By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
FREMONT – Nebraska football coach Mike Riley peered over a room full of Nebraska fans at the Fremont Golf Club on Thursday afternoon and simply smiled.
“This is a good picture, right here,” Riley said. “This is Nebraska. To me, everybody cares, right? Everybody cares.”
Later, Riley asked how many in the crowd had attended the Red-White Spring Game in April. Of the some 200 people there to listen to Riley and Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst, roughly a third raised their hands.
That clearly impressed Riley.
“You all play a major role,” he said. “We are all in this together. I know that more every day. That is what is really cool. We are all doing this thing together. This is like one big project to get this team back to where Zach had it back in the day.”
He motioned toward Zach Wiegert, the Outland Trophy winner who started 37 career games at right tackle and helped Nebraska win a national championship in 1994. Zach and his brother, Erik, also a former Husker lineman, are Fremont natives who attended the first of two stops Thursday on the week-long Husker Tour.
The trips to towns throughout the state, including Nebraska City on Friday, give Husker fans a chance to connect with the football program and athletic department, and Riley and Eichorst an opportunity to thank them for their support.
Another former Husker, quarterback Clete Blakeman, a Norfolk native and an NFL referee, also attended in Fremont.
“Mike loves this stuff,” Eichorst said of his third-year Husker coach. “He loves getting out. He loves talking about Nebraska. He loves talking about football, and he genuinely loves meeting our fans.”
Throughout the week, recruiting has been a popular tour subject, what with Nebraska's 2018 recruiting class currently ranked in the top 10 nationally and with Eichorst and his role on an ad-hoc committee that helped bring needed reform to recruiting. Beginning in the 2017 season, an early signing date will begin in December, and student-athletes can begin taking official visits before the start of their senior seasons.
Riley is obviously happy with his program's recent momentum surge in recruiting. Fans could hear the confidence and excitement in his voice as he eagerly talked about bringing recruits to Lincoln.
“Nebraska is a great, great place to recruit to,” Riley said. “Did you hear that?”
The crowd in Elkhorn, the second stop of Thursday's tour, responded with heavy applause, clearly appreciative of the “no excuses” positive attitude of Riley and his staff.
“A lot of people out there, they don't know,” Riley said. “They say Lincoln, Nebraska is in the middle of nowhere. We say it's in the middle of everywhere.”
Eichorst agreed, noting he has seen growth and energy with recruiting.
“Mike has been an elite recruiter, and I think you have to put that in the context of where he was at and what he was recruiting with and against,” Eichorst said, referring to the former Oregon State coach's challenge of recruiting against Oregon and its embarrassment of riches.
"And what's recruiting all about? Recruiting's about relationships, being authentic, being genuine, being a hard worker. And Mike loves it. He loves this part of what he does and it comes natural to him. So I'm not surprised with the level of recruiting that he and his staff have been able to do in a short period of time.
“It's about having the right character kids in your program with the right amount of talent, and then the intangibles," Eichorst said. "You've got to have some grit.”
Riley paid heed to the Nebraskans in his program, noting the eight walk-ons from the state who earned scholarships after last season. He also gave a nod to Fremont native Cole Conrad, a junior offensive lineman who had some family members in attendance.
“That's an easy young man to brag about,” Riley said. “There's a guy who came into the program, worked hard, took an opportunity, played a lot of football, started games for us. He's become very versatile, which is very important in that group. Smart, tough, really good player. We appreciate him.”
As he has on each stop of the tour, Eichorst gave an update on Nebraska's academic progress. He said the current 88 percent graduation rate of student-athletes is the highest in school history. That's compared to six years ago, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten Conference and ranked at the bottom of the league in graduation success rate. It's now in the upper tier of the league.
“Over the course of the last four years, we've really been strategic and disciplined with how we're doing things,” Eichorst said.
Nebraska graduated 51 student-athletes on Saturday to push the total to 107 for this academic year. Two earned Academic All-American honors, bringing Nebraska's ongoing nation-leading total to 327.
In Elkhorn, Heisman Trophy winners Eric Crouch and Johnny Rodgers were among a handful of former Huskers at The Mark. Others were Jay Moore, Tony Felici, Joey Felici, Tony Veland, Guy Ingles and Jerry Murtaugh.
Rodgers posed for several pictures, including a selfie of him, Riley and Dee Riley, the coach's wife. Crouch no sooner walked through the doors before a fan greeted him with items to autograph. Crouch happily obliged.
The pep band played. The cheerleaders cheered. The atmosphere reigned festive.
And football is still four months away.
“There is no place like Nebraska,” Eichorst said. “We say it all the time, but our fans continue to prove it in their actions and words.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.