coaching of John Wooden.
But all good things come to an end. After a 42-17 bowl victory at the conclusion of the 1997 season, Osborne made the decision to step down as head coach. Once again it was decided to promote an assistant to the precarious spot of filling the void left by the legendary coach Tom. That assistant was Frank Solich.
Solich’s reign as head coach began a bit shaky. His first team finished 9-4 (outstanding by today’s standards) but he followed those up with 12-1, 10-2 and 11-2 campaigns. The 1999 team finished ranked second in the country. Solich stumbled to a 7-7 record in 2002 then was fired at the conclusion of the 2003 season after going 10-3. He ended up with a solid 59-19 record as head coach at NU.
The years of 2004-07 can be called the Bill Callahan debacle. Callahan had two losing seasons in four years on the NU campus and finished with a 27-22 overall record.
Enter Bo Pelini, whose tenure at UNL was a favorite for “Star Wars” fans. His motto should have been, “May the fours be with you,” as the Huskers went 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4, 10-4, 9-4 and 9-4 during his time in Lincoln. Pelini’s overall record as the NU head coach was 66-28.
Alas, his record of sideline tantrums, foul-mouthed postgame interviews, etc. pulled more weight than his performance as head coach. Exit Pelini and welcome Riley.
It seems like only yesterday when Riley was traveling from Oregon State to Lincoln. We were all hopeful. We were all waiting to see if Riley ended up bringing the same magic to Lincoln that Devaney did way back in 1962.
Today, Riley’s coaching record is 19-16. There is a better-than-average chance he will be 19-19 after the final three games of the season. The Riley experiment has failed. In many ways you have to say Callahan’s days in Lincoln ended up more productive than what we have seen during the past three seasons.
People argue (even many of the players) that we need to give Riley a couple more years to get things going. By then coaches like Matt Campbell at Iowa State and Frost at Central Florida could be moving up the coaching ranks and out of sight of the job in Lincoln.
I am not an advocate of changing coaches every time a team has a losing season, but when progress is lacking then a change must be made to save the program.
I am glad I don’t have to make the decision that was etched on the wall following the loss last Saturday. Riley is a great man of integrity. That is why seeing him move out of Lincoln is going to be difficult, but it is time.