CHICAGO — The numbers from Mike Riley’s first two seasons at Nebraska don’t lie. A 6-7 record with four agonizing losses. A 9-4 record with three embarrassing defeats.
The numbers projected in his third season in Lincoln don’t look promising. Most publications have the Huskers winning around seven games.
But Riley remains his ever-upbeat self. He’s been here before, although on a smaller scale at Oregon State. He’s seen the ups, and the downs that inevitably come with them.
“I know that this world is cyclical. You just don’t want the down cycle to be too deep,” Riley said Tuesday afternoon during Big Ten Media Days. “So you’ve got to have time in order to get out of that and keep going forward.”
Riley’s media session in a hotel ballroom near downtown Chicago was surpassed in attendance and interest only by those of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer on Monday and the all-encompassing bluster of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh on Tuesday. Nebraska football remains a name brand.
And Riley continues to try to put his stamp on it.
“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,” Riley said. “So that is a forever building process, for sure. That is always ongoing; something you’re always thinking about, wanting to do. And I think as you go, you can tell people are starting to get it, which feels good.”
Riley appears to to have the quarterback to run the offensive system he prefers. He has a new-look 3-4 defense that hearkens back to his early days as a coach, when he got his start coaching on that side of the ball.
As a rabid fan base continues to hunger for a return to relevance, Riley admits the time is nearing for NU to take a step forward.
“What I learned a long time ago in this thing, and what I thought was so important in the mission to establish a program, it is a process of three, four (years), maybe longer sometimes if you can get it,” Riley said. “It’s that process of establishing what you want footballwise, what you want in a program, and how you want to head that way.”
What Riley wants now is ownership from his veterans. He pointed to the three players he brought with him to Chicago — juniors Tanner Lee and Aaron Williams, and senior Chris Weber — as strong leaders. He would like more.
“Eventually what happens in your program is, you want the older guys in the program to be the teachers. 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. “And when you have those kinds of things going on and you feel good about that, then you’ve got it going.”
When Riley returned for his second stint at Oregon State after two seasons in the NFL, he said, it wasn’t about continually gunning for a more lucrative contract. It was about being at a place where he would have the time to tinker and craft a program into what he envisioned as a polished final product.
“I wanted time in the program. Because I knew with that time I could continue to build the kind of program and the kind of football I wanted to build,” Riley explained. “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.'”
Time isn’t necessarily a luxury Riley has in Lincoln. The budgets are bigger. The stakes are higher. Time is shorter.
And the cycle is quicker.
What on paper appears to be the toughest schedule of Riley’s tenure in Lincoln, and one of the most difficult of his collegiate coaching career, figures to show plenty about where in the cycle Nebraska stands.
Are the Huskers creeping closer to the Wisconsins, Ohio States and, yes, Iowas of the world?
Or is NU still a team trying to find equal footing with the best the Big Ten has to offer?
Who Nebraska plays, though, doesn’t matter as much to Riley as how his team plays in NU’s biggest moments.
“If we want to be that team,” Riley said, “then we have to win those games.”