Calinger: Answers to frequently asked questions by non-sports fans in Nebraska about the football coaching situation

By J.W. Calinger
ISL Correspondent

Answers to frequently asked questions by non-sports fans in Nebraska about the football coaching situation:

J.W. Calinger

J.W. Calinger

Q: Who is Mike Riley, and why do people hate him?

A: Mike Riley was the head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, whom you may know as those guys who put on red shirts, or “jerseys”, and white pants and helmets, and play football. Riley was supposed to teach them how to play football well, and after Nebraska lost to Iowa by a score of 56-14, Huskers fans aren’t happy with how he taught his team to play. Nebraska fired Riley on Saturday.

Q: Didn’t Huskers fans like him a few years ago?

A: Some of them did. Some of them thought it wasn’t a good idea to hire him at all. Others weren’t sure, but hoped for the best.

Q: Why didn’t Nebraska just hire a better coach?

A: That’s easier said than done. See, the trouble is that before Nebraska hired Riley, they fired a coach that won nine games – that’s about 75% of the games he coached. It’s not as high a percentage as the Huskers had 20 years ago, but it isn’t bad.

When you fire a coach that won 75% of his games that season, other coaches look at your school and say, “Holy crap, if I take the job, what will they expect me to do?” They’re worried about getting fired after two or three years, and not getting a chance to build a team, which can be a bit of a project. When this happened at Nebraska, the Athletic Department had to settle for someone who would take the job. They liked Riley, because he wasn’t a complete asshole to reporters or to the people who are technically his bosses. So, they hired him and hoped he’d figure out a way to rebuild the team.

Q: What did Coach Riley do wrong?

A: In my opinion, he didn’t recruit a good offensive line – those are the five really big guys who don’t run, throw, or catch, but just block for those who do. An offensive line means everything in football. If you want to pass, you want people who will protect the quarterback long enough for him to throw the ball. If you want to run, you want people who will get the other team’s players out of the way so your guy can run it.

Our offensive line couldn’t do either one. There were times we needed two or three yards to get the first down – we’ll worry about what that means later – and we couldn’t get it by running. This embarrasses Nebraska fans who watched the team 20 years ago, when we could get those two or three yards without even thinking about it. Being consistently able to get those two or three yards when you have to makes the difference between winning and losing. In summary, Riley could recruit players who could throw, run, or catch, but couldn’t recruit players who could block, and that made his teams stink, ultimately.

Q: What exactly happened against Iowa?

A: It’s important to remember that psychology is as important to the game as skill. Confidence isn’t enough by itself, but it’s a very necessary part of the mix. Over the last month or so, the players had little confidence. They knew their coaches probably weren’t coming back next year, and they couldn’t do anything about their situation. I don’t think anyone cared as much as they were supposed to. The coaches, for their part, knew they probably weren’t coming back, so they weren’t the most motivated folks around either.

Anyway, everyone started the Iowa game fired-up, because they figured they could get a little pride and send their coach, whom they apparently liked a lot, off with a win. They even took the lead twice, which was a pretty big deal. Then things started to unravel.

I’m going to have to use a little jargon to explain when the game was really over without writing a book. With just under 7:30 left in the third quarter, Iowa had 4th-and-2 at the Huskers’ 29, They decided to try for the first down, probably to put the game out of reach. But, Nebraska stopped them. This was a big deal, because it gave us a little more opportunity for a comeback.

The Huskers got to the Iowa 35, and they went for it on fourth down, and they also failed. So, it was Iowa’s ball. At that point, the Huskers pretty much gave up. I don’t blame them any, but it’s what happened. The Hawkeyes threw one incomplete pass, then threw a 68-yard touchdown pass the next play. To add insult to injury, the player who caught that pass was from Omaha.

Iowa scored two more touchdowns before the game was over. And so, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Q: What’s going to happen now?

A: People started talking about how Scott Frost, a former Nebraska quarterback, would be a good head coach. He’s doing really well where he is now, Central Florida, and the fans like him a lot now, even though a lot of us 20 years ago, including me, thought he was kind of an asshole. Huskers fans really started liking the idea of Frost coming back to Nebraska, and there have been reports that he’s talking to the university about it.

Frost himself denies those reports. Thing is, he has a reason to deny them. Maybe he doesn’t want his team to get distracted by the idea of him leaving – I mean, look at what that did to our players. Maybe he wants his bosses to know he’ll bust his tail for them until the very end. Those are good reasons for him to say he isn’t coming to Nebraska when he really is.

On the other hand, maybe Frost really isn’t coming to Nebraska. In that case, Huskers fans are going to feel lost, unless a nationally famous coach shows up. Let’s just say it would take a lot of money and other incentives to get a coach who isn’t used to snow, to live in Lincoln, Nebraska. The athletic department could afford it, and since different people run it now than the ones from three years ago, maybe candidates will see the new head honchos as folks who will give a coach a chance.

Personally, I think the university has let people talk about Frost because it gave them hope, and hope translates into money. Thing is, they painted themselves into a corner by doing so – if they don’t bring Frost to Nebraska, or someone phenomenal, Huskers fan will be upset, and that translates into less merchandise and, maybe, fewer ticket sales.

OK, time for one more question:

Q: Why is all of this such a big deal?

A: Football is a big deal for the same reason any other fandom is. We love heroes. We love seeing people fight and win, and a football game settles things a lot more quickly than most of the ways we resolve disputes in real life. Plus, football players inspire me with their resilience and their perseverance – if they win, they celebrate, then get back to work, and if they lose, they cool off, then get back to work.

It’s hard for someone who wasn’t living here in the 90s to understand how glorious Huskers football was. No matter how lousy our weeks were, we’d tune in on Saturday, if the game was on TV – not all of them were; this was the Dark Ages – and we’d watch the Huskers mutilate their opponents, and we’d feel a lot better. The players were us, by proxy, just as a character in any popular TV show is the viewer, by proxy.

Nebraska hasn’t won a National Championship in 20 years. The Huskers did come close in 2001 or so, before Miami, a school mainly known for fielding teams full of criminals or future Baltimore Ravens players, which are the same thing, beat Nebraska soundly. The Huskers have deteriorated badly after some of the university leadership decided to make the team new and modern instead of going with the longevity that brought consistency and continuity to the team.

(By the way, since two Miami players are on the Steelers roster now, I figure, maybe the place isn’t so bad. Just saying.)

Anyway, Nebraska fans are begging for a return to the ’90s. Theoretically, it’s possible. Realistically, in this day and age, it’s really tough to re-establish the longevity Nebraska coaches had at the time, especially when a head coach could always go somewhere else. I think that’s the reason so many Huskers fans want Frost as Head Coach – he’s young enough that he could spend the next couple of decades in Lincoln.

The main obstacle involved in establishing the atmosphere back in the ’90s, I suppose, is that even if Frost does come back, Huskers fans probably will have to handle a couple of crappy seasons at first, and a few more down the road. They also will have to hope that either the NFL doesn’t call Frost, or that Frost has learned from the college head coaches who went to the NFL and promptly sucked. In other words, Huskers fans will have to be patient, and in a day and age when so many people cannot read an opinion that exceeds 140 characters, that’s a tough sell.

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