Nebraska hired a good coach but can Mike Riley be a great recruiter?

Dan WetzelColumnist

Nebraska surprised much of college football by plucking Mike Riley out of Oregon State, where across two stints he'd been the head coach for 14 seasons, including consecutively since 2003.

Riley, 61, is a likeable guy, approachable, smart and clearly a competent coach. Corvallis isn't the easiest place to win but he built a respectably successful program there. He's also spent three years – 1999-2001 – as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers and previously won the 1988 and 1990 Grey Cups in Canada with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The guy can coach.

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It's one of numerous reasons for Nebraska fans to be high on the hire. Here are two more:

Texas and California.

The greatest challenge for the Cornhuskers is finding talent. This has always been the biggest hurdle for a program in a state of just 1.8 million people that produce few, if any, top recruits.

Counting the current senior class, Nebraska high schools have produced just one four-star recruit in the last four years (current Husker linebacker Josh Banderas). There have been zero five stars.

Mike Riley, the Pac-12's longest-tenured head coach, is leaving for Nebraska. (AP)
Mike Riley, the Pac-12's longest-tenured head coach, is leaving for Nebraska. (AP)

Nebraska has to import talent. That was the case when Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne ran a dynasty and that's the case now. Tommie Frazier (Florida), Turner Gill (Texas), Mike Rozier (N.J.), Broderick Thomas (Texas), Irving Fryar (N.J.), Ndamukong Suh (Oregon), Ameer Abdullah (Alabama) and so and so on packed up and moved out of state.

While it was never easy to sell kids to come to Lincoln, it's a lot tougher now. Lincoln is still a fine place, but so too now are a lot of other places.

The Cornhuskers are anything but bad – they've won at least nine games in each of the last seven seasons. To return to being truly great though, they need better players … and more of them.

Nebraska used to have a significant advantage over other schools in budgets and facilities thanks to its loyal fan base. For decades, when gate receipts and its ancillaries (i.e. parking, advertising) were the dominant revenue force, Nebraska owned an advantage. Mammoth Memorial Stadium has been sold out for every game dating back to 1962.

These days, though, television money, mostly evenly distributed though conference-wide deals, is what funds the sport. As such, pretty much everyone has cash and facilities and so-called "commitment."

There was a time, in the 1970s, when Nebraska was the cutting-edge program for weight training and nutrition, even coming up with the then revolutionary idea of having players stick around campus in the summer to train year round. They used to sell recruits, particularly offensive linemen, on their massive, football-only weight room.

Needless to say everyone has that these days.

The competitive landscape for Nebraska is far more challenging. A great high school player in Texas today doesn't just have Texas or Oklahoma to choose from. There's a reason Baylor and TCU are fighting for a playoff spot: they have expensive new stadiums, top line facilities, lots of television exposure and the cash reserves to keep great coaches from leaving. Meanwhile the nearby state of Missouri, which the Huskers long plucked stars out of (Grant Winstrom, for instance) is no longer easy pickings, what with the rise and SEC membership of Mizzou.

Then there is the 2011 move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. It was done because of the apparent instability of the Big 12, some strained relations with the University of Texas and, of course, the promise of lots of Big Ten television money. Chancellor Harvey Perlman saw it as a lifeline for the program.

Recruiting, however, only became more challenging. Gone was a conference with ties to the talent rich state of Texas – where the Huskers would annually play at least two games. So, too, was a league that was perceived to be exciting, modern and wide open.

In was a Big Ten that lacks the presumption of cool with high school recruits. Nebraska was now just one more tradition-rich, big-stadium team working over the already well-worn recruiting turf of the Midwest. As much as the Huskers have to offer, they aren't appreciably different than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State or Notre Dame.

An additional hurdle arose when the Big Ten expanded again, adding Maryland and Rutgers, and divided the conference into two regional divisions, putting the Huskers in the West.

The New Orleans Saints took Brandin Cooks (10), who played for Mike Riley at OSU, in the first round of the 2014 draft. (USA TODAY Sports)
The New Orleans Saints took Brandin Cooks (10), who played for Mike Riley at OSU, in the first round of the 2014 draft. (USA TODAY Sports)

Suddenly Nebraska wasn't going to enjoy lots of trips to the Big Ten's most talent-strong regions – Ohio, Detroit, Western Pennsylvania – and play games against other exciting brand names. It was, instead, locked into a division with a lot of uninspiring teams representing low-population areas in the mostly rural Upper Midwest.

This wasn't the deal the Huskers signed up for originally. There has been plenty of buyer's remorse among the fan base.

Which brings us to Mike Riley, California and Texas.

Nebraska needs a strong coach but it also needs a recruiter. While Riley was hardly luring top-five classes to Oregon State (virtually impossible), he has spent decades mining two of the most important regions in the recruiting game. He has built long-standing relationships, familiarity and a positive reputation with high school coaches in those places. At OSU, you can't survive on local talent either.

His current Oregon State roster features 38 players from California and nine from Texas. The Beavers' 2015 recruiting class at the time of his departure featured commitments from six more Californians and five more Texans.

This is about par for the course. Some have proven to be stars: Jacquizz Rodgers (Texas), Brandon Browner (California), Brandin Cooks (California), Markus Wheaton (Arizona), Andy Levitre (California).

These are the places Riley knows and with the power, history and might of Nebraska, he should be able to bring in some highly decorated talent, especially skill players.

No, it isn't easy. It isn't the Osborne years.

This is where Riley needs to be great. He isn't an appreciably better coach than Frank Solich or Bo Pelini, who couldn't consistently get the Huskers back into the national elite. Perhaps he is better at identifying, recruiting and developing talent.

Time will tell, but California and Texas are good places to start looking.

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