When I was younger, my entire life ambition was to be so rich that I could hire all of my friends to hang out with me and make money. It was a simple enough premise, and my small group of friends and I would talk about the future as if we had already made it. Now currently 32 years old - and not so rich that I can hire all of my friends to hang out with me and make money - the dream is mostly dead, but every once in a while a joke is still made.
Very few people have the opportunity to work with their friends. It’s just a fact of life. Sure, you can make friends where you work, but bringing your friends with you is tough. Of course, that is exactly what Mike Riley did when he came to Nebraska.
Former Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker spent the majority of his professional career with Head Coach Mike Riley. Working with Riley as he coached for the USC Trojans, Oregon State Beavers, San Diego Chargers, Oregon State Beavers again, and eventually at Dear Ol’ Nebraska U, Mark Banker was a stalwart of the experience. Working as a friend, a sounding board, and a loyal ally, you couldn’t argue the value he brought to Lincoln. Sure, maybe a splashier name would have been more fun, but we all understood the game.
Then year one happened.
Nebraska - bereft of the benefit of luck - was its own worst enemy. Defensively, DBs were constantly confused as to where they needed to be, and for all of the misgivings of the Bo Pelini era, fans were not ready to concede a terrible defense. Late game situations became more and more dire as defenders became more out of position, and while you could argue the athleticism wasn’t where it needed to be - which is a fair point - the reality is that Mark Banker’s defense might have also been installed poorly.
Of course, friends get second chances. These great adventures are a whole lot less by yourself, and while Nebraska was making some progress at the end of 2015, you just wondered what the future would hold. Turns out, initially it held good things.
There were some cracks in the foundation, but that fast start to 2016 had fans wondering what the ceiling of this team really was. Sure, ‘run the damn ball’ was a little frustrated at some coaching decisions, but winning cures all, right? Then 62-3 happened... and 40-10... and probably what was the final nail in the coffin, Tennessee ran all over Nebraska’s defense to a 38-24 win that could have been worse.
Then it happened. Mike Riley fired his friend over the phone.
Now, let’s all take a gigantic step back here for a second and think about that. I don’t know if any of you have had to fire someone, but it’s a deeply unsettling moment. Even when you don’t like the person, telling another human being that they are no longer employed is a really awful thing to go through. Now amp that up about 1000x as it has been a guy who supported Riley for almost 20 years in a row.
Obviously many articles have been written about what happened next. Famed Defensive Coordinator - and beautiful human being - Bob Diaco would be the new white knight who would, and will, lead Nebraska into its next era of Blackshirts.
Of course, that still ignores the reality of the situation for Mike Riley, and takes me back to the very first point. Everyone wants to work with people they trust. Everyone wants to bring their friends along for the ride because it feels good. For all of the ink spilled about venerable nice guy Mike Riley, the decision to let go of his friend - over the phone at that - sticks with me as I try and figure out where this team is headed. College football is an awfully difficult and competitive landscape. At any given point in time, it feels like a zero sum game of eyeballs, donations, fans, and tweets. Can you get that next kid to commit? If he does, does that mean you get a championship?
Nebraska is starving for success, and maybe they are on the cusp of something great. But, for a brief moment, it’s worth remembering the costs to get there. Sure, a lot of you will say, “don’t hire your friends in the first place,” but if we’re completely honest with ourselves, it’s hard not to do that when given the power. If Nebraska’s defense turns it around this year, and the Cornhuskers make some noise, that decision will be praised for years to come. However, in that moment where Mike Riley had to tell his best friend he was fired, I can’t imagine he was thinking about that. He was just thinking about how bad it felt to make that decision.