Story by Jansen Coburn • Photos by Jeff Bundy
It always figured that Donovan Raiola would be wearing Husker red in Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays.
It’s just 20 years later than many Husker fans thought, and Raiola won’t be wearing a helmet.
As part of coach Scott Frost’s purge of his offensive coaching staff, Raiola replaces Greg Austin as offensive line coach and will be charged with re-energizing and refocusing a maligned Husker unit that sometimes struggled with everything from procedure penalties to protecting the quarterback.
Raiola’s remedy? For starters, he will preach togetherness as a building block. “Five guys need to see the game as one,” he told media members at his introductory news conference. “That’s the most important thing right now.
“It’s definitely a process. Everything we do, we are going to do it together.”
That may sound overly simplified, but that’s Riola’s method. Playing on the offensive line is complicated, breaking it down into more digestible pieces, particularly for developing players, eventually leads to flawlessness.
Take care of the basics and then everything falls into place, he says.
Fundamentals will be key for NU to reach its once high standard, which Raiola learned about while in high school at home in Hawaii from his older brother, Dominic, a dominant player for the Huskers while winning the Rimington Award in 2000 as the nation’s top center. Dominic would also go on to play 14 seasons for the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
To some fans at the time, Donovan seemed like a shoo-in to be a Husker himself coming out of high school in the early 2000s, but he went to Wisconsin instead where became an honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection at center from 2003-2005.
Because of his brother’s experience at Nebraska, Donovan knows where the bar is set in Lincoln.
“This is a special place to me and has a great offensive line tradition,” he told reporters. About his older, “We talk every day,” he said.
At Wisconsin, he said, player development was essential. “That program was built on developing players,” he said, sounding like he was looking forward to that part of the job as a Husker coach.
“I really enjoy helping people,” he said. “Helping kids develop into men is exciting.”
The makings of a good offensive lineman, he said, are “tough, smart and athletic” and the main thing he learned playing on Wisconsin’s offensive line is that, “It takes a lot of hard work.”
Two of the things his players at Nebraska will have to always know and understand are the the toughness and discipline they will have to play with.
The Husker hire received the seal of approval from his old coach at Wisconsin.
“He was a student of the game, he loves football and will do a great job relating to his players,” said Barry Alvarez, himself a former Husker.
“He’s worked his way up and he’s worked under great people. I think he’ll be outstanding.”
Following his career at Wisconsin, Raiola played parts of five seasons in the NFL – contracts with the Rams, Steelers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Bears and Buccaneers – and then went into coaching.
He coached at the high school level for two seasons (2012, 2013) in Hawaii before moving to the University of Hawaii in 2014 as an offensive intern. He was an offensive graduate assistant at Notre Dame in 2015 and 2016 before spending 2017 as offensive line coach at Aurora University in Illinois. It was then onto the Chicago Bears, where he’s been an assistant offensive line coach since 2018.
After accepting the Nebraska job in December, Raiola was said to have received a standing ovation from the team in his final practice before departing to Lincoln.
NFL rookie offensive guard Tristen Hoge was coached by Raiola during his first two seasons at Notre Dame before transferring to BYU. He described Raiola as an “even-keeled” personality who could separate on-the-field intensity from his naturally calm demeanor.
Hoge said Raiola has picked up a lot of experience in a relatively short time.
“He has the luxury of being coached by some of the most prolific coaches in his career and has brought the knowledge with him through his coaching,” Hoge said.
Raiola now looks to utilize that knowledge to restore nastiness, toughness and grit to the Husker “pipeline.”