LINCOLN — Mike Riley’s tenure coaching the Nebraska football program took a sharp turn toward the unknown Thursday when athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired.
Riley said Thursday evening that he understood the decision but felt sadness — and gratitude — for the man who hired him in 2014.
The third-year head coach insisted he's not going to worry about his job security, an increasingly discussed topic of conversation over the course of the Huskers’ 1-2 start, which will no longer be decided by the man who brought him to Lincoln.
“I was taken aback, surprised and I was probably flat-out saddened by the whole deal,” said Riley, who learned of the decision in a personal meeting with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU President Hank Bounds earlier Thursday. " ... I’m just thankful that he brought me here. He’s the one that stepped out and gave us a job here. We brought a staff and we’re at a great place and we’re thankful to be here trying to both develop and grow and be the best we can be.
"We haven’t done as well as we need to."
Green and Bounds largely agreed in a news conference earlier in the day, calling on-field success the driving factor in Eichorst's demise after nearly five years. They spoke about the importance of all sports, but acknowledged that here, football is the dominant metric.
Riley is 16-13 at NU as the successor to Bo Pelini, who Eichorst fired despite a career mark of 67-27.
"This is not about Mike Riley right now," Bounds said. "We expect him to compete."
Riley insisted that's all he's worried about less than 48 hours before the Huskers host Rutgers.
"I’m not going to be the one that finally decides," he said of his future. "I'm really excited about what we can do. ... The two things that you have to do are coach and then recruit if you really want to build where you want to go. I think what we have to do is a better job right now with this group coaching them, I think there’s lots of parts are growing and parts we have to get better at right away."
Riley signed a one-year contract extension Aug. 1, recommended by Eichorst and Green and approved by Bounds, that lengthens his deal through Feb. 28, 2021. His contract includes buyout language that calls for him to be paid $170,000 per month over the length of the agreement, meaning it added $2,040,000 to a buyout in the event he is fired.
That decision will ultimately be made by a new athletic director, but Bounds and Green each have approval process over any firing or hiring decision.
"We only know one way to do it," Riley said. "We’re going to first think of our players and coaching them. We have a great opportunity to do that every day."
All Husker head coaches were informed of the decision in an afternoon meeting expect Riley, who confirmed he was told earlier.
“I don’t know what that means for sure,” Riley said with a chuckle, brushing off the notion that it carried any context about his own standing. “I thought they might have done that out of the respect of (his relationship with Eichorst), but I never took it any other way than they wanted to personally tell me, and I appreciate that.”
Riley relayed news of the firing in a staff meeting around 1 p.m. — about the same time the school announced the decision publicly — then held a 2:15 p.m. team meeting to ensure all of his players knew.
The affable 64-year-old recounted winning 12 games his first season as head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1987, then losing seven straight in 1988 and thinking he would be fired.
“There are those times, and so what we’ve always known to do is, when it’s hard, don’t treat people any different, don’t make up things, just coach,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing. ... When you just approach it that way, it’s not that hard.
“Whatever is swirling out there, it always swirls one way or the other and you just have to maintain being steady. That’s what your kids need to know is who you’re going to be every day when you come to work.”
In the short term, Riley and his team will try to steady a tumultuous opening stanza to the 2017 season at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against the Scarlet Knights, who have not defeated a Power Five team since October 2015 and have lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games.
As the season progresses and a new athletic director arrives, Bounds perhaps gave some guidance to how Riley and his staff will be evaluated.
“The best, most objective way is in wins and losses, but there are differences in wins and losses,” he said. “There are programs that we compete with that we should compete with. ... Not everybody can win every game at the end of the day, but we expect to be in every game and compete in every game. Some of that is subjective, and the wins and losses are obviously objective. That’s where all of us get together and talk about where we are and the kind of progress that we’re making, what things look like and how we move to the next level.”
Riley on Thursday pointed to NU’s freshman class and the 10-man group verbally committed for 2018 as part of a promising future.
“This event occurred, and it’s going to be perceived by people in a million different ways,” Riley said. “I don’t have any control over that. I think the first, most important thing is for me to address our coaching staff and our players and get our players ready to play Saturday.
“This is supposed to be fun. I want to get them ready to play, and it’s only fun, I’ve found, when you win, so we’re trying in every way to just do that.”