I suspect that I'm in the minority of Husker fans that wasn't terribly surprised that Mike Riley made more changes on the Nebraska football coaching staff. That being said, I also know that I'm in the minority of Husker fans who don't think Mike Riley is going to work out long-term. So perhaps I've been operating under the assumption that changes were going to come one way or another, and likely over the next year.
Brian Stewart always seemed like a "short-timer" in Lincoln to me; his arrival in Lincoln was a marriage of convenience. Stewart was looking at head coaching jobs before a mutual parting of the ways with Maryland in February 2015, while Riley needed to find a secondary coach quickly after Charlton Warren bolted for North Carolina after signing day. He went looking last offseason as well, but in the end, ended up back at Nebraska for one final season. I suspect that being the defensive coordinator for Rice wasn't the job he was hoping to get, but it's the one he got.
Mark Banker has been tied to the hip with Riley throughout Riley's head coaching career, which is why many fans were surprised he was let go. I wasn't all that surprised, as I detected some friction between them last spring. First, Banker seemed to publicly disagree with Riley's decision to fire Hank Hughes, and then Banker wasn't included in the interviews for his replacement. That seems odd to not have the defensive coordinator in on the interviews for a defensive line coach.
Then, there was the departure of Greg McMullen at last year's spring game. Mike Riley seemed to know two days before the game, and McMullen told the rest of the team before the game.
Banker asked reporters what McMullen's decision was after the spring game. Clearly, Banker was out of touch with Riley and his team in that case. Putting all that together, I had come to the conclusion that Banker and Riley's relationship wasn't nearly as strong as we thought. That thought came to mind again when Banker seemed to be awed by Iowa's punishing practice habits after the Huskers got demolished by the Hawkeyes. Again, were Banker and Riley still on the same page?
In fairness to Banker, he was the fastest coordinator to recognize that the Oregon State philosophies (that weren't really working there anymore) weren't working at all at Nebraska in 2015; he junked much of the quarters coverage he wanted to implement and adapted some of the philosophies that the players ran before. And the defense got better. A lot better. But the problem is that if Nebraska is going to contend for championships, the defense has to get even better than this. It can't be allowing Iowa to hang 40 on the Huskers.
Many Husker fans have taken to saying that Nebraska has a "talent gap" but Riley's actions indicate clearly to me that he believes part of the problem is with his coaches. Certainly more talent would be good, but when the X's and the O's are bad, it doesn't matter about the Jimmies and the Joes. After all, if it were all about talent, Iowa couldn't possibly boat race Nebraska...and Texas would be a perennial top five/ten program.
So Banker is out. And with a young rest of staff (Trent Bray with 7 years experience, Donte Williams with 4 and John Parella with three), I think Nebraska's next defensive coordinator will have major experience. In fact, I suspect that Riley went out shopping for an upgrade because he wanted to upgrade, not because he had to. If he had to fire Banker, he would have done that in the days immediately after the Music City Bowl. And with the recruiting dead period over, Riley can't afford to be caught short-staffed - or let other schools raise doubts about what Nebraska is going to do defensively moving forward.
I think we'll know by Sunday who Banker's replacement is. I suspect he has experience as a coordinator at either a Power-5 college conference school or NFL program. Nebraska needs an upgrade, and that upgrade will come at a cost. I suspect the next coach will have a resume that will afford him a seven figure salary. Don't worry about the money; with Nebraska now fully vested in BTN and the new Big Ten television deal, NU will have another $25 million in revenue available next season. The money is there. The question is whether the coach will have the resume to take Nebraska to a conference championship.
And that's the key here. Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since 1999, and hasn't played for a title since 2012. There is urgency to get this done, and Nebraska needs to do whatever it needs to do to get back to that level. Yes, recruiting is important, but it's even more important to upgrade it's coaching talent. In fact, I don't think Banker is the last assistant who'll be going. Mike Cavanaugh, the "technician" who was one of three "Glad he's gone" Oregon State assistants, would appear to be ready to join Bruce Read and Banker on the "Leaving Lincoln" bus. Maybe not this spring, but certainly after the season if the offensive line doesn't improve tremendously in 2017. Running backs coach Reggie Davis also could see some scrutiny as well.
I know many people love Mike Riley's personality, and they want him to succeed. I've had my doubts, but his willingness to undo his mistakes (Bruce Read and now Mark Banker) shows me that he wants to succeed here too. If he's willing to set aside personal relationships that have been holding his teams at Nebraska and Oregon State back, perhaps he's ready to reconsider even more of what he had been doing.
And that's a good thing for Nebraska football. Change is in the air, and it's not the change that many "Bo-leavers" had been planning for. Riley clearly is taking action to fix the mistakes he made, and that's a good thing.