The loud, rapid-fire knock on my office door was jarring. It occurred as I was falling into a nap.
It was the knock of an emergency in progress.
Either that or Nebraska had hired a head football coach.
It was the latter. Our former Husker football beat writer, Brian Christopherson, pounded hard on my door on that early December day in 2014. NU officials had just sent out a news release saying Mike Riley was the new head coach, and I'll always remember my immediate reaction.
I was intrigued. I actually liked the hire — at least at first blush. I was like a lot of college football fans in that I had watched Riley pull off some startling upsets as Oregon State's longtime head coach. I liked his can-do spirit, his humility, his class, his apparent coaching acumen. His teams seemed to play hard and fast. I didn't know his overall record at the time, but I was willing to give him a chance at Nebraska.
So, back to Christopherson's knock on my door. There was a certain clarity to it. Something important obviously was happening.
Now, fast forward three years to Saturday, when Riley was fired as Nebraska's head coach. The news was as predictable as a chilly north wind in November. No need for a jolting knock on the door.
You see, Nebraska's program has slipped to a point where few, if any, Husker fans could formulate a strong case to retain Riley as the program's leader. The fan base is almost entirely on the same page. Imagine that. But such was the long, dismal slog that defined this season. The Huskers underachieved to a startling degree, entering the weekend 13th in the Big Ten in both rushing offense and rushing defense — areas where Riley's program needed significant improvement this season.
It didn't happen. Not even close. Nebraska's strain on offense and defense was a continuation of the struggles that defined the latter stages of last season. As a result, new Husker athletic director Bill Moos made a move Saturday that essentially had been anticipated for several weeks.
In fact, he made a move that many people in December 2014 regarded as inevitable. As soon as Riley was announced as Nebraska coach, you heard the skeptics, loud and clear. What is (then) Husker athletic director Shawn Eichorst thinking? After all, the 61-year-old Riley had three losing seasons among his final five at Oregon State. His record in those seasons was 29-33 overall, including 19-26 in the Pac-12. He was just 5-7 (2-7, Pac-12) in 2014.
The skeptics had a point, especially considering Riley never won a conference championship at Oregon State. Was he really ready to end his coaching career with multiple championships at Nebraska, where he had never even visited?
On the other hand, pro-Riley folks noted he averaged six wins a year at Oregon State, which they said is almost like winning a championship every year, such were the challenges of striking it big on the gridiron in Corvallis.
The thinking at the time was Nebraska — with its energy, tradition and resources — could help pull a veteran coach into the limelight.
In the final analysis, Riley's program showed virtually no signs that it was headed back to the realm of the elite.
He entered this season with a record of 15-11 in Lincoln. He rolled the dice in January with the hire of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, a move that proved to be an abject failure. The Husker defense, switching to a 3-4 scheme, descended to levels reminiscent of 2007, a season that Big Red fans try to expunge from their memories. Diaco's explanations for the struggles came off as excuses. He became a turnoff.
If I had to pinpoint the second-most critical factor in Riley's failed tenure, it would be the offensive line's lack of development. Thing is, Riley knew significant offensive line improvement would be necessary if his program was going to take a sizable step forward in 2017. He said as much last July during Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
"My expectations are that this group will play well, and frankly they need to," he said then. "We need to run the ball, and we need to protect the quarterback. And we also need to protect the offensive line. We need to be very smart in our approach. To go in and say we're going to drop-back pass 40 times a game and put that burden on the offensive line to block every pass stunt and pass rush and blitz that's known to man, which is what happens when you don't have a mobile quarterback, you're going to see the kitchen sink.
"And so to think that you're just going to go drop-back pass and everything's going to be good, because you have a good quarterback and some good receivers, that this is going to be a good thing, you're wrong. It's going to be hard."
Nebraska has a good quarterback and good receivers. But Riley was right in July — this season was hard. The 54-21 loss at Minnesota was especially hard to fathom.
Defenses teed off on Tanner Lee.
The program backslid.
So, yes, Riley's record in his final five seasons at Oregon State was a sign. Nebraska was losing ground in the Big Ten under his watch. His record in the last eight seasons is 48-52 overall, including 31-40 in league play.
Flash back to December 2014. Upon first meeting Riley, I wrote that his humility was endearing, but that it would become much more endearing if he could beat Urban Meyer.
My heavens, that was a mismatch. The skeptics were right. A very nice man from Oregon was overmatched in Lincoln.