LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska fired coach Mike Riley on Saturday after three seasons in which he was unable to return the Cornhuskers to national prominence let alone make them a factor in the Big Ten.
Riley was under contract through February 2021 and is due a buyout of more than $6.6 million.
The Cornhuskers finished the season 4-8 after a 56-14 loss at home to Iowa on Friday. The four wins were the program’s fewest since going 3-6-1 in 1961.
Linebackers coach Trent Bray is staying on to serve as interim head coach until a permanent coach is hired.
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“I had five weeks to observe and assess the Nebraska football program,” said athletic director Bill Moos, who was hired last month to replace the fired Shawn Eichorst. “From the very beginning I wanted to weigh my options, and one of those was retention. During that period of time we went 1-4 and had three blowout losses, and I didn’t feel the program was progressing like I hoped it would.”
After Moos’ news conference, Riley met with reporters for about 10 minutes and said even though he wished he had been given more time, he understood why Moos made the decision.
“The opportunity to be here, it’s like that old song: I could have missed the pain but I would have had to miss the dance,” Riley said. “I loved it. I loved the opportunity to coach here.”
Riley, 64, said he planned to devote himself to being a “granddaddy” for the time being.
“I still feel real young and ready to coach,” he said, “but at the same time there might be other plans for me.”
UCF coach Scott Frost, the quarterback on the 1997 Nebraska team that split the national championship with Michigan, is the popular choice of the fans to replace Riley.
Frost has No. 13 UCF 11-0 and playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game next week against No. 17 Memphis.
“He’s obviously a Nebraskan, and he’s getting a lot of attention from several other schools,” Moos said. “Scott is someone I am considering but I’m being very sensitive to the fact he’s still coaching a team and having a heck of a run.”
Riley was 19-19 and lost 12 of the last 18. Nebraska had losing records two of Riley’s three seasons.
He was considered a surprise hire when Eichorst brought him in from Oregon State. Known as the “nicest guy in college football,” Riley was the antithesis of the coach he replaced, the volatile Bo Pelini.
Riley won only 54 percent of his games in two stints totaling 14 years at Oregon State. But he was able to field mostly competitive teams in the Pac-12 with limited resources and had a reputation for developing quarterbacks and pulling the occasional big upset.
The Nebraska brand attracted him, and he and his wife looked at the opportunity in Lincoln as “one last great adventure” in a career that has spanned 43 years.
Unlike Pelini, Riley easily engaged with fans. He and his staff were widely praised for their recruiting acumen and ability to open a pipeline from California.
What on-field success Riley achieved couldn’t be sustained. The Huskers won their first seven games in 2016 and were as high as No. 7 in The Associated Press poll. But an overtime loss at Wisconsin and 59-point loss at Ohio State were on the front end of a 2-4 finish.
Riley responded by firing his friend and longtime defensive coordinator Mark Banker and hiring Bob Diaco. Riley also had a new quarterback this year in Tanner Lee, who was a better fit for the pro-style offense.
The slide continued. A September loss at home to Northern Illinois was the first bad sign. Soon after Eichorst was fired.
It never got much better on the field for the Huskers. Lee struggled with interceptions, and the defenders didn’t take to Diaco’ 3-4 system. Diaco made bizarre remarks critical of his players after a November loss to Northwestern, including a zinger about the Huskers not knowing how to tackle properly when he first saw them in a live practice in the spring.
Nebraska gave up 50 points in four games, including each of the last three. Neither had happened before in the program’s 128-year history. The 2017 Huskers also were only the second team — Bill Callahan’s 2007 squad was the first — to give up more than 400 points.
Nebraska now embarks on its fourth coaching search since Frank Solich was fired in 2003.
The next coach will take over a program where expectations are very high and patience is short. The Huskers rank in the top five for all-time wins in the Bowl Subdivision, and Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne won five national championships from 1970-97.
The Huskers’ most recent conference title came in 1999, and they’ve been largely irrelevant on the national level since they sneaked through the backdoor into the national championship game in 2001 and lost to Miami.
“Our storied fan base is fractured and fragile and that’s very concerning to me,” Moos said. “These fans have been through a lot over the last 20 years. They and the university and certainly the players and all involved, in my opinion, deserve to be in a position to be back competing for championships in the Big Ten Conference and nationally. That’s going to be the intent.
“I told the players today nobody wants to go 4-8. I want to get this program to the point where we’re disappointed if we go 8-4.”
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