Rivals.com Q&A: Nebraska coach Mike Riley
In his second year as Nebraska’s head coach, Mike Riley has the Cornhuskers off to a 4-0 start. His decision to leave Oregon State, where he spent most of his career, surprised some, but the 63-year-old coach says he’s happy in his new city. Rivals.com’s Rob Cassidy recently had an in-depth conversation with Riley, who touched on his decision to accept the Nebraska job, his new program’s recruiting strategy and his time spent coaching both Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Leaf. Below is an expert from the conversation. The audio version of the full interview can be found above.
Rivals.com: Seems like everything is headed in the right direction there at Nebraska. You guys are 4-0 with a big win over Oregon. Was that win special giving how much time you spent at Oregon State locked into that rivalry?
Mike Riley: I was a little bit taken back when I first got the job and somebody told me right away, “Hey, Oregon in two years.” It was kind of funny. I look at this stuff like, Oregon has been a great challenge for us for years when we were out at Oregon State, so I have a lot of respect for them, but I was excited by the opportunity. So yes, it was personally a great win. But even better, it was good for this year’s team.
Rivals.com: Speaking of your time at Oregon State, I feel like a lot of people were surprised when you landed at Nebraska. Maybe that’s because of how long you’d been at Oregon State. What was it about Lincoln and Nebraska that made you feel like it was a good move for you at this juncture?
MR: Through the years, we had gone through some possibilities, but I really thought I was going to stay and hopefully retire at Oregon State. But there was something about the timing and the opportunity and uniqueness of a different place in a different conference. We’d been there a long time, but we had also kind of been around the block a little bit. We weren’t novices to being able to move. My wife and I said, “We’ve got time for one more adventure here, and this is a great place that’s a good fit.” So we just decided to do it, and it all happened so fast. It was like a blur. It was hard to leave and exciting to come. I can honestly say that I left a place that I loved and will always love, but I’m loving where I’m at.
Rivals.com: We can’t obviously talk about specifics when it comes to recruiting because of NCAA rules, but we can talk about regions. You guys are having some success recruiting California. What’s the pitch? What makes Nebraska attractive to a California kid?
MR: The key here is getting guys to visit. When I first got the job, I interviewed every player on the team. I asked each one of them why they chose Nebraska. So many of them said, “When I visited, I knew.” So I knew that was a key part of it. From our previous life, we have connections in California and know folks, so it was natural to enter into the recruiting out there. You have to find the right guy – the right player and the guy that is a little adventurous and wants to explore. When we can get him to come out here to visit, we feel like we have a chance to get them.
Rivals.com: Nebraska is one of those programs that, when the program is at its best, has a truly national recruiting base. Are there other areas of the country you guys want to move into?
MR: We are recruiting a few guys from the Southeast. Georgia has been a little bit of a natural link because we had a young man committed from there right away when we got here in Aaron Williams. With that connection, we tried to expand it and got another guy the next year. That part of it has been pretty good. But you’re right, I think that we have to be national but we also want to be very, very good in our home base. Our home base is Nebraska, but it’s also an area around here. We have this idea that there’s a 500-mile radius from Lincoln that is all recruit-able for us. That leads us to Minneapolis and Chicago and almost to Indianapolis. Then, for sure St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver. And pretty close to Dallas, really. That’s pretty close to that 500-mile radius.
Rivals.com: You played under Bear Bryant [at Alabama]. Now, so many people my age or younger never got to see him coach or anything. He’s sort of like this ghost – this legendary figure to us. Are there Bear Bryant stories that stand out in your mind?
MR: Oh, that’s fun right there. I’m really thankful for that time. I’m more thankful today than I was going through it. You go through it as a kid and you don’t realize you’re part of college football history. I really appreciated being a part of that program. I wasn’t a very good player, but I always felt like part of the team. That’s probably what Coach Bryant did the best. There was such great pride in playing for Alabama and playing for Coach Bryant. That’s what brought everyone together.
Rivals.com: When you think of him, is there one story in particular that you think of?
MR: It’s probably … Well, Coach Bryant spent most of the time during that point in his coaching career in a tower. He had a megaphone up there. If something happened on the field that he liked, he’d say “That’s a goodie” or, if it wasn’t so good, he’d say “what the heck is going on down there?” And if he ever came down from there before the end of practice, it probably wasn’t good. There was going to be something happening.
Rivals.com: You were offered the Alabama job in 2002 when [Dennis] Franchione left. Is that true, and did you consider taking it if so?
MR: Well, it was true and I did consider. Obviously, it was a great, great honor to even be talking to Alabama. But, at that time, it was one of those situations where my family was young and West Coast-based. There was another opportunity kind of on the line that would have kept us in a position where we basically could have lived where we were at the time. I opted to try to get that one and, ironically, that one didn’t work out. But there’s a plan out there, and everything worked out for the best, but I certainly appreciated that. It was a difficult decision.
Rivals.com: You coached [Michigan head coach] Jim Harbaugh in the NFL. When you were coaching him, did you have any idea that he would become a coach or become this successful of a coach? Also was he always … like this? I mean, was he always an outspoken, larger-than-life figure?
MR: He was awesome to coach. Jim was a fantastic competitor. He was really, really always well-prepared. He was really fun to be around. He was a magnet for people. I think people just followed him. As a veteran guy near the end of his career, he was still the hardest offseason worker. He had all these things that made him who he was as a player and he’s just carried that into coaching. He’s exactly the same guy.
Rivals.com: These things are probably related, no? You said people just follow him. I mean, if you have that personality that causes people to just follow you, that lends itself to success in recruiting, no?
MR: I think it does for sure. He has always been very, very competitive. A big part of what we do is compete for recruits and compete on the field. Our lives are still full of that, and Jim has just carried that on.
Rivals.com: I gotta ask about another former quarterback of yours. I’m not too interested in what happened between you two because that’s been written about and it’s over, but you coached Ryan Leaf. He’s become a notorious figure. He’s a guy that just didn’t work out after a great college career obviously. Was it all mental with him?
MR: Ryan had been in the league a year when I got to San Diego. Our big job was going to be to try to help him become what the organization needed him to be and realize the obvious potential that he had. Initially, the first year, that’s when we signed Jim Harbaugh. We signed him to be Ryan’s veteran backup. Then, Ryan got hurt and missed that whole first year and Jim quarterbacked out team. We hoped to establish a base for Ryan for the future. But, frankly, we failed in that part of it. Whatever that was that came after that, it was one of those things that we wanted to make it work. Ryan worked at it to try to make it work, but it actually never did with us. It’s one of those stories that you would like to be able to go back and change.
Rivals.com: Before I let you go, one more to put you on the spot; how many years does Mike Riley have left in coaching? I’m sure you get asked this all the time, right?
MR: I love it. My wife and I never talk about retirement. When my age (63) is mentioned, it’s like it doesn’t connect with me. I just don’t feel like that. I’m going to enjoy this as long as I can. I still love all the parts. I love the football part of it. I love having a team and getting to know the team. That’s what’s been so fun about the second year here is just establishing those relationships. We’re on a big project here that is going to go year by year. We’re trying to win a championship here at Nebraska. That’s what we think about. We don’t think about the end game at this time.
Rivals.com: You’re on the Bill Snyder plan then? You’re gonna be in there when you’re his age?
MR: I’d love it. I’d love it, so I’m not thinking about when it might. Now, if my wife was on the line with us, she might have another opinion. But she loves it too. We’ve been doing this thing together for a long time and we’re enjoying it.