LINCOLN — Mike Riley picks at a Gatorade cup of blueberries, his players shuffling around him outside the Nebraska weight room. His wife, Dee, holds his arm, ready to be escorted out of the complex.
Riley pauses for a few moments, and slowly realizes that it’s true.
This Saturday. In Oregon.
“I guess this will be the last time playing there, won’t it?” he says.
He looks away and eats a blueberry.
There are many chapters in Riley’s life in Oregon. When he learned how to throw a spiral on Oregon State practice fields in middle school. When he won a state title in high school. When he got his first paid coaching job at a small college outside Portland. When he helped turn around a program that suffered nearly 30 straight losing seasons.
And after he coached and played in more than 150 games in the state of Oregon, Saturday’s matchup between the Huskers and the Ducks will cap off Riley’s career in the state he says made him. Nebraska doesn’t have any scheduled nonconference games in the state in the near future. No bowl games are played in Oregon.
This Saturday, this is it.
Riley pops in another blueberry and smiles.
And the memories come rushing back.
Before Memorial Stadium or Autzen Stadium, before dramatic upsets in Corvallis and long bus rides on Interstate 5, there was the backyard of Bud and Mary Riley’s home.
It’s infamous, now, among those who saw it, for the backyard brawls between Mike’s friends and his younger brother Ed’s.
The Riley family moved to Corvallis in 1965, after Mike’s father, Bud, took an assistant coaching job at Oregon State.
Mike was 12. Ed was 7. And every Saturday, friends ambushed the Riley living room for a spot next to the radio.
In the Riley home, they cheered the Beavers. And win or lose, the minute the game was over, the kids spilled out into the backyard for football. To make it fair, Mike and the elders dropped to their knees, and Ed and his friends, five years younger, did what they could to draw up plays to get around the middle schoolers.
Baptized by grass stains on his jeans, this is where Mike Riley’s Oregon football connection began.
Riley spent his first year in Corvallis playing quarterback for Highland View Middle School. And when he wasn’t running the option in a red and white game uniform, he was usually making Ed run pass routes in their backyard until their mom called them inside.
A year later, the lefty Riley won the starting quarterback job at Corvallis High School.
“The thing you have to understand was Corvallis was not known for football at that time,” Ed said. “Historically, it’d been a really bad program.”
It took a year for the tide to shift.
Riley’s junior season, he and the Corvallis Spartans traveled south four hours to Medford, one of the powerhouse programs in the state, which Corvallis never seemed to be able to get past.
That evening, down two with three seconds remaining, Riley took the field at his own 20-yard line. He hiked, faked one way, then dumped off a screen pass to Donnie Reynolds, one of his best friends, who took it 80 yards for the win as time expired.
Four hours away, listening to the game on the radio, Ed and his mother ran through the house screaming. T0he youngest Riley, Pete, plunged under the bed to hide from the loud screams.
“That win was kind of actually the start of it all football-wise for Corvallis,” Ed said.
Medford won the state title that year, embarrassing Riley and the Spartans 27-0.
But a season later, Corvallis found itself in the state title again against Medford.
In his final game at Corvallis, Riley threw for two touchdowns and led the Spartans to a 22-10 state title win, the school’s first football title.
And Riley ended his first chapter in Oregon with redemption.
The education of Mike Riley
Just as the sun was setting, the 4,500 or so fans packed into Maxwell Field in McMinnville, Oregon, began counting down the clock in unison.
5 … 4 … 3 …
Amid the ruckus on the crowded Linfield College sideline, Mike Riley was engulfed in hugs from his players, who chanted along with the crowd as they counted down to the end of the 1982 NAIA Division II national title game.
2 … 1 …
When the clock struck zeros, Linfield closed out its 33-15 win, in part because Riley’s defense shut out Linfield for most of the second half.
It was around this time head coach Ad Rutschman, Riley’s first mentor, realized his 29-year-old defensive coordinator was ready. He’d seen Riley in meetings, he’d seen him on the sideline with the players. He’d watched a 24-year old football fanatic become a real coach.
“I could tell he was ready to go on and do other things,” Rutschman remembers.
Rutschman, 85 and retired, hired Riley at Linfield in 1977, giving Riley his first big break and first paid coaching gig.
He was young. He was enthusiastic. He was empathetic. And he knew football. So Rutschman had no reservations hiring the 24-year old fresh out of grad school.
Riley was the only full-time, paid assistant coach on staff. And when he wasn’t coaching the defense, he was coaching the JV baseball team or teaching racquetball classes on campus.
Linfield is important to Riley for a lot of reasons. But maybe none more than Rutschman.
“He was the best,” Riley said. “The best schooling I could have ever had.”
Ad Rutschman might be the greatest football coach you’ve never heard of. Think Tom Osborne, but for NAIA football.
He was the head coach at Linfield from 1968 to 1991, winning 183 games along the way and losing 48. He led Linfield to national titles in 1982, 1984 and 1986, and also served as the athletic director and head baseball coach for a number of years.
And besides his father, he’s the person Riley resembles most.
Rutschman believes coaching is more about teaching than anything, an adage Riley’s adopted.
Rutschman doesn’t curse. He says “by golly” and “dad-gummit” and “doggone” regularly, like Riley.
For six years, Riley learned from Rutschman by watching. On the football field, on the baseball diamond, Riley watched the way Rutschman conducted a practice, how he motivated players.
“The best teacher in sports technique I’ve ever met in my life,” Riley said.
And though Rutschman to this day insists he didn’t give Riley much advice, the impact those six years had on Riley remains evident.
In watching practice at Oregon State, Rutschman noticed similar styles of organizing the process of game week. And sometimes, when Rutschman is watching Husker games on Saturdays, he’ll recognize a play from the Linfield offense all those years ago.
But in an even broader sense, Rutschman and Linfield showed Riley the impact one person can have on a program.
Riley did end up closing his chapter in Linfield after the 1982 national title game. He was offered a position with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers soon after, and he took it. He and his wife left Oregon this time, Riley says, with a new goal in mind.
“We wanted to find our own Linfield.”
The last ride to Eugene
Under the cover of fog, the Oregon State football team trudged out of its locker room and loaded onto the bus.
Everyone took their seats. The lights clicked off, the bus rumbled into gear, and moved through the Oregon night, carrying with it a 5-6 football team, and a sulken Trent Bray.
He was a senior. The 56-14 loss at Oregon in 2005 was the last game he’d ever play for his head coach, Riley. And in the familiar 50-minute drive from Eugene to Corvallis, the shame of losing a rivalry game yet again started to consume Bray.
“Those bus rides, they’re awful,” said Bray, now Riley’s linebackers coach at Nebraska. “They’re horrible. A lot of time to think about what just happened. Too much time.”
Bray’s sat on a dimly lit bus and driven that embarrassing drive north on Interstate 5 twice. As head coach of Oregon State, Riley did it six times.
The story of Riley’s tenure at Oregon State is, for the most part, a triumphant one. In a lot of ways, he found his Linfield.
Riley won a school-record 91 games at Oregon State.
But this is where Riley’s reputation has taken a hit as a football coach. Games against Oregon. Riley has been unable to beat Oregon consistently. Some close to him think that was part of the reason he was nudged to start looking for employment elsewhere after the 2014 season.
And this is where Riley’s story is still up for him to write on Saturday. In his final chapter in Oregon, he could rewrite part of his reputation against the Ducks. He could end his story in Oregon with redemption, like he did against Medford, using lessons learned in Linfield.
“He’s more focused on just winning this game for his players than anything about himself,” Ed Riley said. “But there are some feelings, some underneath feelings that you really can’t control. I’m sure he has some of those feelings about wanting to beat Oregon.”
This is not the last time Riley will be in the state. His daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren live there. He and his wife still own a home in Corvallis. But he’ll never be on a home-state stage this big again.
And though he won’t admit it publicly, some close to him can sense that Riley knows this an opportunity.
Which is why he keeps getting asked about this final ride to Oregon. Why he has more ticket requests than he can count. And why, standing outside the Nebraska weight room, blueberries in hand, there’s a sense of excitement in Riley’s walk as he escorts his wife out of the complex to dinner.
Before he leaves for the evening, he turns around and smiles.
“This will be fun,” he says.
Nebraska at Oregon
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene
Radio: 103.1 FM (Nebraska City)