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Staff hires ease Riley transition to Nebraska

1/9/2015

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Mike Riley stood behind a podium at Memorial Stadium Thursday, five weeks after Nebraska announced his hiring as football coach. He traded the brown coat and red tie of his introductory news conference -- an elaborate event -- for a Husker pullover, a dark, long-sleeved shirt and casual pants.

Gone were the chancellor and athletic director from the front of seats.

This was the real Riley -- at ease, disarming, down to earth, just talking football as he handled introductions to the media of eight assistant coaches set to hit the recruiting trail next week.

"I know these people," Riley said. "I trust them."

Nebraskans are slowly learning about Riley, who later Thursday posed for a few dozen photos with fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena as the Nebraska men's basketball team defeated Rutgers.

Riley attended the game with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. They reunited at the end of Langsdorf's lone season as quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants after nine years with Riley at Oregon State.

From the afternoon visit with the media to the basketball game, it was clear on this dead-of-winter day that Riley has started to settle nicely at Nebraska. He's growing comfortable, in large part because he's got his guys with him.

Four of the eight coaches -- he plans to interview candidates soon for the still-open receivers job -- came straight from Corvallis, Oregon.

Additionally, running backs coach Reggie Davis, who reportedly turned down a chance to follow Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers to Michigan, and Langsdorf previously coached at Oregon State. Defensive line coach Hank Hughes, former defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, played in college with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.

And Charlton Warren, a holdover from Bo Pelini's staff at Nebraska, meshed well with Riley from those first days in December.

Riley's staff, it seems, serves as an extension of the head coach.

He said he looks for expertise in an assistant coach and the "right person."

"Basically, the way we want this program run," Riley said, "the way we treat people, the way we teach, the way we try to grow young men, we have to have one vision about that. They have to get it. And frankly, if they don't get it, they don't work here."

He said his philosophy in hiring assistants grew from a question Riley asked himself nearly 30 years ago as coach of the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers: What would a player want?

"They want to be coached," Riley said. "They want to be the best player they can be and they want to win games. And the other thing they want is to be treated right. And that doesn't mean easy. That means right."

Riley said he has felt a good vibe in Lincoln since he checked into a downtown hotel two days after his introduction.

The coach has long seen himself as a figure who blends in well. Not in Nebraska.

"People are interested in football," he said. "I've gathered that."

That's not to suggest the fishbowl environment bothers him.

"I appreciate the expectations and the interest," he said. "I like that. It's way better than the other way."

His staff fared well, too, in mingling with the media for nearly an hour.

Mike Cavanaugh, the 51-year-old offensive line coach, said he has dreamed his whole career of coaching at a place like Nebraska and that he long admired ex-Nebraska O-line coach Milt Tenopir. (Right answer, by the way.)

Banker said he would soon reach out to Tenopir-contemporary Charlie McBride. The new defensive coordinator shed some light on Riley's choice to leave Oregon State, saying the timing was simply right.

Trent Bray, the young linebackers coach, said he needed about "one second" to accept Riley's offer to follow him to Nebraska.

Warren, shielded from interviews in his first season at Nebraska, displayed the engaging personality that appealed to Riley last month.

Questions remain, of course. How, for instance, will he recruit the state of Nebraska, which historically produces limited top-end talent but, with no exceptions, has helped formed the backbone of the Huskers' championship-caliber teams?

The state sends a handful of players annually to Power 5 programs and walk-ons to Lincoln equipped with the desire to push Nebraska's imported stars on and off the field.

Riley opted not to retain popular assistant Ron Brown, who coached for Pelini, Frank Solich and Tom Osborne and spent 17 seasons in charge of the receivers. Brown could have helped Riley facilitate relationships with Nebraska high school coaches.

Instead, Riley said he plans to create a position on his support staff to oversee in-state recruiting.

His challenge is great. But Riley and his staff don't figure to wilt in the face of obstacles. Six of the nine in place, including Riley, have coached in the NFL.

As Riley mentioned, they haven't lost a game yet. They haven't won anything, either. Five weeks after Nebraska's big announcement, all looks nice and comfortable for Riley and his staff. They handled the questions Thursday with the savviness you'd expect from an eager, smart and experienced group.

Substantive answers, though, come later.