BIRMINGHAM — Mike Riley has a lot of ties to Alabama.
He’s got family scattered throughout the state and he played for the Crimson Tide under Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.
Despite that, he wasn’t exactly given a hero’s welcome to Legion Field on Sunday as Riley, head coach of the San Antonio Commanders, took the field to a chorus of boos raining down from the Birmingham Iron fans.
He still had plenty of family support on hand to cheer him on in San Antonio’s 12-11 Alliance of American Football win. It’s the Iron’s first loss of the season.
Riley’s last trip to Legion Field was as a member of the Crimson Tide in a win over Auburn in the 1974 Iron Bowl.
“To get to coach in this league and then to get to be able to return to Birmingham … there are so many family, friends, classmates and teammates here that are a special part of my life,” Riley said. “So nice that it worked out that way. I’m very proud to be back here.”
Playing for Bryant and returning to Legion Field was special for Riley, even if he didn’t get a chance to pay tribute to his former coach before Sunday’s game.
“I wanted to go and lean against the goalpost before the game,” said Riley, who wanted to mimic the iconic Bryant. “I thought about it but I didn’t get to. I’m so appreciative of my time at Alabama and to play for Coach Bryant. I was not a good player, I was not a star on the team, but I felt like it because he made you feel like that.”
Riley’s ties to Alabama might have been stronger had he made a different decision 17 years ago.
Riley was set to be the next coach of the Crimson Tide after Dennis Franchione left in 2002. But a series of events led to UA and Riley, a former Alabama player, going in different directions.
According to published reports from The Tuscaloosa News, an offer was extended to Riley and a financial package had been essentially agreed upon. However, Riley withdrew his name from consideration two days later after athletic director Mal Moore turned down a request by Riley for more time to think about taking the position due to family reasons. Riley was also being considered for the UCLA head coaching position.
“I asked Alabama about an opportunity to wait a little bit,” said Riley in 2002, who was an assistant with the New Orleans Saints at that time. “They exercised their prerogative and said they needed to go on.”
UA went with Mike Price as its coach while Riley later was hired by Oregon State, where he coached from 2003-14.
At the time, the decision worked out for Riley, not so much for UA.
On Sunday, Riley’s Commanders took control in the third quarter after stopping an Iron drive inside its own 25 with a big interception. San Antonio marched 77 yards on seven plays to put the Commanders on top 9-3.
Another Iron turnover at its own 23 in the fourth quarter set San Antonio (2-2) up for another score. The Commanders used four minutes off the clock and kicked a field goal with just under four minutes left to play for a 12-3 lead.
Birmingham (3-1) responded with a 75-yard drive, capped by Trent Richardson’s 1-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion made it a one-point deficit, but the onside attempt failed, which allowed San Antonio to run out the clock.
Birmingham hosts Orlando next week while San Antonio is at Arizona.