Opinion – One of the hardest things to evaluate in a football program is its future trajectory. When you look at the results from the season before they can only shed so much light on where a program is heading for the next 2-3 years.
In year 3 Mike Riley sits with a 2-2 record and lost one of his biggest supporters in former Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst last week. The AD’s firing has many fans believing that a change in head coach is potentially imminent and are already discussing who they feel would be a good replacement.
One of the things many fans should take into consideration is that turning around a program is no simple task with a quick fix. It can take several years for a coach’s preferred system, coaches, and players to mature and become successful. If you’re dramatically changing systems it can take even longer to make the necessary changes to get back on track.
There certainly are exceptions to that when you look at the college football landscape. Coaches such as Bob Stoops and Nick Saban who won national championships early in their careers are prime examples of a quick fix but are certainly the exception, not the rule.
When you look closely at successful head coaches you’ll see a host of characteristics that stand out above everything else. The first, and sometimes most important, is the ability to recruit difference makers that fit the coaches scheme and give them time to develop in the program. The next is the head coach’s ability to make hard decisions relating to players and personnel. The last component is the coach’s ability to buy into the traditions and culture of the program.
While there are many out there, two recent examples of head coaches turning around struggling programs are Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and former South Florida head coach Willie Taggart.
Former wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney was fortunate enough to take over a program he doubled as the recruiting coordinator for and after becoming the head coach reeled in 6 straight top 25 recruiting classes. (per 247 sports)
Swinney continued with Rob Spence’s balanced offensive attack and slowly began transitioning to the pro-style offense they run today. Coach Swinney went 15-12 in his first two years before reeling off 6 straight 10+ win seasons along with a showing in the 2015 national championship and winning it all in 2016.
In addition to improvements on the field, Swinney brought the “Tiger Walk” tradition to Clemson that helps connect their fans directly to the football team before each game. He’s also shown that he truly cares about individual fans as well as defended Clemson fans tenacity, a trait Husker fans clearly share with them.
South Florida head coach Taggart on the other hand, led USF with slow and steady improvement each year. He recruited players that fit his run-pass option (RPO) offense after moving away from a more pro-style offense. His steady changes and guidance improved USF from a 2-10 team in his first year to 10-2 in year four that ranked 19th in the country.
Neither of these coaches had an easy transition and having time to implement changes was a big part of their long-term successes. Patience is something that Husker fans need to give Mike Riley as he moves through his third season as the Huskers head coach instead of calling for the next head coach after the administration made a change in athletic directors.
At the same time, Husker fans have a right to be disappointed with how things stand today and should know that their voices help hold the coaches and university accountable to a winning standard. The drawback of 20 years of moving into mediocrity is that Husker fans tolerance for mediocrity has run thin and time is exactly what the program needs right now to mature under coach Riley.
A look at the current depth chart shows that Mike Riley has done a good job of building depth with guys that fit his scheme and program but that they are just starting to contribute and need time to mature inside of the program. The majority of starters are holdovers from the prior coaching staff or recruits who were part of the transitional recruiting class Mike Riley helped keep together when he took over.
While this year’s team has struggled out of the gate, Mike Riley has shown he has the moxie to make tough decisions for the long-term good of the program something that several prior coaches failed at. Riley has fired several coaches, overhauled the Huskers back office, and beefed up the Huskers social media and recruiting departments all before the start of his third season at Nebraska.
In turn, Riley has brought in top tier coaches to help with the programs metamorphosis on the field. Coaches Trent Bray, John Parrella, Donte Williams, Scott Booker, Bob Diaco and Keith Williams are all improvements over their predecessors and have raised the bar both on the field and off of it.
It’s worth noting that the walk-on program under Mike Riley is stronger than it’s been in a decade under the leadership of former Husker Kenny Wilhite. Wilhite has done a tremendous job in ensuring there is a strong showing of walk-on candidates at every home game. He and Riley have brought in guys such as Jordan Paup, Cody Liske, Kade Warner, and Branden Hohenstein among countless other talents to the program.
At this point, any change after year three would set the Husker program back another 4-5 years as the new staff would have to reboot the current reboot. The biggest talking points Husker Nation should be discussing isn’t who the next head coach should be but rather if what they do to support giving Mike Riley the time necessary to truly turn things around.
Will it happen? Only time will tell.