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Nebraska Makes Surprising Hire with Coach Mike Riley

Mike Riley

Mike Riley

Nebraska didn’t waste time in finding its next coach, as less than a week after Bo Pelini was fired, athletic director Shawn Eichorst has hired Mike Riley from Oregon State.

Not only was Eichorst’s hire quick, but Riley’s move from Oregon State to Nebraska comes as a major surprise. Riley had a long-term contract with the Beavers and was 93-80 during his tenure in Corvallis.

Some may look at Riley’s record and be underwhelmed with just 93 victories. However, Oregon State is one of the toughest jobs in the Pac-12. Riley was hired away from USC in 1997 as the Beavers’ head coach and brought immediate improvement to the program. From 1972-97, Oregon State had zero seasons of more than four wins. In Riley’s first year (1997), the Beavers went 3-8 and improved to 5-6 in the following season. After the five-win mark in 1998, Riley left Corvallis for the NFL.

After four years in the NFL, Riley returned to Oregon State and guided the Beavers to eight bowl games since 2003. The program also tied for second in the final conference standings twice and has four finishes in the final Associated Press poll.

Just how good was Riley at Oregon State? The Beavers had no bowl appearances from 1996-1998. From 1999-13, Oregon State has played in 11 postseason games – clearly a sign of how much the program improved under Riley’s direction.

Did Nebraska hit a home run by hiring Riley? Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of this hire.

Positives in Nebraska’s Hire of Mike Riley

Mike Riley…the Anti-Bo?
Bo Pelini certainly won a lot of games at Nebraska, but it’s clear his personality clashed with the fanbase and administrators. That won’t be an issue with Riley. The Idaho native is known as one of the nicest coaches in college football. That distinction doesn’t win games, but Riley has the personality to win at a place like Nebraska.

Developing Talent…Doing More With Less

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Riley wasn’t going to reel in elite talent at Oregon State. So the coaching staff had to find overlooked players and develop prospects into All-Pac-12 talent. That formula can work at Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers need to hit Texas and California to find talent, which are two areas Riley recruited for Oregon State. Riley has a good eye for talent, and it’s much easier to recruit at Nebraska than Oregon State. Even if Riley doesn’t reel in top 10-15 classes – something Nebraska wasn’t doing under Pelini – the program can win at a higher level if he continues to find and develop talent similar to what the Beavers were doing in Corvallis. Nebraska is a top 25 job but it can be difficult to attract talent to Lincoln. And with that in mind, it’s critical to have a coach that can find and develop talent.

Here’s a look at Riley’s recruiting rankings with the Beavers from 2011-14: 

Any Concerns in Nebraska’s Hire of Mike Riley?

It’s hard to identify many weaknesses in this hire for Nebraska. But is Riley the right coach to move Nebraska back into national title contention? The guess here is the Cornhuskers won’t win at a significantly higher level than what Pelini was able to do. However, if Nebraska wants the anti-Bo Pelini, then Riley is the right coach. Sure, he may not win 11 or 12 games in a season, and the Cornhuskers may have a puzzling loss or two at times, but he’s not going to clash with the fanbase. That’s important after the last few years isn’t it?

Final Analysis

By no means in this a splashy hire. Riley isn’t going to move the needle much nationally, and the initial reaction by most took this coaching move as a surprise. However, once the initial surprise has dissipated, it’s easy to see why Nebraska went this direction. Riley is the opposite in terms of personality to Bo Pelini, has recruited Texas well – an area the Cornhuskers need to significantly mine for talent – and has succeeded in terms of developing talent.

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In last year’s coach rankings by Athlon Sports, Riley ranked as the No. 27 coach in the nation. Pelini ranked No. 43. Riley is a better coach, knows how to evaluate talent and is going to fit in well at Nebraska with his easy-going personality.

Nebraska is the best job in the Big Ten West Division. The Cornhuskers may not contend for national championships on a consistent basis, but this program should be a player on a yearly basis for the conference title and should rank as a top 25 team.

Riley did more with less at Oregon State. Forget about the record - it's the 11th best job in the Pac-12. He may not bring a national title to Lincoln, but he’s going to win a lot of games.


Final Grade: B