FARGO — The rumors of moving to Division I were circulating within the Nebraska-Omaha athletic department, so when Conor Riley attended a Maverick hockey game on a Saturday night, thoughts of playing the FCS schools like North Dakota State were foremost on his mind. Life was good for the UNO assistant football coach.
A couple hours later, he looked at his phone and saw 12 missed calls, all within 20 minutes, from another assistant coach. By 9 p.m., they were in the office of head coach Pat Behrns, who when he arrived didn’t know what happened.
“He thought one of our players had a serious or fatal accident or he thought he might be losing his job,” Riley said.
The furthest thing from Behrns’ mind was the school was going to drop football. But that’s what happened. A blindside right hook if there ever was one.
The same thing happened to thousands of athletes across the country last week. Bam. Season done due to the coronavirus outbreak. If those athletes can heed any advice in moving forward, the former NDSU and current Kansas State assistant is proof positive that good things can happen from the worst a sport can offer.
It was the most harrowing athletic experience in Riley’s career. The coaches and players found out UNO was axing football mostly through text messages, which spread like wild fire in Santa Ana winds. Riley answered phone calls from players until 3 or 4 in the morning.
“One of the worst days of my life,” he said.
The next days, and weeks, weren’t much better. The details were laid out the next day in an athletic department meeting, with wrestling also getting cut. By Monday morning, Riley’s phone was constantly being buzzed by other coaches wanting to recruit players looking for another school.
Like the current Covid-19 crisis, everything happened at lightning speed. Riley said he had another job offer two days after the news broke, but didn’t want to leave the players he coached and recruited out to dry. So he remained in Omaha, despite job offers for college football coaches in the middle of March being scarce.
Not only were the current players left without a school, the group included high school recruits who now had to try and find other scholarship offers. Most schools already allocated their scholarship dollars.
One day Riley was sitting in a recruit’s living room telling his parents he was going to take care of their son, the next minute he was telling them there was no football program.
“That’s the group that to this day I still feel ultimately responsible for,” he said.
When the dust finally settled more than a month later, and no football coaching jobs out there, Riley began looking at the private sector.
“The emotions you felt, the anger, you felt betrayed and you felt helpless,” Riley said. “Not only for your personal status but for these kids. I had a fantastic career with fantastic people in my hometown. I was an all-American there and felt like whatever legacy or footprint I left there washed away in one fell swoop. The biggest hurt was from phone calls from kids crying their eyes out saying, ‘What do I do now?”
There were success stories. Shaquil Barrett went to Colorado State and eventually the NFL. NDSU head coach Craig Bohl and assistant Chris Klieman sat in Riley’s office, with Riley talking about Barrett and defensive back Bryan Shepherd. The Bison eventually landed Shepherd.
It was a meeting that would eventually come back to help Riley.
On a Friday afternoon in May at about 2:30 p.m., a break came from then-Southern Illinois head coach Dale Lennon, who interviewed Riley a few years earlier for a position with SIU. Lennon called to tell him he knew the athletic director at Sacramento State (Terry Wanless, his former boss at North Dakota) and the Hornets were looking for an offensive line coach.
Wanless called Riley 20 minutes later.
Two days later, Sac State head coach Marshall Sperbeck asked Riley to fly out for an interview, which Riley did on his own dime.
“It was cheaper to fly out on Wednesday night,” he said. “I got into Sacramento, interviewed on Thursday and flew back Friday morning. While connecting in Denver, I received a call offering me the job.”
The fortune didn’t stop there. After attending a Class AAA Sacramento River Cats baseball game, he and another Sac State assistant stopped at a local neighborhood bar.
“I met a girl who challenged me and my buddy in shuffleboard,” Riley said.
She would become his wife. Six months later, NDSU called about an assistant coaching position.
“When I did visit with coach Bohl, he said one of the biggest reasons we’re reaching out to you was the way Bryan Shepherd’s mom talked about you and your relationship with him,” Riley said.
Last week, with the coronavirus shutting down campus’ across the country, Riley was sitting in the lower level of his house looking at three pictures on a wall: his wife and two daughters. He’s an assistant at a Power-Five school in Kansas State.
The moral of the story for players whose seasons were abruptly ended: keep on keep on.
“I know all these kids, some of these seniors, it was an opportunity to compete for a championship,” Riley said. “Maybe it’s the last time they’ll be on a competitive team and how difficult it must be … but you can take an awful situation and ultimately it can be one of the best things that happens to you in your life. I don't know how to tell people how to handle it, there has to be a silver lining somewhere. You may not see it in front of your face because I didn't. I didn't notice it when I got the opportunity to coach in California. I didn't notice it the night I met my now wife. I don't know that I recognized it on February 10th when I moved to Fargo, North Dakota in 2013. One of the best things I can say is (UNO dropping football) forced me to have the life I have now."