bob riley

Longtime Sam Houston State assistant coach Bob Riley, left, poses with original Bob Riley Spirit Award recipient Chris Stewart in 2010.

The Sam Houston State football community lost a beloved Bearkat earlier this week.

Sam Houston State announced Monday night that longtime assistant coach Bob Riley had died, spurring an outpouring of messages honoring a man that had been an integral part of Bearkat Nation for nearly four decades.

“The coaching profession lost a great member today in Bob Riley,” Tulane head coach Willie Fritz — who coached alongside Riley as a graduate assistant and assistant coach, before leading the Bearkats to back-to-back FCS title game appearances as head coach — wrote on Twitter. “He was a coach, role model and mentor to thousands of players and hundreds of coaches such as myself.”

“He'd been around Sam Houston football and athletics for 39 years, and there's nobody that defined how much Sam Houston meant to an individual than Bob — especially the student-athletes,” Sam Houston State athletics director Bobby Williams said. “He had a great impact on the student-athletes. The ones that are coming back now and reaching out, they all knew Coach Riley. Even if he didn't coach them, he knew them.

“He just had a great impact on us all, and I'm really blessed to have known him, worked with him and been his friend and colleague for 39 years.”

Williams and Riley were both assistants on former head coach Ron Randleman’s original staff in 1982, and they would go on to win the first of back-to-back Gulf Star Conference championships just four years later. The Bearkats then moved up to Division I, with these three remaining mainstays of the program, even after Riley and Randleman retired.

“That is what's so special,” Williams added. “I sent out a picture of our coaching staff from 1983, and it has me, Coach Randleman and Bob right next to each other. The three of us together made Sam Houston a home. We worked at Sam Houston, and have had a great foundation for 39 years with the football program and athletics program.

“I thought that was really special, to see us three doing that, and how us three made a commitment to the university. In this day and age, with everyone moving on, you don't see that very much. But I think that's something that all three of us share.”

Riley — who tutored five of Sam Houston State’s top-10 career rushers, including former all-time leader Charles Harris, during his time as the Bearkats’ backfield coach — remained around the program as a volunteer coach after his retirement.

When Fritz returned to Sam Houston State as head coach in 2010, he created the Bob Riley Spirit Award. The yearly honor is awarded each spring, and is given to senior football players to help further their education.

“Willie just brought Bob back in and embraced him after he retired,” Williams said. “I thought he did such a great job of honoring a student-athlete in Bob's name.”

“After our first conversation I wished I had the chance to know him longer,” 2019 Bob Riley Spirit Award recipient Tristan Wendt wrote on Twitter. “A true leader and a Bearkat legend. I’m honored to have my name on his award plaque.”

Riley continued to remain around the program in his final years, and current head coach K.C. Keeler recalls fond memories from film sessions they shared together.

“He loved to watch tape with us, question things and give his opinion on stuff, and we loved doing that with him,” Keeler said. “He felt very comfortable just coming in and watching tape, whether it was tape of recruits or tape of the game the night before. I was informed of the impact he had on the program, and he was living in town, so we made sure we made ourselves available.”

Keeler, who took over as head coach in 2014, notes that Riley’s passion for Sam Houston State helped him truly understand what it meant to be a Bearkat.

“When you have people like that, you get a chance to understand the tradition and the history — and how rich it is,” he said. “He kind of ties you in to those guys who played before you got there, and that's what was so awesome about having him around. I used to love hearing the stories about the days when they would play Texas State, and boy he did not like Texas State. He would tell some great stories about losing recruits to them all the time, but they would still beat them anyway.

“He would get fired up telling stories, and it just made you understand that you were walking into a great football tradition. When you have people like that, it reminds you how special it is here.”