LINCOLN, Neb. – Rarely does a coach get the chance to change the direction of a program’s moral compass.
But this week, Nebraska coach Mike Riley was given that chance.
As with everything concerning Nebraska football, you have to look at the scope of it all, the generations of history and folklore, to fully grasp the now.
And while trying to digest this week, with the decision to suspend wide receivers coach Keith Williams instead of fire him after his third DUI charge, it’s important to look at the precedent that proceeds coach Mike Riley.
Because even if you’re one of the upset onlookers who thought Williams should be canned and kicked to the road, it’s clear Mike Riley is trying to change the narrative at Nebraska in terms of how the school approaches punishment.
The two most common responses I saw on social media this week about retaining Keith Williams were “slap on the wrist” and “typical Nebraska,” which probably comes from Nebraska’s sub-par track record on punishment.
Sports Illustrated detailed it best in a 1995 piece titled “Coach and Jury.” The piece explains how legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne helped players get back on the field after legal trouble. The story stems from Osborne controversially letting Lawrence Phillips back onto the team after the pre-season Heisman candidate pled not guilty to misdemeanor counts of third-degree assault, trespassing and destruction of property, after he allegedly dragged his ex-girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair.
The Phillips scandal wasn’t the first time Osborne caught flak for not kicking a player off the team for legal trouble, and the story documented cases that spanned years.
The story was damning. And maybe the most damning part of it all was this excerpt:
“I don’t tell Tom Osborne how to run the football department,” Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey said, “and he should stay out of the criminal justice system. He hasn’t done that at all.” According to Lacey, Osborne has taken it upon himself to interview witnesses in criminal cases, offered very public opinions on the probable innocence of players who have yet to stand trial and attacked the credibility of witnesses testifying against his players. In January 1994 he and an assistant even locked away a gun that had allegedly been used by one of his players in the commission of a felony.
The reputation that Osborne, and Nebraska, let people off easy came up again in 2011, when junior setter Lauren Cook was allowed back onto the volleyball team a little more than a week after she was arrested for a felony hit-and-run charge. Osborne was the Athletic Director at the time.
The narrative of Nebraska letting those involved in the program off easy has stuck around in the minds of all of those fans of teams the Huskers curb-stomped on their way to national titles in the 90s.
Which brings us to last Sunday, when wide receivers coach Keith Williams was arrested for his third DUI.
The decision on Riley’s plate was larger than I think he even realized. For the first time, he’d set the standard of what kind of coach he would be at Nebraska in punishment situations. And ultimately, he was set up for a lose-lose-lose situation.
Because in a world where seemingly every season there’s a player or a coach on some Division-I football team who is kept on the team despite a sexual assault charge, or a domestic violence charge, or a DUI, of all the coaches, Riley had the chance to be the one that stood out. Maybe if he fired Keith Williams, Riley, the guy regarded as the nicest in college football, the guy who ordered vanilla ice cream from the campus ice cream truck after practice on Saturday, maybe he could be the one to break the pattern.
In a way, it was simple. Fire Williams, be the exception, and win back a little of the disgust felt by the national public toward Nebraska. Keep him, and keep the narrative going. Be another school who looks the other way.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple, and Riley kept Williams. He’ll be suspended for two-weeks without pay, plus won’t be allowed to coach in Nebraska’s first four games, which includes a Sept. 17 matchup against powerhouse Oregon. Riley called the suspension “the most significant penalty” he’s seen for an assistant coach. Which it very well might be, besides a firing.
Still, for some, it wasn’t enough, and the backlash came.
It was Williams’ third DUI, some argued. His third. He’s a teacher. A coach. An example. His third DUI. What kind of example are you setting, coach?
Radio hosts all over the country took to Twitter to condemn Riley’s actions. An ESPN columnist called the discipline “not even close” to strong enough. Even legendary college basketball announcer Dick Vitale showed his disgust on Twitter.
And on the most basic level, they’re completely right. Riley kept Williams on staff, end of story. In a way, yeah, the narrative continues. To totally shatter the narrative, Riley would have had to kick Williams off the team immediately.
But save from showing Williams the door, there are a few major differences in how Riley approached this decision that show he’s trying to change the discussion around punishment in Nebraska.
Riley did not make excuses for Williams, he vehemently and publicly condemned his actions multiple times. Riley did not hide or protect Williams, he threw him in the lion’s pit and made him sit in front of the TV cameras and recorders and publicly give a statement to the press after he already gave one in a press release. Riley didn’t point to the fact that Williams’ charge went from a class three felony to a misdemeanor at any time. Instead he was the one who suggested the harshest punishment he could think of besides firing.
The decision to keep Williams was ultimately, Riley said, for the betterment of the student-athletes off the field, not necessarily on it.
That is, obviously, up for interpretation. But Riley acknowledged the absence of Williams during those four games will hurt Nebraska, and should hurt them, he said. And it should hurt Keith, too, he said.
That doesn’t sound a coach slapping wrists, to me. It sounds like handcuffing yourself in timeout for a bit.
I’m not here to argue whether or not Riley should or should not have kept Keith Williams on staff. That’s not my call, or my place, or my point. My point is, it’s important to take into consideration the Nebraska Mike Riley is at least trying to shape.
Earlier this summer, Riley brought Brenda Tracy to Lincoln to speak to his players about how in 1998, she was raped by two players on Riley’s Oregon State team. Riley only suspended them for one game each, and called the incident “a bad mistake.” Riley apologized to Tracy in person this summer, and is now helping promote Tracy’s message.
Riley is changing the approach both he and Nebraska’s had in the 1990s.
He’s preaching empathy for everyone involved, not just those associated with the team. He’s teaching forgiveness with consequences, punishment over wins, and some sort of justice instead of pushing the issues aside entirely.
There was no easy answer here. But what’s clear to me is a lot of programs say they’re trying to do things the right way. And whether or not you think Nebraska got it right this time, the approach to this issue shows me Mike Riley actually means it.
Chris Heady is a staff writer for Landof10 and covers Nebraska football and recruiting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @heady_chris.