The pros and cons of Mike Riley replacing Bo Pelini at Nebraska
Is the former Oregon State coach an upgrade for the Huskers?
From a stealth standpoint, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has already won the coaching carousel’s silly season.
On Wednesday, word leaked that Eichorst had Arkansas’ Bret Bielema in mind for the job. When Bielema publicly said he was sticking with the Hogs, we were trying to get a feel for the next candidate and reacting to Florida’s hire when…
— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) December 4, 2014
Sometimes watch lists are well-sourced and accurate. Sometimes we know where a school’s athletic director is leaning the whole time. (See: Foley, Jeremy at Florida.) And sometimes a school hires Oregon State’s Mike Riley out of the blue.
This was an entertaining hire. Now we just have to wait to see if it’s a good one.
Hiring coaches is a total crapshoot; you have to know for sure that your current coach isn’t going to achieve the goals you want before you dump him for a new one. For those reasons alone, getting rid of Bo Pelini was a risky move. And there’s no way to say for sure that the 93-80 Riley is an upgrade.
Every hire comes with risks and rewards. Sometimes it takes a while to figure those out, and sometimes they’re all on the surface from the start. Riley fits into the latter. Every reason why he could be a perfect fit at Nebraska, along with every reason he could fail, is obvious.
Pro: Good guy
Almost anybody who has met Riley will tell you how good a person he is. He’s nice, he’s good to his players, he celebrates victories with trips to In-N-Out Burger, he’s a super nice skater grandpa. He will win every media gathering and public speaking gig. By August, Nebraska fans will have compared him to Tom Osborne so many times, and there will have been so many sappy good-guy pieces on Riley that you’ll feel like you’ve eaten too much candy.
Off the field, Pelini was by all accounts a solid person who cared for his players and had a much better sense of humor than he showed on the sidelines. But from a “this one’s not like the last one” approach — one that works for everything from hires to significant others — Riley is about as far away from Pelini as you can get.
That Nebraska fans will really like him, that he won’t explode on the sidelines, that he won’t say “If they want to fire me, go ahead,” that he won’t complain about Nebraska fans on a hot mic are all reasons why he will get plenty of rope.
Pro: Fun football
It’s not easy to draw a wealth of players with elite athleticism to Corvallis, Oregon. There are not a lot of built-in recruiting advantages, and Riley had to work hard to get the pieces he needed. But either by nature or necessity, he figured some things out. He put together teams with track-star receivers, gun-slinger quarterbacks, and super-aggressive ends and linebackers.
Riley has always been pretty good at figuring out what his athletes can do and putting them in position to do it. As players like Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks cycled through, that meant jet sweeps to receivers, passes to running backs, et cetera. Oregon State has used unconventional tactics in conventional formations, and when it works, it works really well. It’s also really fun to watch.
Con: Not as much fun lately
Hard jobs remain hard. You have to figure out something that works, and when that stops working, you have to figure out something else. And perhaps as a result of the difficulty of the Oregon State job, Riley’s output with the Beavers has been all over the map. With any semblance of attrition, the veneer has come off quickly.
|Season||Record (Conf.)||Off. F/+||Def. F/+|
|2009||8-5 (6-3)||+11.1% (13th)||+3.7% (37th)|
|2010||5-7 (4-5)||+3.4% (43rd)||-1.6% (60th)|
|2011||3-9 (3-6)||-9.0% (100th)||-3.3% (70th)|
|2012||9-4 (6-3)||+10.1% (17th)||+9.6% (25th)|
|2013||7-6 (4-5)||+6.9% (36th)||+2.3% (50th)|
|2014||5-7 (2-7)||+1.0% (55th)||-5.3% (89th)|
It’s never a good sign when you hire someone in whom the previous fan base was beginning to lose faith. Oregon State fans were beginning to lose faith in Riley. Only one time in five years have the Beavers finished better than 7-6, and since the start of 2010, they are just 29-33 overall, 19-26 in conference play.
Our sites on these schools
Pro: You’ll draw better talent at Nebraska
Lincoln isn’t a hotbed for elite talent, but it’s a heck of a lot closer to elite talent than Corvallis is. At the very least, it’s closer to Texas, where Riley has worked hard to establish connections through the years. And no offense to the school that produced Heisman winner Terry Baker and a top-five finish in 2000, but it goes without saying that Nebraska’s got a deeper football history.
According to Rivals.com, Nebraska has averaged a recruiting class ranking of 22.2 while Oregon State has averaged 46.4 over the last five years. Recruiting has to do with more than the school itself — the coach, his staff, the culture, and the type of athlete a program aims to land — but the school plays a role. And it stands to reason that, based on nothing more than location and history, Riley’s classes will grade out better than they did at Oregon State.
Con: That might not matter as much as you think
In September 2013, RedmondLonghorn penned a piece at Football Study Hall that focused on Riley’s success in overachieving compared to recruiting rankings. And to be sure, Riley had a strong run of overachievement in the latter half of the 2000s. But if you compare a team’s F/+ performance to its four-year Rivals ranking — a simple but semi-effective way of comparing how well you’re acquiring talent and how well you’re developing it — the last five years have been a mixed bag.
4-year recruiting avg.
4-year recruiting avg.
You can only get so far looking at averages. Four-year averages are closer to even, and three-year averages work slightly in Riley’s favor, etc.
Still, recent results cloud the “Riley’s teams overachieve” picture. In the last five years, Oregon State drastically overachieved once, drastically underachieved twice, and played to its talent level twice. That Pelini had underachieved Nebraska’s average recruiting three times in the last four years may have been as clear a reason for his firing as anything else, but Riley still isn’t a no-brainer upgrade.
To the extent that we can predict how a new coach will perform, it would be safe to say that evidence suggests Riley will perform at a level pretty similar to Pelini. I guess that means we’ll figure out how far being a nice guy will get you.