LINCOLN, Neb. — Paul Chryst lost his defensive coordinator. To LSU. Mike Riley lost a beloved senior, a rock, a cornerstone. Forever.
It took three seasons for James Franklin to post a winning Big Ten record at Penn State, to steer a mighty vessel into calmer, happier waters. Riley managed to do it at Nebraska in less than two.
As the days in November get shorter, so, too, does the list of viable candidates for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Jim Harbaugh? Check back after a few weeks of The John O’Korn Show. Urban Meyer had to figure out a way to replace one wave of NFL-ready talent with the next wave.
Riley had to figure out a way to heal a team’s soul.
You could make a case, and a good one, for Franklin, who steered the Lions (8-2, 6-1), from the hot seat to one of the hottest teams on the planet. Or for Chryst at Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2), where the Badgers navigated the most difficult schedule in program history, overcame a series of injuries to star after star, and kept on pounding the rock.
But no coach in the Big Ten has had to endure the kind of six months Riley’s Cornhuskers have. Not a one.
The Big Red’s 2016 was a season that might’ve gone completely off the rails at any point along the path, the road to 8-2 strewn with the kind of potholes that could bring a grown man to tears.
In July, senior punter Sam Foltz was killed in a one-car accident, before the roster had even properly convened for preseason camp. In August, wide receivers coach Keith Williams was arrested, charged with misdemeanor DUI and suspended.
In September, the Huskers trailed then-No. 22 Oregon — the first big litmus test of a season in which the ceiling was still uncertain — 20-7 at Memorial Stadium before rallying for a 35-32 victory.
In October, they were every pundit’s pick to gag at Indiana. They didn’t.
In November, after a historic, irredeemable 62-3 loss at Ohio State before a national audience on ABC, the Big Red could’ve given in to the doubts, could’ve let a surging, physical Minnesota crew just finish the job.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. wouldn’t let them.
Riley wouldn’t let them.
“With (the Buckeyes loss), he told us that’s not the team we are,” Huskers tight end Trey Foster recalled. “That’s not how we play, and we let that game get away from us.”
It happens. Even here. The storm rolls in. The waves crash across the bow. The ship bobs and weaves and twists in the wind.
There’s Riley, on the bridge, eyes forward, both hands on the wheel. Unflappable.
“And that helps you to not have to guess (what) you’re going to get out of this,” Foster continued. “Because then you know, ‘Well, OK, every single time, we’re going to talk about the same things. We’re going to be talking about how we can fix what we did wrong and how we can take advantage of what we did well and what we did right and continue to do those things.’ So I can appreciate it greatly.”
Same message, same mantra, victory or defeat. Sunshine or rain.
Offensive line in shambles? Special teams breakdowns? Quarterbacks falling apart? Push through. Never surrender. Never blink.
When fate was cruel, Riley was kind.
“That’s what the great teams have,” Foster said. “Consistent effort. Consistent purpose. Consistent attitude. Consistent execution. And it’s not really that hard to wrap your mind around the fact the Coach Riley and (former) Coach (Bo) Pelini preach the same thing: Consistency.”
One goal, one vision, one heartbeat. Conventional wisdom dictates the best coach is the one who manages to do more with less. The more you threw at the Huskers, the more they’ve found a means to deliver.
Which says a heck of a lot about the crew. And, now that you mention it, says even more about the captain.