So what are we to make of Mike Riley firing his longtime sidekick and defensive coordinator, Mark Banker? I think it’s simple: Riley realizes that his window of opportunity to win a championship is closing, and he’s doing something about it.
Can Mister Rogers really get fired up to go to war? It’s a hard concept for many of us to grasp. Is there a fierce competitor lurking beneath that “Aw, shucks” persona? Could be. If the dismissal of Bruce Read didn’t already do it, this move at least obliterates the argument that Riley is merely a soft, cuddly sort, someone who could never give a pink slip to one of his buddies. We'll soon find out if he has as much inner fire as Tom Osborne.
Why did he bring along his buddies to Lincoln in the first place? Apparently he thought they had served him well at Oregon State and with the San Diego Chargers. Only Riley can say for sure, but we all tend to live in comfort zones, repeating what is familiar to us. In hindsight, it was a mistake to bring Banker and Read to Lincoln. But it’s one thing to admit a mistake. It’s another to remedy it. Often, it takes a crisis to get us to change course.
Riley’s crisis? It took him two seasons to admit that the Big Ten simply a much bigger, more ferocious animal than he originally thought, and that realization now forces him to take drastic measures to compete. This appears to be Riley doing his best to live out what he says he’s going to do — pursue championships. That’s a credit to Riley, who has never been a big winner. If you’ve never been a big winner and you want to get there before you end your career, it makes sense to try something different. And firing your longtime defensive coordinator is definitely a major change.
Riley has rightly been compared to Osborne in his temperament. Much of the time, that has been a blessing for the Husker program, especially when it comes to his work as CEO of the Huskers, specifically in managing off-the-field crises. But now he needs to hire someone with the fire to complement his personality, much as Charlie McBride did for Osborne.
By the way, I think the head coach made the decision to fire, and I think he’ll be the one to decide on the hire. There’s plenty of speculation that Shawn Eichorst or Billy Devaney were really the ones who pulled the trigger. It’s likely that Riley sought advice from his direct supervisor and his chief assistant — I certainly hope so, in a matter as serious as this — but there’s no compelling reason to believe he was forced into the move. And there may be other moves to come.
More staff changes may be needed to bring the Huskers up to speed in the Big Ten. Mike Cavanaugh is the Nebraska coach with the most to prove in 2017. Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted longer than Banker. Apparently Cavanaugh gets the benefit of the doubt because of the rash of injuries to offensive linemen he had to deal with in 2016, but he should be on a short leash this year. We’ll discover whether Cav has reached his ceiling, or whether he’ll be able to deliver what his buddy Milt Tenopir did — an athletic, mobile o-line that unleashes the kind of power run game that the nation expects to see from a Nebraska football team.
To be consistently successful, Nebraska has to play a physical brand of football and wear down its opponent in the fourth quarter. We’ve heard for years that Nebraska is searching for its identity. Well, that’s the identity. To succeed, Riley will have to embrace it, even if he chooses to use the a pro-style offense, as Alabama has done over the past decade. (I think he would be wise to at least mix things up a bit with a Wildcat-style scheme, like Jim Harbaugh and Michigan did this year, but that’s another column.)
Banker’s firing, of course, impacts the other half of Nebraska’s branding — the Blackshirt defense. Riley obviously determined that Banker had done all he could do. This is not a panic move, any more than Urban Meyer’s current re-tooling of Ohio State’s offensive coaching staff is a panic move. It’s a strong response to a problem, not an overreaction. I think it’s the right move. But it’s not as important as the next one – who will he hire?
This is a prime opportunity to return to a fast, nasty attacking unit that forces turnovers. Let’s bid adieu to the read-and-react style of defense, which in my opinion, requires better athletes with wider skillsets across the board than Nebraska is likely to acquire on a consistent basis when compared to Michigan or Ohio State. Nebraska must get a solid nucleus of excellent players, no doubt about it, but the Husker defensive scheme needs to be sustainable with average to above-average talent.
It may give a coaching staff (or even a fan base) a certain sense of security to play soft coverages, to simply ask the defense to limit the number of big plays, but in the long run, if you’re slowly retreating, allowing two or three first downs on each possession, it’s hard to wear down your opponent. The coaching staff needs to commit to an attacking, disruptive style (takeaways must be a top priority) and get enough speed at linebacker and the defensive backfield to erase the biggest errors. I thought Banker's defense would stop the run in the Big Ten, but it could not even crack the top five in the conference, allowing 147 rushing yards per game this season. That's not good enough to even win the West Division consistently.
Of course, the new defensive chief must sweat the details and insist that the Huskers be excellent in the basics. Regardless of whether the new coordinator favors the 4-3 or the 3-4, he needs to produce players who tackle well. Think Prince Amukamara in 2009, wrapping up speedy backs in the open field. I hope the move toward rugby-style tackling continues.
Riley took a needed step, a hard-nosed step. Let's hope his new hire is just as hard-nosed.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mister Rogers goes to war
Riley correct to fire Banker, but his next step is critical
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