Conor Riley's description of college football coaching as an unpredictable profession comes from experiencing the highs and lows of it now for a decade.
Nearly three years ago, Riley was among those who had the turf pulled out from under them when the University of Nebraska at Omaha dropped the sport, leaving the then-Mavericks assistant to scramble for another job or sit out the 2011 season.
After finding work at Sacramento State, where he spent two seasons, Riley landed at North Dakota State just in time to be a part of the Bison's third consecutive FCS championship.
“This is the life we choose,” Riley said. “You kind of know it's a very unpredictable business. But you just kind of work hard, treat people the right way and hope things work out well for you.”
Now Riley will be among those trying to hold things together at NDSU after coach Craig Bohl, six assistants and his recruiting coordinator took new jobs at Wyoming. Bohl had gone from defensive coordinator at Nebraska to Bison coach in 2003. He was 104-32 in 11 years.
Riley will serve as the Bison offensive line coach under Chris Klieman and offensive coordinator Tim Polasek. Klieman was elevated to head coach while Polasek returns to Fargo after one season at Northern Illinois.
“It's going to be a change,” Riley said. “The success Coach Bohl had here is unprecedented. He's one of the fiercest competitors I've been around, and this is a great new challenge for him.
“But this school has won championships for years and years and this program has always been committed to success. Are there going to be changes? Absolutely. But there have been changes here before and North Dakota State has continued to persevere and continued to succeed at a very high level.”
Not only can it be an unpredictable business, but a strange one.
Riley, 33, never would have pictured himself in the green and gold after playing against the Bison when UNO and North Dakota State were old North Central Conference rivals. They split four games during his three years with the Mavs, including NDSU beating UNO at Caniglia Field in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals in 2000.
Riley, the son of Douglas County public defender Tom Riley, had traveled from Omaha Creighton Prep to Air Force to Kansas before arriving at UNO. The offensive lineman was a first-team All-American as a senior in 2002 after being a second-team pick the year before.
He picked coaching over law school, and started at the bottom as a Mav student assistant and graduate assistant for Pat Behrns from 2003 through 2005. He was brought back to be offensive line coach and run game coordinator in 2007, and Riley said he is “forever indebted to Coach Behrns for giving me a chance.”
That opportunity disappeared abruptly when UNO dropped football in March 2011.
“It was a very trying time, not only for me but when you look at the way it affected a lot of the young men,” Riley said.
It was not long after that when Riley first met Bohl and Klieman, who came to Omaha to see Bryan Shepherd as the UNO staff tried to find new schools for players. The defensive back would eventually head to NDSU and be a key three-year contributor for the Bison.
And Riley inadvertently put himself on Bohl's radar, which led to them connecting last winter when the Bison needed a tight ends and fullbacks coach.
There were discussions of Riley possibly following Bohl to Wyoming, but Klieman's offer to handle the NDSU line was too good to turn down. Riley thinks it can again be strong, despite the Bison losing three starters up front.
“We have a myriad of young guys coming up that have been in the system and created depth,” Riley said. “We're going to be chomping at the bit with the opportunity.”
There's no room for a drop-off, either. Not in Fargo. Not in a program that traveled with as many fans to Frisco, Texas, for the FCS championship game Jan. 4 than some FBS teams took to their BCS bowls.
“There's a lot of prestige coaching at this university, and there's a lot of pressure because there are high expectations,” Riley said. “But that's where you want to be as a college football coach.
“It's important to the community that we succeed. It's a very, very unique place in that regard. On a smaller scale, I think it's very similar to what goes on in my home state, where the passion for football and successful football runs deep.”