CHICAGO — Year three of the Mike Riley era in Lincoln is about to begin and the roster is starting to look a bit more like what Riley wants to see. Systems are in place and expectations have been laid down. After a couple of transition years, this is finally a Mike Riley team.
“Coach Riley has been here for three years,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “His culture is in place. The foundation is set for what he wants his program to be and I think that’s happening at all levels on our team.”
However, Riley has been coaching a long time and believes that starting over is not something that can be done quickly in most situations. Rebuilding a program is an ongoing process.
“What I learned a long time ago in this thing, what I thought was so important in the mission to establish a program and what I learned is it’s a process of three, four [years], maybe a little bit longer sometimes if you can get it, it’s that kind of a process of establishing what you want football-wise, what you want in the program, where you want to head that way, what you want to know about the players in the program,” Riley said.
“I knew that with that time, I could continue to build the kind of program and football that I wanted to build,” Riley continued. “I also know that this world is cyclical, and you just don’t want the down cycle to be too deep. So you have to have time in order to get out of that and keep going forward. So it’s become kind of a general thought and process probably starting at the time when I came back to Oregon State and said this is what I want, and what I want to do long-term.
“And I decided to try to do it one more time in my life after 14 total years at one place that I’d come upon a new adventure and we’re trying to establish those kinds of things and try to accomplish what everybody in Nebraska wants which is very, very obvious: get back to championship-level football.”
The first step to getting back to championship-level football is to establish a championship-level culture, and that is what Riley has been trying to do.
“I think it’s really important to learn about players and learn how to utilize their strengths the best as you go forward,” Riley said. “But I also think there’s another whole different part to that, and that’s really the establishment of the culture in the program that you want, what you want this thing to look like, how you want to represent your university and in our case, our whole state. That is a forever-building process for sure. That is always ongoing, that you’re always thinking about and wanting to do, but I think that as you go people are starting to get it, which feels good.”
Riley’s emphasis on culture is starting to pay off according to the players.
“I feel like this year the team is very close,” junior safety Aaron Williams said. “Everybody knows everybody, everybody talks. There’s not division among the team. So the brotherhood is there and the work ethic is there and everybody holds each other to a standard of excellence.”
That player-established standard is what Riley is striving to have in his program, and it has to be the upperclassmen that are taking charge.
“Eventually what you want to have happen in your program is you want the older guys in the program to be the teachers, then all you have to do is point to them and tell the young guys ‘If you want to know how to do this, follow this guy around for a day,’” Riley said. “When you have those kinds of things going on and you feel good about that, then you’ve got it going.”
The players seem to have bought in to what Riley is asking for.
“It’s something that we’re trying to instill I think at all levels of our program is an accountability to each other, and that’s not a coach stopping a drill if somebody’s messed up or a coach being the first one to explain what that guy did wrong,” Weber said. “We kind of want it to be player-led; we think it means that much more. We come here and we expect to be coached by our coaches, but when a teammate and your friend is harping on what you did wrong and we need you to raise your level, I think it means more.”
So where in that cycle is Nebraska? Despite all the question marks on the roster and the poor injury luck so far, Riley said Nebraska is headed in the right direction.
“I think we’re trending upwards right now,” Riley said. “I feel good about that with our football team … The way I feel about this team is very, very positive. I feel good about it, and I say that with the narrative of new quarterbacking, new defense and the loss of two key players where we’re not very deep, but what looked great to me, maybe the strong point position-wise of our team was our secondary in spring practice. Then with losing JoJo and then with losing Chris, how we adjust to that, I feel confident that we will do that.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.