LINCOLN, Neb. — Whenever Mike Riley faces off against Paul Chryst, the Nebraska coach says it’s almost like coaching against family.
In fact, Riley said, coaching against Chryst is like coaching against his father, which Riley did in as an assistant coach with Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1985.
It’s not exactly the same, Riley said, but it’s close.
“We were best friends way back when,” Riley said about Chryst during his Monday press conference. “I was fortunate enough to get to know him back in 1991, we coached many years together. Loved every minute of it.”
On Saturday, Riley and Chryst will face off for the second time as head coaches when Riley’s seventh-ranked Cornhuskers travel to Wisconsin to face Chryst’s No. 11 Badgers. But it will be far from the first time the two shared a football field.
The two met in 1991, when Riley was the head coach of the San Antonio Riders of the now-defunct World League of American Football. Riley hired Chryst as the wide receiver, running backs and tight ends coach of the club, whose quarterback in 1991 was current Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
After the team was disbanded in 1992, Riley went to USC while Chryst floated around mid-major colleges and the Canadian Football League until 1997, when the two reconvened at Oregon State from 1997-98. When Riley scored the San Diego Chargers head coaching job in 1999, he brought Chryst along to be his tight ends coach.
“He’s a great coach,” Riley said. “I loved all my time to be able to talk football with him.”
After coaching on opposite ends of the country (Chryst at Pitt, Riley at Oregon State), the two joined the Big Ten before last season and now share a date with each other every season to battle for the Big Ten West. This year’s winner will likely be the favorite to represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis in December.
Riley and Chryst share similar football philosophies. Some of the play calls in Chryst’s playbook are exactly the same as Riley’s, Riley said on Monday.
It’s comforting knowing the opposition, he added. But this year, it’s a little different. This year, the two have teams they’re not exactly used to.
“It’s not Paul against Mike, it’s the Badgers against the Huskers,” Riley said of the matchup on Saturday. “And that’s the way it should be.”
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) has been bouncing back and forth between quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook, a redshirt freshman, and Bart Houston, a senior. That has made it difficult for the Badgers to find a groove offensively. The Badgers are 10th in scoring and eighth in total offense in the Big Ten.
For Nebraska (7-0, 4-0), senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong is a scrambler and a gunslinger, which isn’t what Riley has generally had at quarterback as a head coach. And though Nebraska is one of the top offenses in the conference, both Riley and Chryst are working on the fly this year, Riley said.
“As you can tell our approach has changed because of our quarterback and what we’re doing,” Riley said. “And so has his in some fashion.”
Because of that, and because of the way he anticipates the game progressing on Saturday, Riley said he doesn’t expect either coach to really have an advantage.
“I don’t know if it’s any really, really good help,” Riley said of the coaches’ familiarity with one another. “Because as we hope to do and as Paul will do, calling plays and setting up a game plan is all very specific to the teams that you’re playing, we won’t always know what’s coming.”
Riley said he and Chryst will likely throw curveballs at each other on Saturday, which isn’t shocking. Like most things, it’s something the two have talked about before.
“We grew up talking football that if you have something, you have to have a complement to it,” Riley said. “So that’s kind of what we’re into, anyway.”