Riley leaves legacy as quiet, respectful FAMU coach

By Brian Howard
Special to the Outlook

Social media was flooded with comments and condolences following the news that former FAMU football great Ken Riley died last Sunday morning. One of the most poignant posts was written by David Lee Simmons, the Rattlers’ beat writer for seven years.

Simmons recalled Riley never being one to clamor for publicity much when it came to his team. That in essence nailed Riley’s personality – quiet and sometimes seemingly shy when it came to the media.

However, there were qualities about Riley that became clear to anyone who knew him, as Simmons did.

“He was always professional and respectful, and carried himself the same way,” Simmons wrote in his post. “His teams were always competitive, sometimes quite good. I worried in hindsight I didn’t give him enough credit.”

Before starting a seven-year stint as head coach of the Rattlers in 1986, Riley was a FAMU football standout. After he left coaching, Riley became athletic director.

During his tenure as head football coach at FAMU, Ken Riley led his team to two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships. He was also named MEAC Coach of the Year twice during the seven years that he coached the program.
Photo special to the Outlook

FAMU also was mourning the loss of historian and former dean Leedell Neyland, Ph.D. 

“It was a tough weekend for Rattlers,” said President Larry Robinson. “In Dr. Neyland and Ken Riley, the University has lost two outstanding sons, who both exemplified FAMU’s motto, “Excellence with Caring” throughout their lives.”

 Neyland, a World War II veteran, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and retired provost and professor emeritus, is credited with compiling and chronicling the university’s history in “Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University: A Centennial History (1887-1987).”

Neyland lived in Las Vegas and was 98 years old. The cause of his death for both men was not disclosed. Riley, who lived in Bartow, was 72.

 “FAMU Athletics and the entire Rattler Nation are deeply saddened of the passing of former FAMU football player, head coach, athletics director and NFL great Ken Riley,” said Kortne Gosha, athletic director at FAMU. “We wish his family our deepest condolences.”

 Riley compiled a 48-39-2 record as coach of the Rattlers, winning two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships. He was named MEAC Coach of the Year twice.

“I woke up this morning with a heavy heart as I learned of the passing of FAMU and NFL great Ken Riley,” FAMU head football coach Willie Simmons said. “Coach Riley was one of the first to welcome me to the FAMULY and having him speak to our team before our first Orange and Green game is definitely at the top of my list of unforgettable moments as head coach here at FAMU. My deepest condolences go out to his family and we as football community will surely honor his memory.”

Riley was a four-year starting quarterback at FAMU and a Rhodes Scholar Candidate. In addition, he was the senior class president in both high school and college.

Riley’s football career didn’t end in Tallahassee as he was selected in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals during the 1969 NFL Draft.  

Riley had a stellar 15 year professional career for the Bengals, starting in 1969. He was converted from quarterback to cornerback in training camp by legendary coach Paul Brown. During his rookie season, he racked up four interceptions and returned 14 kickoffs for an average of 23.9 yards per return. He also caught two passes. 

Riley recorded 65 interceptions in his career, which was the fourth most in NFL history at the time of his retirement and is currently fifth on that list. Three of the top five players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. While he is fifth on the NFL All-Time interceptions list, he remains the only player not enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. 

In a post written by former track athlete Rick Crawford, he described Riley as being “one of the greatest football players in FAMU history,” adding “As a QB for the Rattlers, he electrified the fans with his running and passing ability.

“Riley served admirably and honorably as FAMU’s AD for several years and left FAMU athletics with a surplus.”

That surplus is believes to have been about $3 million, accrued during his tenure as AD from 1993-2004.

In his 15 NFL seasons, Riley, who rarely missed a game, recorded three or more interceptions in all but three years. In 1976, Riley racked up nine interceptions for 141 yards, a team record that stood for 30 years. He returned one interception for a touchdown and also set a team record by intercepting three passes in one game that season. Riley matched that feat again in 1982. In 1981, he recorded five interceptions as the Bengals went on to win their first Super Bowl. In 1983, Riley recorded eight interceptions, two being returned for touchdowns.

He retired after the 1983 season with 65 career interceptions for 596 yards, and five touchdowns, which both still stand as Bengals records. He also recovered 18 fumbles in his career. Riley is third all-time in NFL history with 141 interception return yards in a season. In addition, he was also the Bengals’ defensive captain for eight seasons (1976-83).

After his professional career ended, Riley spent two years as an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers. 

Riley was inducted into the FAMU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1977. He was later named to the Florida High School Association All-Century Team, which selected the Top 33 players in the 100-year history of high school football in Florida’s history. 

Outlook writer St. Clair Murraine contributed to this report.