LINCOLN — What did you expect?
On a dismal day at Memorial Stadium after a dismal week of administrative bumbling with Nebraska football, the team capped it Saturday with an equally dismal effort, losing 21-17 to Northern Illinois.
Nebraska, 1-2 in Mike Riley’s third season after playing three unranked opponents, has lost six of its past nine games, and fallen behind at halftime in 10 of the past 14 — five times by double digits.
As sportswriters tallied the carnage and waited for interviews, a surprise guest emerged.
NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, who would rather get his ears pierced than talk on the record to the media, said he needed to take questions to show “support and leadership.”
Hey, first time for everything.
This is the guy who, after the final men’s basketball game of 2017, tweeted that his twisting-in-the-wind coach would return, then disappeared from the arena like a puff of smoke and put off reporters for 47 days before explaining himself.
But there Eichorst stood Saturday, wearing a bright red pullover and a stern look.
“I’m frustrated, I’m angry, I’m disappointed,” Eichorst told me alone, before others found him. “It’s not acceptable. I’m supportive, but we have just got to play better.”
I hope the Million Dollar Man goes home and repeats those words into a mirror, changing the last phrase to “we have just got to athletic-director better.”
What’s happening at One Memorial Stadium Drive isn’t only about Riley or the team. Eichorst is fully immersed in this mess. And don’t kid yourselves, this is a mess, as the fans who booed and the others who walked out quietly shaking their heads know very well.
“It sucks to suck,” a fan from Omaha with four decades of game attendance said after catching my eye.
It also sucks to get fleeced in the process of getting embarrassed.
Nebraska paid Northern Illinois $820,000 to topple this former football power. That’s on top of the $1.02 million NU coughed up for getting NIU to cancel a previously scheduled 2016 game in Chicago.
So let’s review:
It was Eichorst, who in less than a week as a one-man search committee in December 2014, hired a football coach with a career .547 winning percentage who was on the hot seat at Oregon State and has never won a championship at the college level.
It was Eichorst who notified Riley in late January of a one-year contract extension, even after NU lost four of the final six games of 2016. Yet Eichorst failed to publicize it. The World-Herald uncovered it last week — two days after a loss to Oregon in which NU trailed by four touchdowns at halftime — creating widespread debate.
It was Eichorst who, midway through last week when future Big Ten schedules were announced, said Nebraska had no problem getting away from playing in the high-value “Black Friday” time slot.
It was Eichorst, who sources said got a kick in the pants from a higher power, who suddenly appeared before reporters the next day and backtracked on the issue following heavy criticism of his tone-deafness to Nebraska’s nearly 30-year tradition playing on that date.
Riley, now 16-13 at NU (a .551 winning percentage), is having a hard enough time winning without his own boss generating five days of needless distraction before a game.
A strong perception among NU athletic department employees interviewed this spring and summer is that Eichorst, who was hired in October 2012, is feeling heat for the department’s lackluster results in the Big Ten standings of all sports.
In mid-August, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green recommended Eichorst and Riley for one-year contract extensions. NU system President Hank Bounds tabled that, saying he would revisit the issue in December.
About a week later, Eichorst gave his usual first-day-of-the-school-year talk to coaches and athletic department employees. Veteran staffers told The World-Herald the tone was far different, with a greater emphasis on winning than had been heard from Eichorst before.
“It was a ‘get-off-the-pot’ speech,” one veteran staffer said. “He said we have everything here that we need to win.”
“I liked it,” a coach said. “That’s the way it was when Bill Byrne was here. You’ve got to have an edge and talk about winning championships.”
Eichorst didn’t agree that his tone was different, but acknowledged to The World-Herald that there was a new emphasis in his remarks on winning.
“When you want an exceptional student-athlete experience like we talk about,” Eichorst said, “part of that not only is the academic and the life skills and the community service, but winning, too. Having a championship experience matters.”
It’s nice to hear Eichorst talk about winning titles. That has been far too rare in his time here. But is it too late? Eichorst and Riley are in this football experiment together. If one goes, they both go.
As for not getting his own deal extended in August, Eichorst said he didn’t read anything into it.
“I didn’t ask for it,” he said. “You do good work, you hope you get rewarded for it. So I don’t have much to say about it.
“When you have tough days like today, you have to stand up and show strong leadership. And I’m going to do that. I don’t think I’ve hid from any of that stuff.”
The hard truth is Eichorst has hid before from such “stuff.” But there is nowhere to hide now. Not after getting pushed around at home in Week 3 of Year 3 by a non-Power Five directional school.
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How would you grade Nebraska's performance against Northern Illinois?
Nebraska's defense allowed just one touchdown, but the Huskers nonetheless fell 21-17 to Northern Illinois. How would you grade NU's overall performance?