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Ken Riley, former Florida A&M and NFL great, dies at 72 in Bartow hometown

He was a standout quarterback for the Rattlers. But when he was drafted in 1969 by the Bengals, and the league having no black starting QBs at that time, he was converted to cornerback.
Ken Riley of Bartow, shown here in 1968, was a standout quarterback at Florida A&M before being converted to cornerback in the NFL, playing 15 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ken Riley of Bartow, shown here in 1968, was a standout quarterback at Florida A&M before being converted to cornerback in the NFL, playing 15 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. [ Archive ]
Published Jun. 7, 2020
Updated Jun. 7, 2020

Former Cincinnati Bengals standout Ken Riley, who was later a head coach and athletic director at his alma mater Florida A&M, died Sunday, the university announced. He was 72.

The school said Mr. Riley died in his hometown of Bartow. A cause of death was not released.

Mr. Riley played his entire 15 seasons for the Bengals as a defensive back, with 65 career interceptions for 596 yards and five touchdowns — all franchise records. The interceptions rank fifth in NFL history. He also recovered 18 fumbles before retiring in 1983.

NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth fondly remembered being Mr. Riley’s teammate after the former Gators receiver was drafted by Cincinnati in 1981.

“One of my favorite Bengals, Ken Riley, passed away,” Collinsworth tweeted of his fellow Floridian. “He should be in the Hall of Fame, 65 intercep(t)ions, but was an even better man. He humbly coached me after most routes, and saved me from Rookie Pranks. He never uttered one word of self-promotion, think Tony Dungy.”

Before his NFL career, Mr. Riley was a standout quarterback for Florida A&M.

“FAMU athletics and the entire Rattler Nation is deeply saddened of the passing of former FAMU football player, head coach, athletics director and NFL great Ken Riley,” vice president and director of athletics Kortne Gosha said in a statement. “We wish his family our deepest condolences.”

Mr. Riley, who was African American, was a sixth-round pick in the 1969 NFL draft by the Bengals, who under coach Paul Brown decided to convert him to cornerback. At the time Mr. Riley was drafted, there were no black starting quarterbacks in the league, the last season before the NFL-AFL merger.

“Everybody here loved Kenny. He had everyone’s respect,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said in a statement. “When he came here, Kenny and Lemar Parrish had never played cornerback, and they’re the two best we’ve ever had. And we’ve had a lot of good ones. We put him over there for a decade and a half and we didn’t have to worry about it. … I’m going to miss him. He was a good guy and a solid man.”

After retiring as a player, Mr. Riley spent two seasons as an assistant with the Green Bay Packers before taking over as coach at FAMU, where he went 48-39-2 from 1986-93. He won two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and was a two-time MEAC coach of the year. He took over as athletic director from 1994-2002. During those years, the Rattlers won 35 MEAC championships in 11 total sports.

Despite his accomplishments, Mr. Riley never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although he is in the Florida A&M and Black College Football halls of fame, and he was one of 33 players named to the Florida High School Association All-Century Team.

Mr. Riley, who played in high school at Bartow’s Union Academy, never publicly lobbied for support for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, saying, “your works speaks for you. If it’s God’s will, maybe one day it will happen.”

“He was a good man. He was one of our greatest athletes and person,” FAMU Sports Hall of Fame chairman Alvin Hollins said. “Ken showed tremendous leadership as a student and a quarterback. The only regret is that he didn’t get in the Pro Football Hall of Fame before he passed. Several of the players he coached made it to the NFL. We had great success with him as a coach and athletics director.”

Mr. Riley enrolled at Florida A&M in 1965. He was named the starting quarterback the following season. Under legendary coach Jake Gaither, the Rattlers went 23-7 with Mr. Riley at quarterback. He led the Rattlers to Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) titles during each season.

Mr. Riley was known as an elusive scrambler. In his senior year, he completed 100 of 108 passes (92.5 percent) for 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also excelled in the classroom, becoming a Rhodes Scholar candidate.

“I woke up this morning with a heavy heart as I learned of the passing of FAMU and NFL great Ken Riley,” current FAMU coach Willie Simmons said in a statement. “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.”