A couple weekends ago I was in Lincoln, Neb., for a University of Nebraska football game. I’m not a Cornhuskers fan, but I love football, and Memorial Stadium’s atmosphere is legendary. I was excited, and the day lived up to its hype: The fans were passionate and welcoming (a pleasant surprise for a guy visiting from SEC country), the weather was perfect, and the pregame festivities came off without a hitch—from tailgating to the marching band to a B-52 flyover.
Then, just before the game began, Nebraska did its famed tunnel walk: The players charged onto the field between rows of band members and cheerleaders with the crowd roaring. As the band dispersed and the team situated itself on the sideline, my friend Kurt, who is a high school football coach, pointed to a lone man walking across the field, head down, carrying a clipboard, nearly bumping into the tuba players. It was Huskers head coach Mike Riley.
As we chatted about the team in the lull before kickoff, Kurt mentioned how much he loved the way Riley handled that moment: He gave his players their time in the limelight, he was last out of the tunnel, he never appeared on the giant “HuskerVision” screen, and he made his way to the sideline in the least-obtrusive manner a man who’s being watched by 85,000 fans can. He led by following.
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When we think of coaches as leaders, often the red-faced screamers and hard-chargers come to mind: Barry Switzer, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and Jim Harbaugh. No doubt their leadership style has accumulated many victories, but it can wear itself out too.
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Now consider a former Nebraska coach, the renowned Tom Osborne. Osborne was a consummate gentleman and, by reputation, a gentle man, but he was a phenomenal football coach. He didn’t match Switzer scream for scream or excoriate referees while his face gradated from pink to purple. He was steady, and he won. Then won some more, to the tune of three national championships. Osborne coached up young men, not just football players. He was the John Wooden of college football.
Mike Riley is no Tom Osborne (though Nebraska fans would collectively do a back handspring if he turns out to be), but his “nice guy” persona reflects some of the same qualities. Riley’s willingness to lead his players without overshadowing them is a trait to be emulated.
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