In December of 2000, Mike Riley was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers.
The USC Trojans, crashing and burning as a program, needed to be rescued from the wreckage of the Paul Hackett era.
They wanted Mike Riley. To be more specific, they wanted Mike Riley more than they wanted Pete Carroll.
However, the Chargers — not too far removed from the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history — wouldn’t let Riley out of his contract.
USC turned to Carroll, and the rest is history.
When the Trojans brought aboard Pete Carroll in December of 2000, they turned to a coach whose brief tenure as an NFL head coach was never allowed to get off the ground. NFL organizations are notoriously impatient, and for the Chargers and most teams, that impatience doesn’t help them. For the New England Patriots, who let Carroll go? Well, they had Bill Belichick to turn to. That’s a special case, to say the very least.
At any rate, the larger point is that when USC announced that Carroll was going to be its new coach, the move was not well received by USC’s fan base. The outcome of the coaching search was a fourth choice, not a first or second choice. For a program with USC’s stature, fourth choices shouldn’t become head coaches. That’s how bad things were in Los Angeles 15 years ago.
However, Carroll — convinced that he wasn’t given a fair chance to fully apply his methods in the pro game — moved to L.A. intent on establishing his way of proceeding. He left USC under a cloud when he dashed to Seattle to coach the Seahawks nearly a decade later, but in the fullness of time, Carroll’s mistakes look rather small, especially in light of the NCAA’s overreach in the USC case. History should — and probably will — regard Carroll’s exit as little more than a footnote to one of the most impressive seven-year runs in college football history.
From 2002 through 2008, USC lost two games it frankly shouldn’t have — UCLA in 2006 and Stanford in 2007, both of which cost the Trojans a shot at a national championship game appearance. Other than those two defeats, though, there’s hardly anything the Trojans left on the table over a seven-year span. The Texas defeat in the 2006 Rose Bowl stings, but Texas took that game away from USC as opposed to the Trojans giving it away. The other games USC would have loved to have won during that period — but can’t regret too much, since it was outplayed in each of them — were visits to Oregon State in 2006 and 2008.
Gee, who coached the Beavers to those two upsets in Corvallis?
Why, that would be Mike Riley, ladies and gentlemen. If you can’t join ’em (because the San Diego Chargers stand in your way), might as well beat ’em.
Now, though, Riley has joined Carroll — not at USC, mind you, but certainly in a way reminiscent of the way in which Carroll came to Los Angeles 15 years ago.
When Nebraska fired Bo Pelini, no one had Mike Riley on the radar screen as a possible successor. What made the announcement (and accompanying procurement) of Riley as the Huskers’ new head coach so stunning is that athletic director Shawn Eichorst conducted a supremely stealthy coaching search, impervious to leaks or stumbles. Eichorst moved very quickly, finding his man and bringing him to Lincoln.
If one was to compare the reaction to this hire at Nebraska to the hire of Carroll at USC, Nebraska fans have reacted more positively. USC fans were very disappointed that a lower-tier choice came their way; in Los Angeles, splashy hires are expected, and since Carroll was not a big name at the time, there was a pervasive sense that the Trojans fell far short of the mark. That feeling doesn’t exist in Nebraska — a patient allowance for the emergence of other factors in the realms of recruiting and the building of a coaching staff has shaped an overall view of Riley. Yet, just the same, no one in Lincoln felt that this was a home-run hire. This was not enthusiastically embraced as something akin to “the very thing the program needed, right here and right now.”
For all the similarities between Carroll and Riley, there are several obvious differences separating the two men. The three foremost points of differentiation between them:
1) Riley is a lot older now than Carroll was in December of 2000. This will be Riley’s last coaching job, barring an unforeseen and abrupt turn of events in the coming three years.
2) Riley is an offense-first coach, Carroll defense-first.
3) Riley has a lengthy tenure as a college head coach under his belt. Carroll owned ample college coaching experience as an assistant, dating back to the mid-1970s, but he had not tried his hand at head coaching in the college game.
We’ll just have to wait and see if these differences meaningfully affect — for better (items 2 and 3) or worse (item 1) — the trajectory of Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.
Nebraska fans can only hope Riley is even 75 percent as successful in the Heartland as Carroll was in Hollywood. If Riley can meet or come close to that target, Big Red Nation will be very, very happy… because the program will have multiple Big Ten championships to celebrate.