Riley’s coaching career began as a graduate assistant for California in 1975 but it could be argued that it really began at Alabama. Playing for Paul “Bear” Bryant from 1971-1974, Riley learned the importance of respect. He also learned the value of treating every player on the roster like the No. 1 guy.
“I didn’t play very much, but you know what was neat about Alabama?” Riley said. “Coach Bryant made everybody feel like they were good and important.”
When he graduated, Riley knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to take the lessons Bryant had given to him, pay them forward and create a locker room that felt like home for his players.
That’s why when Rose-Ivey approached Riley last September about kneeling during the national anthem, Riley was ready and willing to listen.
“I learned a lot from that and I think that Mike did a great, great job there,” Riley said. “What he did was that he informed me. He came to me to talk about doing that and I said, ‘Go for it.’”
Rose-Ivey asked to address his teammates first, a move Riley said was “really smart.” Then Rose-Ivey went for it.
There was backlash. Rose-Ivey knew there would be. When he addressed the media the following Monday, he spoke about what kneeling had meant to him and the negative reaction he received. Yet, Rose-Ivey was never alone at that podium. He had the support of Riley and all of his teammates.
“After it all took place, my message to the team was that the support of our teammate is important and that we all have to remember that we don’t necessarily know how it feels,” Riley said. “All we know is he knows how he feels so when he does that, we’re going to support him.
“I thought the way he handled it was great. I think what he said after that at the press conference was unbelievable and so it was awesome for all of us to be a part of that because I think we all learned from it.”
Rose-Ivey kneeled again on Nov. 5 when the Huskers faced Ohio State and again on Nov. 25 at Iowa. The backlash remained, but the support of his teammates never wavered.
Riley preached respect. It’s important to him. When he thinks about why he got into coaching, the opportunity to mentor was a driving factor. Through that mentorship, Riley believes in creating a culture and locker room founded on respect for one another. It’s something he and his staff work at daily.
“The locker room is a beautiful place but it is not immune,” Riley said. “When something starts to divide a team, and it doesn’t even have to be racial, that’s my worst fear. I think as a coach, the number one thing that I talk about when we meet for the first time each year is respect. That’s the first word I say. That covers a lot of ground.”
Riley views his coaching staff as the “guardians” of respect. When it’s disrupted, they attack it. In doing so, Riley has created that “home” environment he always envisioned, which lends itself well to plenty of dialogue among teammates and coaches.
“I think the best way for success is to have an open line of communication within any type of business organization or whatever you have,” Rose-Ivey said. “You need to have open lines of communication and he does a great job of facilitating that and being the head guy, leading us into that. He does a great job of fostering that type of atmosphere in the locker room.”
Rose-Ivey would make a good coach. Riley has seen the potential every day over the two years he spent coaching and mentoring him. And if that ever pans out, Rose-Ivey knows where he’d turn.
“I’d definitely come to Coach Riley,” Rose-Ivey said. “I’m sure he would have some input for me because he knows what he’s doing. I’d appreciate it.”
With 135 players on his roster each year, Riley strives to make every single one feel just as important as the next. Rose-Ivey noticed. If he ever does coach, that culture of respect will once again be paid forward.
“If anything, I learned just as much from him as he learned from me,” Rose-Ivey said.
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.