Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.

FONT

MORE STORIES


COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA - MIKE RILEYLINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska went through its fourth practice session of training camp Sunday night at the Hawks Championship Indoor Center and the adjacent outdoor practice field, but the scene could have been labeled "Oregon State, Midwest Branch."


Working with players in the various position groups were offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, defensive coordinator Mark Banker and assistant coaches Mike Cavanaugh, Bruce Read, Trent Bray and Reggie Davis, who all worked at Oregon State under head coach Mike Riley.

That's not even close to the all of it. At various stations on the field were grad assistants/managers Keaton Kristick, Tavita Thompson, Beau Walker, Roman Sapolu, Hardie Buck, Nick Halberg and Brooks Armstrong. Patrolling the sidelines were Dan Van De Riet, associate athletic director/football operations; Hilary O'Bryan, assistant director of football operations; Ryan Gunderson, director of player personnel; Todd McShane, assistant director of player personnel; Chris Brasfield, director of high school relations; strength coaches Mark Philipp and Tim Rabas and video director Greg Vaughn.

All of the aforementioned spent time at Oregon State with Riley, who looked much the same Sunday as he did during his 14 years as the Beavers' coach, trading in his orange and black attire for dark blue cap with a white "N," a gray T-shirt and red and blue shorts.

Riley mostly prowled in the vicinity of Langsdorf and the quarterbacks, often referring to notes, kibitzing with players, offering constructive criticism at times, flashing his trademark smile.

"He is a great guy, a players' coach," says safety Nate Gerry, who had five interceptions as a sophomore last season. "We're still getting to know him and he's getting to know us, but we're off to a great start with him and his coaching staff."

"Coach Riley has a good heart, but he is serious in his message to us," senior offensive tackle Alex Lewis says. "He demands us to practice the right way. He doesn't want to waste time. Every second is geared toward improving and understanding the game of football. We're not here to beat each other up; we're here to get better."

"He holds us to high expectations," says quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who threw for 2,695 yards and rushed for 705 more as a sophomore last season. "He expects me to be a leader on the team. I respect a lot about him. He knows me more as a person than as a quarterback. That's one thing I love about him."

When Riley resigned his OSU post to replace the fired Bo Pelini last December, he immediately set about surrounding himself with coaches and support staff he felt he could count upon for loyalty and high performance.

"Very comforting," Riley says of the familiar faces working with him. "There's a lot of trust. We were able to hit the ground running. I like that. A lot of those foundation things we believed were the strengths of our program at Oregon State haven't changed at all, and they won't."

Just about everything else is different, though, for Riley and his staff members.

The Beavers were always underdogs in the Pac-12, with small-college town Corvallis (population 55,000) competing against the L.A., Bay Area and Arizona schools along with Oregon and Washington for recruits and victories. Reser Stadium was rarely filled to its 46,000-seat capacity.

Lincoln's population is 270,000, and the state's population is 1.9 million, smaller than the Portland metro area of 2.2 million people. But everyone in the state is a Cornhusker fan.

"We have the benefit of being the only show in town," Riley says. "There's no Nebraska State. There are no pro teams. All the energy flows right into Lincoln."

"At Oregon State, we went against the the Blazers and Timbers and Ducks," Gunderson says. "Here, it's Nebraska football first, and second is Nebraska recruiting, and third is Nebraska spring football. The people take a lot of pride in our program."

The Cornhuskers are one of college football's traditional powerhouses, with five national championships and only two losing seasons since 1961. Their NCAA record streak of 340 straight sellouts at 92,000-seat Memorial Stadium dates to 1962. They drew 76,000 for the spring game in April.

"That was like nothing I'd ever seen," said Langsdorf, who rejoined Riley after a year coaching quarterbacks with the NFL's New York Giants.

A week ago, Nebraska held a fan appreciation day in which coaches and players signed autographs for 90 minutes. A crowd of 7,000 showed, "and we had to kick them out the door," says Read, the special teams coach. "People are fanatical about Nebraska football.

"But I've noticed that kind of thing in Nebraska people in general," Read says. "The Fourth of July was crazy like no place I've ever been, and I've lived all over the country. Families in their driveways shooting off their fireworks … it went on for two days, non-stop. You talk about celebrating the Fourth. With football, it's like, 'OK, the Cornhuskers are playing, we're dropping everything. We're going all in.'"

Oregon State's facilities "are outstanding now," Riley says. But Nebraska's have been for some time, and they're getting better, including a sports science research lab that the coach called "over the top."

The Cornhuskers have five strength coaches assigned solely to the football program; Oregon State had two. Nebraska has 14 full-time academic support employees, five in life skills in the athletic department.

"If we had 100 people in the athletic department at Oregon State, we've got 400 here," Read says.

Then there is the squad size. During spring ball in Corvallis, with seniors departed and few if any incoming freshmen, the Beavers would go with about 75 players. Nebraska finished with 118 this spring (Riley interviewed all 118 individually after drills had concluded). OSU tops out at about 115 players in the fall; Gunderson says the Cornhuskers, buoyed by a legendary walk-on program, will carry 136.

