Mike Riley made sure to say thanks and shake the hand of every last person in the room after he concluded a press conference about his dismissal. Nothing about the morning was anything Riley or his staff or his players had hoped for, but everything about how he handled himself after having his job taken from him is what people have come to expect.
Riley met with Athletic Director Bill Moos Saturday morning at 9 a.m. to be informed that he had been relieved of his position as the Huskers’ head coach. His staff met with Moos thirty minutes later to learn their fate would be decided by whoever Riley’s replacement ends up being. And 30 minutes after that, Riley addressed a football team still disappointed over a 4-8 season that had concluded one night earlier to tell them he would no longer be coaching them.
“I told them that, as I’ve gotten older in this thing, the thing that I’ve appreciated as much as anything, moreso than probably earlier on when it was all about the Xs and Os and the coaching, is the relationships with players and the realization that somewhere in the career that this thing is bigger than football,” Riley said. “So, if you approach your job that way, then the opportunity to see them in a situation like we did today is very hard and emotional.”
Earlier in the morning, players trickled out of North Stadium in pairs. Some looked visibly emotional, some might have just been better at hiding it. Media awaited them to try and ask questions over what they had just learned, some answered, some didn’t want to stop. They didn’t have to. But those that did, said it was a hard morning.
“We all got in a line, shook him up, we talked and cried a bit with coach and everybody else,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “It was just a sad moment.”
Riley said he isn’t worried about what’s next – if an opportunity presents itself, great, but if not, he’s got the fact that he will soon become a “granddaddy” to look forward to. He’s more interested in what happens to his staff and what happens to his players, what happens to the relationships he’s about to leave behind.
“As you get into a place, what it really becomes is people,” Riley said. “It’s hard to look at them and understand that you’re not going to get to see them through this thing. That’s a hard deal.”
Quarterback Tanner Lee, who hand-picked the Huskers two years ago in part because of Riley, said college football is a business. This decision just reaffirms that.
After Moos finished a press conference in which he described why Riley had lost his job after three years, he said he had asked Riley if he wanted to speak, or just move on to the next chapter in his life. Riley said he did. He didn’t blame Moos, he didn’t seem to harbor any resentment towards anyone. He simply apologized. He knows it’s a business too, and he knows he didn’t accomplish the end goal.
“I’m certainly disappointed that the football wasn’t better,” he said. “We wanted to do it better on the field than it’s been done.
“I wish we had that opportunity to continue to grow it, which I feel very confident in. I think that our group has represented the state at the highest level, and the university at the highest level and the Nebraska football team at the highest level.”
Riley said Moos was great to him. He didn’t give Riley any ultimatums, no benchmark win totals to save his job, he just told him Riley would get to finish the season and the evaluation would go on from there. Moos said the Huskers’ 54-21 loss to Minnesota was a turning point in his decision-making process, but he kept his word.
“I’ve been in this a long time, I know what goes on with it,” Riley said, “but I do appreciate how they handled it.”
Lee was asked how tough the last month of the season was, to deal with the same questions week in and week out about what was going to happen in the future. He said the team just embodied its coach: head down, go to work, appreciate what you’ve got.
“I think we just kept our head down and kind of let everybody else worry about it and worry about playing football,” Lee said. “It’s hard to believe but that’s really what we did. That’s why we’re here, we’re here to play football and represent Nebraska so we just kind of enjoyed that day-to-day and realize that we didn’t want to take that for granted.”
That’s Riley speaking. That’s Riley’s doing. Riley had a long list of people to thank when he began – his wife, Dee, his staff, the people in the state, the high school coaches he’s built relationships with on the recruiting trail – but he said that he’s most thankful for the team and the opportunity. That’s why he got up in front of a room full or press and people he no longer had any obligation to and spoke.
“I wanted the message to be that we as a group, me personally, appreciated this opportunity and we wish we could have continued it,” Riley said. “I always think in terms of the people that are around me, that I represent – family, coaching staff, team. I wanted to represent that group one more time and basically give my message to them that I love them and appreciate all the support and work through the time that we’ve been here.”
When Riley was hired back in 2015, he called this new place an adventure. With that coming to a close on Saturday, he was upset with the way it ended, but happy that he took it.
“I learned that this is a special place,” Riley said. “I loved it. I loved the opportunity to coach here.
“It’s like that old song: I could have missed the pain but I would have had to miss the dance.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.