Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mike Riley Gets a Redo on His Coaching Staff

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.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

2017 Gives UNO Hockey a Chance to Hit Reset

The best thing that could be said about 2016 for UNO hockey is that it's over.  A year ago at this time, UNO hockey was sitting pretty: 14-3-1 and looking at a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.  But the wheels fell off as the Mavs went 4-14 down the stretch. Not only did they not make the NCAA tournament, they didn't even make it to Minneapolis for the NCHC seminfinals.

Only two of those victories came at home, which is a pattern that carried through the start of this season. Prior to New Years' weekend, the Mavs had gone 4-13-1 at home in the calendar year of 2016.

Only four wins at home in nearly a year.  All the momentum from the Frozen Four run and the opening of the new arena?  Gone. Toast.

Interesting thing to note is that why UNO continued to struggle at home this season (2-5-1 prior to Christmas), the Mavs have been pretty good on the road, going 7-1-2 outside of Omaha. That's good enough to put UNO back into the NCAA tournament speculation; they're 14th nationally in the PairWise, which seeds the teams for the 16 team NCAA tournament. That's squarely on the bubble.

But now the season kicks in, and kicks in full force with the green hordes from North Dakota coming in. They'll be doing their customary large scale infiltration of Omaha, and even have their tailgate plans set up around UNO's new arena.
(Not sure how they're going to bring a Walmart down from Grand Forks...)

It's a rough schedule once again in the second half of the season, with ten of 16 remaining games against top ten opponents.  (North Dakota, Denver, and Minnesota-Duluth)  But it's hard to imagine UNO doing any worse than last year down the stretch, and if UNO finally broke the Baxter Jinx with a sweep to close out the season on New Years' Eve, then anything is possible.  The Fighting Sioux could be down two of their best players:  sophomore Brock Boeser is recovering from wrist surgery while freshman Tyson Jost is playing tonight for Team Canada in the gold medal game in the World Juniors.  Jost is the Effin' Hawks second leading scorer this season while Boeser led them last season.

It's probably more likely that Jost plays of the two; North Dakota coach Brad Berry said last month that the school had already arranged for Jost to fly directly into Omaha tomorrow.  (Should we pray for fog?)