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Mike Riley might not be a good coach, but firing him now is probably a bad idea

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Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Riley might not be a good coach*, but firing him now** is probably a bad idea***

*

Mike Riley might not be a good coach...

As the seconds ticked down to zero on Saturday, most of Husker Nation had come to one of two very specific conclusions:

  1. Mike Riley should not be allowed to leave West Lafayette and maybe Shawn Eichorst should be left wherever he was that afternoon
  2. Perhaps this program was left in a much larger crater when we fired Bo Pelini and the future is as dark as it has ever been
I would argue that neither of these premises are completely rational, but this seems like a good jumpoff point, right? In what is legitimately the worst season in Nebraska's recent history - if not arguably the worst season (heartbreak wise) ever - there is definitely a fallout coming. The degree of difference between winning and losing is razor thin at the Power 5 level, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers have been skating that line for years. Unfortunately, that miniscule margin of error has reared its ugly head in Lincoln, and close wins are now close losses, leading a fanbase to start pointing fingers. And where would you point in that situation? The new variable: Mike Riley.

That isn't to say that Riley has been playing with a full deck. The loss to Purdue included injuries to the starting RT, QB, leading WR, most dynamic playmaker on offense, and RB. Defensively, the depth at LB has been made known, but to add to those woes, Nebraska is also thin across the entire secondary with both a suspended CB and missing Safety (due to a family funeral). If you did not see the potential for what happened on Saturday, you weren't paying attention. As has been noted vociferously by our friends at Corn Nation, this team is playing the walk-on game like a champ. If you believed Bo Pelini's biggest weakness was development, then this is the year we are paying the piper. Ironically, Mike Riley is sitting in One Memorial Drive, and Bo Pelini is reaping no further specific repercussions in Youngstown.

All that in mind, Mike Riley still might not be a good coach. That statement is absolutely fair despite the protestations of 'give him time' and 'this is Bo's fault'. Especially due to the fact that any of these statements are far from mutually exclusive. Specifically, the question becomes more of a, "Despite the contextual evidence of previous difficulty in his job, is Mike Riley's successes sufficient evidence to point to him being the right man for this job? Is it possible that mistakes were made?" I am not in a position to answer this as even a cratering of this level begs more questions than answers initially. Were we duped? Is this Bo's fault? Is this bad luck? What is the aberration? Regardless of the lack of specific answers, I will say that I am far more open to the discussion of Mike Riley's preparedness for 2015 than I was five games ago. It really has been a tough year.

**
...but firing him now...

The advantages of firing a coach seem to rest on varying incentives for those in power. The first - and generally the most popular - is that by firing a coach, you save your own job as AD. Specifically, you usurp power, prove to a rabid donor and fan base that you believe your school is better than it currently stands, and will not rest until things are made right. This is all fine and dandy, but one would have to also assume that in this scenario, the damage is specifically brought upon by the party is all his - or her depending on the sport - fault. We see this happen all the time, though. Right now, there are close to ten open jobs in football, and we are barely 75% of the way through 2015. In any given  year, there are maybe ten really happy fanbases, 15 additional so-so bases, and somewhere around 40 fairly unhappy fanbases. If you just happen to fall into that first group, you scoff at the notion that someone would pull the trigger so easily, but in the thick of things, it's hard to not see the light at the end of a pink slip.

Nebraska fans are specifically accustomed to this approach as we have fought and scratched to national notoriety for the seventeen years since the last time we were notable. Yes, we played for a national championship in 2001, but one would argue that the decline was already on. Getting trucked by Colorado that year was the beginning of the end, but even the most fervent Nebraska fan would hate to believe that. Still, just like you would probably never believe that in fifteen years Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama, or any of the other 'elite' teams of the 2010s would falter and pray for their former self, we know these things come and go as they please.

Of course, the other side to firing a coach is that sometimes you have to move on.

Which brings me back to the firing cycle. Nebraska is on its third coach in nine years, which isn't an absurd clip when you realize one of those guys got seven seasons, but the 60+ wins in that span makes it a tougher pill to swallow. Hubris is not one of Nebraska's strong suits, and it seems the fans in red have been paying their price for years now. Still, if you fire your new coach, what is the plus side? Notre Dame, a team not unlike the Cornhuskers in that they have definitely played that coaching carousel game as well, is a cautionary tale. Yes, the Fighting Irish are more relevant than the Cornhuskers right now, but part of that is that Notre Dame continually asked the question, "Is the next guy better than the current guy, and is the risk worth it?" In what is certainly more of a longterm play, played out in a short term sense, Nebraska could at least benefit from thinking about things from that perspective. Still, Notre Dame has not reached their full potential either. These things are far from an exacting science.

Bottom line? Firing a coach is a risky business. Still, it has to always at least be in play.

***
...is probably a bad idea

One year is not enough time to judge a coach. Yes, Mike Riley's past history is judged by expectations of mediocrity. I understand that. He is also a proven coach who has shown flashes of brilliance, and he - like most coaches - deserve more than a passing chance at righting the ship. Going back to our friends at Notre Dame, you cannot get yourself in a place where you are paying multiple staffs, handcuffed by buyouts, different schemes, and inconsistency. That is not a recipe for success. Coaches - especially in the college game - need time to bring in kids that fit their point-of-view, their system, their culture. Starting over puts your team in a place where three classes - the core of your team - are part of three different, distinct camps with loyalties resting where they may. Sure, it's about the N on the helmet, but these are people with human instincts. It's less than ideal, and ultimately causes as many problems as it may solve.

That in mind, changes will need to be made. Whether it is at the Defensive Coordinator position, the Secondary, or even Offensive Coordinator, Mike Riley will have to pay the price for what has turned into an abysmal year. Yes, it seems unfair that a few bounces here or there changes this entire conversation, but the expectation is a bowl game. That is the minimum, not the goal. Beyond being spoiled, Nebraska enjoys advantages in history, finances, facilities, and support that most of America dream of. Cratering is not ideal, and fair or unfair, the clock is on for Riley to show some real strides towards improvement. That doesn't mean he should be fired, but there will have to be some payment for a bad year. Still, it's not that easy, and these are real people with complex pieces affecting their every day. There doesn't seem like an easy answer.

Which like I said before, Mike Riley might not be a good coach, but firing him now is probably a bad idea.

--

Ed Note: I totally stole the concept for this article from an Eater article I read a couple of weeks back about the elimination of tipping at a chain of popular NYC establishments. I am not nearly creative enough to come up with that vehicle. So, in honor of their wonderful editorial powers, and my blatant copying of their format, please give them a click. It's a really interesting piece, so it's not like it's a wasted click either. Cool? Cool.