Full disclosure: He’s biased, and Mike Riley is a longtime family friend. But if Keyshawn Johnson were walking in Bill Moos’ wingtips right now, he’d have given Riley — now Nebraska’s former football coach — one more year to save his bacon.
“I’d probably have given him another year, but if he’d gone 4-8 again, I’d run his ass out of town. I’d have run him out of town,” the former ESPN analyst and father of Cornhuskers freshman wideout Keyshawn Johnson Jr. told Land of 10. (Johnson Jr. left the university before the season but is expected to return for the spring semester.)
“[You go] 6-7, 9-4, 4-8, and then if he did have another 4-8 year, I would say, ‘Man, you gotta go, coach. Man, I love you to death. You’ve been here four years with me, but you keep giving me 4-8, you’re getting ready to get me fired.’
“And that’s OK. If I was the athletic director, and he was a friend of mine, I would’ve told him, ‘Hey, man, Coach, love ya, but you’re 4-8 two years in a row, you gotta go.’ That’s what I would do, but that’s me.”
‘If you don’t put enough Ws in the column, you’ll get fired’
Moos didn’t wait, letting Riley go last Saturday, a day after the Cornhuskers closed out a 4-8 season with a 56-14 home loss to Iowa — the third straight contest in which the Big Red gave up at least 50 points.
Riley was 19-19 in three seasons in Lincoln, 12-14 in league play. He was the first Nebraska coach to produce two non-winning seasons out of his first three campaigns since Bill Jennings in 1957 through 1959. The Huskers’ 8 losses were the most in a season since Jennings’ 1957 side went 1-9; that fall was also the last time a Big Red team had lost 5 games at home — at least, until 2017 came along.
Point of reference: Nebraska lost a total of three home games — three — in the entire decade of the 1990s.
“I mean, you’ve got to win, no matter where you’re at,” said Johnson, the former NFL wideout who played under Riley more than two decades ago when the latter was an assistant coach at USC.
“No matter what level you are — professional, collegiately, high school — the bottom line is the Ws, man. How many Ws are you putting in the column? If you don’t put enough Ws in the column, you’ll get fired. Which is only right. Whether people agree or disagree, Mike Riley didn’t put enough wins in the win column in a short period of time, right?”
‘Had they won 7 games, he’s probably still the coach’
And in hindsight, many preseason projections, going back as far as last spring, had pegged the 2017 Huskers to take a step back off 2016’s 9-4 mark, with national outlets earmarking the slate this fall as one that very well could have left six or more regular-season defeats on the ledger. New quarterback. New defensive coordinator. New defensive scheme. A lot of things were going to have to go right, and pretty quickly.
But not only did the stars not align — they went supernova. Key injuries, most notably to cornerback Chris Jones and tailback Tre Bryant, began to mount. The Huskers had to cling on for dear life to hold off Arkansas State in the home opener, 43-36, a contest that saw the Red Wolves drive up and down the field in what was, in hindsight, a harbinger of arguably the worst defensive season in the history of Big Red football.
‘ It just didn’t look like it was going in the right direction.’
— Former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson on the state of Nebraska football
The Cornhuskers gave up at least 50 points to an opponent on four different occasions, a feat of ignominy that no Nebraska team had ever done before. Whatever Bob Diaco was teaching the Blackshirts — unless he was teaching them how not to tackle — never seemed to take.
“Because of the fan base and the fans wanted to win and the wheels fell of a little bit there at the end, OK — how are you going to give a guy time like that?” Johnson mused. “It just didn’t look like it was going in the right direction.
“I’m not stupid … I’m very aware of what went on. And what went on wasn’t good. So at the end of the day, you don’t get any more time. You don’t get any more time. Had they won 7 games, he’s probably still the coach. Am I right or wrong?”
The man’s got a point.
But when you go oh-fer-November and drop all four games in the month by an average margin of 49-26, it’s probably a moot point, too.
“Me and my family, we’re realistic. We understand,” Johnson said. “Although Coach Riley is a friend to our family and is close to my heart, I get it. He didn’t win enough games. I would’ve fired him, too. I would’ve fired him, too.”
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