"I love Oregon State; loved my time there," said Bray, an all-Pac-10 linebacker at OSU who coached linebackers for the Beavers from 2012-14. "But everything is on a bigger scale here. The facilities, the fan base, the stadium -- everything, along with your ability to recruit and reach into places you couldn't reach at Oregon State. That part has been fun and interesting."

Says Langsdorf: "With a program like ours, you have some instant credibility. That makes life on the recruiting trail a little easier."

"We tried to compete in every way for every athlete we could at Oregon State," Riley says. "As time went by, we got into more homes. Here, it doesn't feel much different. We evaluate and pick out the guys we want to offer and go after them.

"The one thing for sure, though, is that Nebraska is a national brand. People recognize it. Wherever we go, we have a shot. As I travel around the country, if I have anything with an 'N' on it, they recognize me. I've always considered myself a pretty nondescript person walking through an airport. Not here anymore."

McShane says Riley hasn't changed in his new environment.

"He's the same guy, teaching the same way," McShane says. "Same attention to detail. He's still hands off. He lets everyone do his job because he's comfortable with who he hired. He trusts and respects all of us."

But Bray believes that the Nebraska job "has re-energized Coach Riley. Whenever you stay somewhere 14 years, you get comfortable. Being here has lit that spark again. It's been fun to be around and see that from him."

Read has noticed another thing about his boss.

"Mike has tried to become knowledgeable on everything about Nebraska," Read says. "He dove in head first to learn all about the tradition and history and to connect with the alumni. It's important to him that this staff is perceived well in the public and alumni's eye, and that people are glad to have us here and that we're open to what they have going on."

Riley has reached out to former coaches in the community, including Tom Osborne. Riley has supported the Nebraska tradition of Blackshirts (worn by the starting defensive 11, beginning under Bob Devaney in the 1960s) and the walk-ons (instituted by Osborne in the '70s).

"I think if there's no conflict with your value system, you should embrace the history of the program," Riley says. "That's what makes this place."

Pelini -- who lost his job due to behavioral issues -- was 9-4 in his final season. That's not a good record in the minds of Cornhusker fans. Expectations are off the charts.

"I love it," Bray says. "You want it that way. You want to be at places where winning is expected. It's nice to be where to everyone within and outside the program, football is important. It's paid back when people fill the stadium every game."

Though the Cornhuskers have finished either 9-4 or 10-4 every season since 2008, they haven't won a conference title since 1999. Their last national championship came in 1997 under Osborne.

"But they've won five national championships," Read says. "The bar has been set. Until someone comes in and wins another one, they're not going to be happy."

Riley, of course, will never spend a second worrying about the expectations of fans.

"That's an external thing," he says. "I don't think anybody could have higher expectations than coaches put on themselves. Our pressure is mostly internal. We want to do well. I always feel the pressure of preparing the kids so we know we've done our job and given them all the tools to be ready.

"I'm not naive. They've won a lot of games and a lot of championships here, and that's what they want to see. We know that. At the same time, the expectations we put on ourselves are what really drive us.

"We want to win a championship. That's a given. But we have to prepare the kids and coach and have a good program and do all the things right so we can look back on it with no regrets."

Riley's five-year, $14.5 million contract carries through the 2020 season. How much longer does he want to coach?

"I never think about it until somebody asks me, or I see my age written up somewhere," says Riley, 62. "I feel really good. I'm excited about what we're starting at Nebraska. I'd like to coach this contract, and we'll see what happens after that."

Riley says he left Oregon State for "one more new experience in my life." He says former Texas coach Mack Brown told him he'll never lose his friends or his connection to Corvallis.

"I grew up there," Riley says. "We'll keep our house there. It doesn't mean we can't try something different and new. New league, new team, whole new part of the country. I wouldn't do this at Arizona or Washington. That's part of the intrigue of this whole thing to me. It's something brand new, at a great place, with a great history. To not make it overly dramatic -- it's just a guy trying a new job."

Riley's offense will maintain its pro-style base but will be more multi-dimensional to take advantage of the running talents of Armstrong, who ran Pellini's spread offense.

"We'll run a lot of the concepts we ran at Oregon State, but will look a lot like (spread) teams, with more shotgun, some zone reads with the quarterback," Riley says. "You have to coach to the skill set of your team, particularly at quarterback.

"I like this team. Talent-wise, we'll be competitive with anybody. I like the players. I find them very much like the kids in Corvallis. I really admire them. Coaching changes are hard on players, but these guys have been good because of their faith in themselves. They're confident in their relationships with their teammates. They like who they are and where they're at. They're proud of being at Nebraska. They have a really good sense of what this place is about."

So do Riley, his coaches and his staff members. They'd love to regain the glory days that Cornhusker fans dream about.

"The people who follow us expect a lot," Langsdorf says. "That goes back to their national championship runs, and rightfully so. There has been a little bit of a drought. People are a little restless to get that championship football back.

"They've been pretty good in recent years -- they've won a lot of games -- but they haven't gotten over the hump, I guess. We have to get that going again. That's our goal."

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Twitter: @kerryeggers

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine