LINCOLN, Neb. — It’s Tuesday afternoon, more than two weeks before the first game of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football season and the most important sports figure in the state — heck, some might say he’s even bigger than the governor — is facing a dozen cameras and even more reporters.

This article was published 21/8/2015 (2300 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LINCOLN, Neb. — It’s Tuesday afternoon, more than two weeks before the first game of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football season and the most important sports figure in the state — heck, some might say he’s even bigger than the governor — is facing a dozen cameras and even more reporters.

There are injury-update questions, questions about positional battles. There are questions about the offence and the defence. There are questions about the...

Mike Riley in his plush office in the Osborne Athletic Complex attached to Memorial Stadium.

Mike Riley in his plush office in the Osborne Athletic Complex attached to Memorial Stadium.

"I love you coach Riley!" interrupts Jamal Turner, a senior wide receiver with the Cornhuskers, while leaving the practice field nearby. "You’re the best!"

Guffaws and chuckles follow during a brief moment. Then it’s back to business. Cornhusker football is religion in these parts, and in a town of 260,000 that drew 76,000 to Memorial Stadium for the annual spring intra-squad game — and has sold out every game since 1962 — any nugget of information is often splashed on the front page, leading the local sportscast and trending on Twitter.

Now, just for the record, Mike Riley — the man who helped guide the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to their last championship, way back in 1990 — has yet to coach a real game for the Huskers, The iconic team in this state.

And while winning ultimately cures everything — especially in Division I football — there is already some hard evidence the likable, amiable Riley has the chorus singing from his songbook.

There are ‘#RILEDUP — Nebraska Football 2015’ and ‘I LIKE MIKE’ T-shirts already for sale in the souvenir shops — his autograph scrawled across a small Nebraska ‘N’ on the back.

And since his hiring last December in a move that caught the NCAA football world by surprise, Riley has done what he has always done best: win over people with his aw-shucks personality while furiously recruiting all over the country in an effort to get the Cornhuskers back in the national-championship discussion.

But it’s not going to be a quick fix. The Huskers are not ranked in the pre-season USA Today Coaches Poll. They were 9-4 last season and 0-4 vs. Top 25 teams, including a 59-24 loss to Big 10 Conference West rival Wisconsin, a game in which Badgers running back Melvin Gordon set a college record with 408 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

The Huskers finished last season dropping three of their last four, including a 45-42 loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl. Head coach Bo Pelini was gone before then, fired at the end of the regular season despite a 67-27 record that included at least nine wins each year. But Pelini also disparaged Cornhuskers fans, ripped athletic director Shawn Eichorst and even dared him to fire him in a post-game press conference. His was the kind of act that can wear on a team and its faithful quickly.

Enter Riley as the proverbial breath of fresh air.

Riley fever has hit Lincoln, to the point where Huskers merchandise is emblazoned with his name and the hashtag #RiledUp.

Mike Riley is overlooking the Cornhuskers expansive indoor practice facility — including a banner listing each of the school’s 46 conference championships, the last coming in 1999 — when he is asked a basic question?

Why are you here?

Now 61, Riley had been at Oregon State since 2003 — his second stint in Corvallis, Ore., the town he calls home. Respected, revered, he seemed destined to finish out his career in the Pacific northwest. But, as The Oregonian reported during his departure from OSU — a move he called "gut-wrenching" — athletic director Bob De Carolis apparently wanted to slice down the remaining years on Riley’s contract and remove multi-year deals for assistant coaches.

The Beavers were also 5-7 last season and lost six of their last seven games. And so when an iconic program such as Nebraska calls and offers a job and a $2.7-million salary — almost double the $1.5 million he earned at OSU — it’s hard not to listen.

"I look at it and I’m surprised, too, because I really thought Oregon State was going to be my last stop in my coaching career," began Riley in a 25-minute chat with the Free Press. "The only way I can describe it is I think there’s something about timing once in awhile when you get an opportunity like this.

"It hit Dee (his wife) and I that we’ve got time for one more great adventure in our lives and let’s do it. We spent a total of 14 years at Oregon State and we feel real, real good about that work and what we did. I’ll always be from Corvallis, where I grew up and I’ll always have my connections and friends in Corvallis... just like I do in Winnipeg.

"I tell people not to make it overly-dramatic: it’s just a guy taking a new job."

But this just isn’t any job. It’s coaching football in the Big 10. In Nebraska. The place where ‘Go Big Red’ signs dot virtually every lamppost in the downtown, where wearing any colour other than red — or at least something sporting the school’s trademark ‘N’ — means you stand out like a naked jaywalker strolling down the middle of main street.

And expectations are always mammoth.

Memorial Stadium on University of Nebraska campus holds 90,000 fans and has held 340 consecutive sellouts since 1962. It was built in 1923 and has been expanded as recently as 2013.

"Nebraska is not all that far removed from winning a national title (1997) and there’s a certain expectation level that people will not let go of," said Lincoln Journal Star columnist Steven Sipple. "At a minimum you’ve got to win nine games and compete for conference championships and then win one every once in a while to get into the college football championship picture. That’s what people want here. Right now it’s all about winning the division. That would be a good first step.

"There’s also an element with Mike that has been appealing to Nebraska fans. He seems to embrace being here and at the end of the previous coach’s tenure, a lot of people felt that Bo didn’t want to be here. What I really like is what Riley said in Chicago at the Big 10 media days. He said, ‘I hope people look at me and see a guy who loves what he does.’ He strikes me as a guy who gets up every day and can’t believe what has been bestowed upon him, that he won Grey Cups in Winnipeg as a young head coach, that he coached at USC, in the NFL and at Oregon State. Now to have this job at a tradition-laden football program... it just seems like he feels incredibly blessed and that’s what comes off to people. It seems genuine."

That’s a sentiment that would undoubtedly sound very familiar to Bombers fans — at least those that were alive when the franchise last won a title with Riley at the helm. All of which, is part of the appeal for Riley.

And so, what’s it going to be like running out of the tunnel onto the field at Memorial Stadium, in front of 90,000 fans all decked out in red?

"It’s one of the reasons it was intriguing for me," said Riley. "Historically this is one of the great football schools in this country. Nebraska stands for a lot of very positive things in college sports and there is a great history of coaching here with coach Devaney and coach Osborne and then the guys who followed them... There’s just a great history and it’s great to be a part of it.

"And, for me, the change also has something to do with trying something new. A new place in the country, a new conference, all new stadiums that we’re going to play in... that’s pretty exciting for me. It’s funny, since were doing this — and I appreciate you guys coming down from Winnipeg — it makes me feel like with going back to the Midwest, it feels like Winnipeg. The people are so accepting and nice and it’s an easy place to move into. That’s what I always appreciated about Winnipeg. At this point it’s very comfortable.

"Now, we haven’t played a game yet but there is great history, great tradition and the people in Nebraska are very, very proud of their state, their university and it flows right down to their football team," Riley added. "They love it. It’s rather unique here. Most states have a couple of universities that play ball ,like Oregon and Oregon State, Washington, Washington State. And Nebraska is the only major college school playing football and there are no pro teams here, either.

"So all the energy flows into Lincoln. There’s been 52 years of sold-out games. That’s a crazy statistic. That just shows you the commitment and loyalty Nebraska has to this program."

Riley is known as a "players coach" and said he enjoys helping to shape the young men in the college system.

Riley was at the ripe young age of 33 when Cal Murphy named the Wallace, Idaho native as his replacement following the 1986 season. While he did have an association with Winnipeg and the Blue Bombers — he can still recall training camp practices at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School when his dad, Bud, was the club’s head coach from 1974-77 — he had never worn the big headset before.

All Riley did in the next four years was win two Grey Cups, in 1988 and 1990, while twice being named the CFL’s Coach of the Year.

"One of the nicest guys you will ever meet," said Bombers Hall of Famer Chris Walby, who played for Riley. "I can’t say enough about him. His demeanour in life is his same demeanour as a player. I don’t think I ever heard him swear but he does that ‘Gosh darn it!’ and when you heard that you knew you were in trouble.

"It was a striking contrast, being coached by Cal and then Mike. One coached through fear, the other just by holding the players accountable and treating you like men. It was either do it, or your gone.

"Actually," added Walby, "I don’t think I should tell it that way. Mike was never harsh when he cut you. He’d likely call you in for the bad news and say, ‘Hey, Dee has cooked you some cookies for your trip home.’ "


He’s coached in the CFL and at powerhouse NCAA programs, including the University of Southern California. He turned down the chance to coach at his alma mater, Alabama, 13 years ago and had a stint in the NFL as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers.

And yet when you walk into the massive conference room attached to Mike Riley’s office, it’s hard not to notice amidst all the photos of his family a distinct Bombers presence. There are two sections of shelving enclosed in glass that feature a pair of NBA star Karl Malone’s basketball sneakers — "I was a huge fan" — and photos of Riley with Chargers legend Junior Seau and also of moments during his days at OSU.

But also featured prominently is a game ball from the 1988 Grey Cup, Riley’s Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame certificate, a photo of him at a Bombers reunion that includes Joe Poplawski, James Murphy, Dieter Brock, Ken Ploen, Buddy Tinsley, Cal Murphy, Bob Cameron and Milt Stegall and an old seat from Winnipeg Stadium that has been autographed by the ’88 Grey Cup championship squad.

"I wasn’t one of those guys who set a five-year plan or thought I would be some place," Riley explained. "And so for Cal to give me that opportunity for my first head coaching job... I was actually smart enough to turn him down at first because I knew everything that was out there about my dad. He, of course, had given me great advice and I had watched his experiences. He worked with me and we finally accepted and I’m thankful I did.

"I’m just absolutely very appreciative of Winnipeg and thankful for our time there and proud of our history there."

Riley has been back a few times since leaving after the 1990 season for the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football. Both his kids — Matt, now 31 and working as a website manager for the Texas State government in Austin and Kate, now 27 and mother to Eli, the "greatest grandson in the world" — were born in Winnipeg and have each returned with Riley for Bombers-themed events.

He checks in on how the Bombers are doing a couple of times a week and was asking for an update on injured quarterback Drew Willy. He still has friends in the CFL coaching ranks and is particularly interested in how two of his former OSU players — offensive lineman Colin Kelly, now with Ottawa and wide receiver James Rodgers in Montreal — are making out in the three-down game.

He asks which media are still covering the Bombers and the CFL, called the return of the Jets "some of the best news I got that year" and was impressed with the changes to the city during his last visit, noting how The Forks and Shaw Park have changed the downtown. During a brief exchange with assistant coach Danny Langsdorf, who worked in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos, they wondered aloud if there was a chance to hop in a car and head up to Winnipeg for a game this year during their bye week in mid-November.

Later, during an introduction to his secretary, which Riley begins with "these folks drove all the way from Winnipeg" it is pointed out the coach is still sporting royalty in Manitoba — a notion that almost makes him blush.

"I don’t know about that," he said with a chuckle, stiff-arming away the suggestion. "Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I saw the Queen when my dad was coaching in Saskatchewan (in 1973)? I was working at the lumber yard during the day and playing (baseball) for the Regina Red Sox at night. The lumber yard was right along the road where the Queen came down in her carriage. I always remember there were RCMP lining the streets for security. And there she was doing that queen wave of hers. That was pretty neat."

 Mike Riley's office overlooks the weight room in the Osborne Athletic Complex attached to Memorial Stadium. Riley oversees camp as the students athletes attend rigourus training including practice, fitness and weightlifting, play walk-throughs, video meetings, Yoga sessions and guest speakers.

Maybe it says something of Mike Riley that 25 years after leaving Winnipeg, so many now want to make the procession down I-29 to reconnect. Former Bombers president Reg Low will be leading a gang of former executives down for a Cornhusker game in the fall, Riley explains. And Bob Cameron has talked about planning the same, according to Walby.

"It was said over a few wobbly pops," said Walby, "but if it happens. I’m in. He and his wife are just beautiful people."

The years have passed and the colours he wears — from blue and gold to black and orange to Cornhusker red and all the hues in between — have changed. But Mike Riley seems the same now as he did back in the 1980s, back when he was so instrumental in the Bombers’ ninth and 10th Grey Cup championships.

"The one thing I’ll say about our lives, Dee and I and the kids, is we’ve really enjoyed the business and the ride, football, the sport... all of it," he said. "We’ve enjoyed the places we’ve lived. She’s been a saint. We could have stayed at any one of the stops. It’s all good.

"What we’ve learned is there a lot of good people and a lot of good places. Personally, I never envisioned anything like this. I never envisioned being the coach of the Bombers. I got my first job and I thought I had arrived and I was as happy as I could be. I could still be there, frankly.

"And I’ve enjoyed it ever since."

There is intense scrutiny on Riley in one of the nation's largest college football fishbowls. Dozens of media cameras record Coach Riley at a training camp practice in mid-August.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait