There was that time he got so angry with the underclassman who was jabbing him with elbows during practice that he chased him to midcourt, trying to fight him. His head coach, Gene Keady, liked that one.
And then there was the time he talked back to the coach in a timeout huddle, venting four seasons’ worth of frustration with a verbal blast that stunned everyone. Keady liked that one, too.
To say the least, major college basketball as played at Purdue back in his day was a mystery at times to Craig Riley, one he solved too late for his own good but just in time for one of the signature victories in the program’s history.
Structural engineering, however? That’s been a slam dunk—thanks in part to lessons learned from his challenging basketball experience.
The 1992 Purdue grad is thriving as the founder and president of EXO Engineering, an ultra-streamlined home-based business with just one other full-time employee, Jim Holcombe. Business is so good that Riley can truthfully state, “I like where I am right now. Growth is not our goal.”
EXO is registered for business in 40 states and has 42 ongoing projects, designing what’s commonly characterized as the bones, joints and muscles of structures. Riley’s path to self-employment and self-fulfillment was far from direct or quick, however. After taking a shot at a graduate degree in business and realizing it was a poor match for his skills and interests, he took jobs with a succession of Indianapolis-area firms—six in all.
He rose within the ranks at each stop but sometimes found himself at odds with ownership or upper management. Those experiences nourished the seed in his brain to start his own company, which blossomed when a client, Jim Yeary, asked a fundamental question: “Why are you working hard to make other people rich? After all, I hire you, not your boss.” Riley pointed out the security of a steady paycheck, to which Yeary responded with an alluring offer: He would give Riley a $30,000 contract to get him started.
Riley continued working weekdays on his regular job and devoted nights and weekends to his startup. He incorporated his LLC in February 2017 and went full time with it in May 2018. He hoped to attract $50,000 worth of contracts his first year and wound up with $80,000. His contracts in 2023 surpassed $500,000.
Those stats are more impressive than what he produced as a college basketball player but not unrelated. The 6-foot-9 center averaged 5.9 points over four seasons at Purdue, peaking at 11 points and 4 rebounds as a senior. He often disappointed himself and his coaches along the way.
“Playing college basketball was not easy,” he said. “It was the best and the worst time of my life.”
From a broader perspective, however, he benefited immensely from the experience and succeeded on many levels. Contrary to today’s college basketball jungle, in which players jump schools at the drop of a dollar in search of more money and playing time, Riley was a genuine student-athlete, an academic All-American from a demanding engineering program that often conflicted with his basketball obligations.
“Through all my years, several players tried [majoring in engineering], but Craig and one other guy [Paul Gilvydis, who graduated in 1997] were the only two who made it—because it’s so hard,” recalled Bruce Weber, a Purdue assistant for 18 seasons. “He would be exhausted mentally coming to practice. He had the grind of the season and the grind of being in engineering school and keeping up with everything.
“You’d ask, ‘Why didn’t you have a good practice?’ And he’d say, ‘Coach, I did an all-nighter last night.’ It was a credit to him that he was able to finish and stay in the field. It took a lot of mental toughness and discipline.”
Riley had to begin developing mental toughness in grade school. An introverted nerd, tall and smart, he was an easy target.
“They say bullies take down the tallest one,” he said. “I was the one.”
He wasn’t getting picked on by the time he got into high school, however. He was an all-state selection for Harding in Fort Wayne, averaging 25.5 points and 11 rebounds as a senior. He was 6-foot-9 and a rock-solid 225 but could run incredibly well for someone his size, so well that he competed in the 400-meter run and ran a leg on Harding’s 1,600-meter relay team that finished seventh in the state track meet. He also was class valedictorian, earning all A’s except for one B throughout high school.
He rejected scholarship offers from the likes of Kentucky, Michigan State and Stanford to attend Purdue, but quickly discovered a high IQ and desire for a demanding career don’t always mesh with major college athletics. Riley admittedly is an overthinker. That’s an asset in many careers, but not in an endeavor as simple as basketball.
Woody Austin, a member of the same recruiting class as Riley, witnessed the conflict.
“He was a scholar, and he took his academics very seriously,” Austin recalled. “Sometimes, some of his classes would fall in the same window as our practice time, so he would have to miss practice to go to those classes.
“He was a hard worker but overthinking and kind of tense. He just had to loosen up. He wanted to do everything perfect.”
Riley remains one of the most unique athletes to pass through Purdue. He ran the fastest mile of any player in the 25 years of Keady’s demanding preseason conditioning program—4 minutes, 57 seconds—and set a record for the bench press, 355 pounds. That rare combination didn’t always translate to success on the court, however, where his All-American brain dampened his instincts and often left him confused.
“I felt [terrible],” he said. “I was wrong and didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I couldn’t see it.
“It took me four years to understand what Coach was trying to do. He was trying to get me out of my comfort zone, and I was very resistant. He could see things that I could do, but my mind was telling me [it] wasn’t possible. Instead of letting go and doing it, I was holding myself back because I would think, “That’s what superstars do; I’m not a superstar.”
Riley achieved a breakthrough during his senior season when a younger teammate, Cornelius McNary, was overly physical with him in practice, which the coaches probably had encouraged. Riley blew up and went after McNary, trying to fight him. He felt guilty later and thought he was going to be in trouble with the coaches, but Keady was thrilled.
“After that, things were better between Coach and I,” Riley said. “I didn’t like being out of control, but that’s what Coach wanted me to do. I finally broke through that wall.”
Riley let himself go again in the final regular-season game of his career on March 15, 1992, on a Sunday afternoon. Indiana, ranked fourth in the nation, came to Mackey Arena needing one last victory to clinch a share of the Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Purdue, which had lost by 41 points at IU earlier in the season, was 15-14 and simply hoping for an NIT bid.
During a timeout with 18:23 left in the game, Indiana leading 38-31, a livid Keady questioned Riley’s effort. Riley recalled it by imitating the high-pitched tone Keady reserved for his more emotional moments.
“We might as well pack it in—Riley doesn’t want to play!”
That time, for the first time, Riley fired back. His exact words can’t be printed here, but they caught Keady off-guard.
“Nobody had ever talked back to Coach—ever,” Riley said. “He looked at me, stunned. And said, ‘Well get out there and prove it then!’”
Riley gathered his teammates after the huddle for a message of his own.
“I was pissed,” he said. “I said, ‘Get in there and just play! The coaches won’t remember what play they called. You guys know how to play basketball; that’s why you’re here.’”
Purdue rallied for a 61-59 victory. Austin, who had hit just two of his first 14 shots, went on a tear, hitting his final six attempts to finish with 20 points. Riley finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. He also made the biggest play of the game by diving on the floor to save the deflection of his missed free throw that was heading out of bounds. That led to a field goal that gave Purdue a three-point lead with 1:36 left.
Purdue’s fans rushed the floor after the final buzzer, delighting in the fact they had ruined IU’s bid for a conference championship and No. 1 seed. The Hoosiers recovered to reach the Final Four, where they lost to Duke. Purdue lost in the third round of the NIT but will always have the spoils of its nationally televised upset.
“This just makes my whole career worthwhile, this game right here,” Riley said afterward.
Riley said Keady suggested five times over the course of Riley’s four seasons at Purdue that he quit the team. That motivational ploy didn’t connect—praise would have been more effective for him—but his college basketball journey still led him in the right direction. As time passed, he realized becoming a starter on a Big Ten team was beyond what most athletes achieve. He also became more aware of what he had gained from the experience and had been able to apply to his engineering career.
His work ethic enabled him to work nights and weekends to get EXO off the ground, and his experience as a teammate has benefited him in his relationship with co-workers and clients.
“Business isn’t always nice,” he said. “People try to steal your energy from you. When you’ve experienced the camaraderie of a team atmosphere … that’s when you see things start to happen. I like to see the guys that I work with succeed. And if I have good clients, I help them, and they help me. It’s teamwork.”
A few years after he left Purdue, Riley wrote Keady a letter to thank him for preparing him for the real world. Keady later told Riley he took a replica of his No. 54 jersey with him when he visited schools to talk with students. His message: “You’re a student first and an athlete second. Craig Riley was an academic All-American. The guy drove me nuts, but he was who he was and he’s successful now.”
“I was taken aback,” Riley said. “I had no idea.”
Riley suffered somewhat at Purdue from the comparison to Steve Scheffler, a similarly constructed center two years ahead of him. Scheffler had transformed himself from a freshman who averaged 1.5 points per game to winning the media’s vote for Big Ten Most Valuable Player as a senior and going on to play in seven NBA seasons. Riley couldn’t match that level of dramatic improvement (although he did have a tryout with the Chicago Bulls), but he impressed Scheffler with other qualities—the qualities that generated today’s success.
“Craig would battle, but he would always battle nice,” Scheffler said. “He was such a jolly guy. Coach never encouraged us to play dirty, but he wanted us to get in the mud. He was always looking at Craig thinking, ‘Man, he’s got more.’
“But Craig makes a very successful human being in real life. He’s the guy you want as a next-door neighbor. He’s the guy you want as an engineer.”•
Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer. He is the author of three books including “Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball,” with former Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher.