Mike Riley and the maddening truth about football coaches

We who follow football closely, year after year and decade after decade, know that football coaches are usually conservative creatures — if not on a granular level, certainly on a larger one.

Maybe a coach such as Bill Parcells — one of the all-time greats at the pro level (did you know he was also a head coach at Air Force in the late 1970s?) — made a lot of his bones by being aggressive on fourth and one over the years. In a certain sense, Parcells was not as conservative as his peers. However, beyond that granular level, Parcells certainly was conservative in that he liked to win by bludgeoning you to death with the old-time formula of a strong running game, a punishing defense, and sound special teams.

When you examine the histories of pro and college football, and when you survey the modern landscape, you will certainly find several coaches — Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach, Chip Kelly, just to name a few — who have broken from the mold at one point or another. However, the vast majority of coaches, either in specific gameday practices or in their overall outlook on football, reflect conservative inclinations.

Let’s establish a point of clarity here: This discussion is not centered around punting or going for it on fourth and one. In other words, we’re not talking about the more “granular” or “situationally specific” representation of conservatism in football coaching. This is a discussion of the more dispositional or philosophical manifestation of a conservative view of football.

What does this mean? It might sound complicated, but it’s very simple.

Play-specific or situationally-specific football conservatism is connected to the particular choice Coach A makes in Situation B. Does he go for it, punt, or kick a field goal?

Dispositional or philosophical football conservatism is rooted in the fundamental points of emphasis a coach brings to work, and how he tries to get his team to succeed. If you are dispositionally conservative as a football person — whether that’s as a player, coach, fan, or TV analyst — you are focused more on the elimination and reduction of mistakes than on the creation of big plays. It’s not that big plays don’t matter, but more of your focus is devoted to the ability to minimize errors and not give away points or possessions.

You basically want to conserve football resources, wasting nothing. You want to protect what you already have, to secure the gains and the leverage your team has attained.

“If we don’t turn the ball over, boys, we’re going to win.”

“If we eliminate mistakes in the kicking game, we should be in good shape.”

“If we weed out missed assignments on defense and maintain gap integrity, we should beat this team.”

Those are all expressions of football conservatism in a larger sense: They are rooted in “not doing” more than doing. They are focused on “avoiding the bad” rather than “creating the good.”

I hasten to say at this point that nothing being said above is in any way wrong or misguided or misplaced. All of it is sound football teaching, a healthy and responsible outlook.

The application of this larger football worldview is what needs to be monitored. When dispositional football conservatism stands in the way of going for it on fourth and one, when a game situation demands going for it on fourth and one, THAT becomes a problem.

On the larger conceptual level, however, it is true that before a team can think about making plays and being devastatingly potent, it has to first work hard enough that it can minimize mistakes. This is what is truly meant when saying that football coaches are conservative creatures.

Anything which reduces risk, anything which provides a surer path to victory, is something that coaches — by nature and disposition, not necessarily their reactions to certain time-and-score situations — should embrace.

This leads us to our story and our chief lamentation after a ridiculous week five, in which some coaches plainly lost their minds… none more so than Mike Riley of Nebraska, who should plainly know better.


Before diving into Riley’s spectacular failure for the Cornhuskers at the end of Saturday’s game against the Illinois Fighting Illini, the scene must be set by noting that Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit gave this game to Riley on a platter.

Without having all three timeouts, Cubit used one of his two remaining poker chips inside the final two minutes, right after Nebraska had gained a first down. If Cubit was attending a class called “Endgame Management 101,” he would have flunked it.

Every college coach knows that since the clock stops after a team gets a first down, you don’t call timeout before your opponent’s first-down snap. The stoppage of the clock during the resetting of the chains means that the game clock will run somewhere between 20 to 25 seconds after a first-down snap. It won’t run for anything too close to 40 seconds. Cubit, by calling that timeout, gave Riley 15 to 20 free seconds. As the math would have it, Cubit robbed his team of having a chance to get the ball back with around 30 seconds left.

When Nebraska lined up with roughly a minute left, facing a third and seven at the Illini 27 and Illinois having no timeouts, the situation was plain: The Huskers just needed to kneel on the ball. They did not have to even run a legitimate scrimmage play and risk any negative outcome. (The same was true on first and second down in this series, with Illinois having used its last timeout.) A kneel-down, if done, would have taken about five seconds. Added to the 40-second play clock runoff preceding fourth down, the kneel-down would have drained 45 seconds. Factoring in five more seconds for a punt, Nebraska could have given the ball back to Illinois with no more than roughly 10 to 12 seconds left… at its own 20… WITH NO TIMEOUTS.

That’s about as safe as a coach could hope to be.

With no more than 12 seconds left and 80 yards to go (at least — Nebraska could have pinned Illinois deeper had it chosen to punt), any offense is severely constrained. It has to get roughly 30 yards on the first play; spike the ball; and then hope for one Hail Mary from midfield on the last play of the game. The window of opportunity there is scarce, and that’s being generous.

We all know about Mike Riley’s error. The obvious question is why he threw the ball when Illinois had no timeouts. The deeper question, however, the one which deserves some more extended contemplation — by Riley, yes, but also by the nationwide community of football coaches — is this:

“For all the ways in which coaches are dispositionally conservative, why do they not take knees and value the ability to give the ball to opposing offenses with full fields to drive, no more than 15-17 seconds left, and no timeouts?”

You see, this is not an isolated instance of a coach failing to do the supremely safe and (properly) conservative thing in the pursuit of victory.

THIS is what gets me, and THIS is what merits further scrutiny in a larger college football context.


I wrote about this topic before the 2015 FBS season began. Coaches — and not just any coaches, but high-quality coaches, credentialed coaches, guys who are EXCELLENT at what they do — somehow miss the boat on the topic of protecting leads with favorable timeout situations late in games.

Coaches should be the first people to embrace the opportunity to kneel on a ball three times; punt; and give the ball to the other team with 10, 12, 15 seconds left in a game and no timeouts.

Coaches should be the first people in line to welcome a scenario in which their opponent has, at most, only two plays (two chances) in which to go 80 yards… without benefit of a timeout.

For all the ways in which coaches are so dispositionally conservative, this specific aspect of college football reveals the nation’s FBS sideline sultans to be extreme risk-takers… WITHOUT any high reward to be gained.

The certain, locked-in value of Nebraska using 50 seconds in the final minute against Illinois would have brought the Huskers to the doorstep of victory. The reward of being safe nearly matched the reward of gaining that first down with a pass… only with none of the risk and none of the downside. Riley chose all of the risks associated with a pass, and all the negative consequences of a failure.

It’s not even that Riley got the situation so spectacularly wrong — that’s NOT even the worst and most puzzling part of all this.

The puzzling dimension of this and other “protect a late lead” situations in major college football is that extremely accomplished million-dollar earners — so conservative on so many occasions, and in the right ways for the right reasons — become wild risk-takers for no good reason at all.

If someone can explain this to me, that someone — whoever he or she is — should be advising the President of the United States, Fortune 500 CEOs, and should probably have a post at one of our world’s most important and vital institutions.

It is remarkable that in a billion-dollar business, coaches — those so normally concerned with minimizing risk and avoiding mistakes — can be so ignorant of their own natural inclinations in favor of living on the edge without purpose.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |