At the conclusion of Thursday’s football practice, Coach Mike Riley made the short trip from the Hawks Center to the West Stadium Club inside Memorial Stadium. Riley was scheduled to host an event on diversity and inclusion – titled ‘The Extra Point’ – as a part of ‘Our Nebraska’ week on campus.
‘Our Nebraska,’ co-sponsored by the Diversity Council, is a “week-long celebration of inclusion that seeks to encourage students to learn about themselves and to become stronger leaders in society.” During ‘The Extra Point,’ Riley highlighted how he has worked to bridge the gap between race and the game during his coaching career.
Sophomore volleyball outside hitter Tiani Reeves joined Riley, speaking to the crowd first. Her teammates and coaches sat toward the back corner of the room, cheering Reeves on as she discussed how her race has affected her as an athlete during her career.
“I would say the hardest part for me is kind of being torn between two places,” Reeves said. “When I talked to my friends that are Caucasian, I talk in a certain way. My teammates call me out for it all the time. I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll switch to talk to them and literally my voice changes. I’m like a whole different person. It’s weird.
“The hardest part is trying to balance that. Where is the balance between, not to be too cliché, being too white and being black enough? That’s kind of the realm I’m in, but I’ve learned that if I’m myself then everything will be fine.”
Reeves also took questions from the crowd, which ranged from who her favorite teammate is (“It’s currently you,” Reeves said to Olivia Boender) to whom her role models are.
Riley then took the stage to speak to the room of students and faculty, joking about his resume after it was read to the crowd.
“That resume was a little too long,” Riley said. “I’m getting to be pretty old.”
Growing up in Oregon, Riley said that he wasn’t surrounded by much diversity. Out of a student body of 2,200, Riley remembers only one African-American family. Once at Alabama, Riley was surrounded by more diversity than his home state but things were still changing, especially in athletics.
“One thing I always thought, even though it was Alabama in 1971, the university was still a haven of comfort and growing that way,” Riley said. “It was obviously more liberal than any other part of the rural state. That’s what I noticed. Not immediately but just going through my time there.
“I think back on that time … I was a freshman when the first African-American played a football game at Alabama. That’s both exciting for me to think about that and it’s still surreal that I was part of that time.”
That experience helped shape Riley as a coach, which is why when praised for his acceptance and inclusion of all his players – including those that knelt during the Star-Spangled Banner last fall – Riley quickly passed the praise back to former Husker Michael Rose-Ivey.
Riley also spoke extensively about how he tells his players that they “don’t necessarily know how it feels.” He encourages conversation and preaches respect, even if viewpoints are different. That goes back to Riley’s time at Alabama, where Paul “Bear” Bryant created a very similar environment for Riley and his teammates.
“When we were there and going through it, we were college kids playing football,” Riley said. “We were a team.”
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.