Law, business background helped NU's A.D. launch career

NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst's most influential experience — the place he cut his teeth — was at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

WHITEWATER, Wis. — For once, Shawn Eichorst was the old guy in the room.

It was the fall of 1999, Eichorst was the new athletic director at his alma mater, a Division III university at a junction of curvy two-lane highways in southern Wisconsin. He was 32.

He'd spent five years in Milwaukee courtrooms, defending insurance companies and corporations from multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

Now he was standing in the Wisconsin-Whitewater university center, making his own case for money before the student government. A significant chunk of the Warhawk athletic budget came from allocated student fees. Eichorst wanted more.

His coaches didn't have much hope. This was an era of budget cuts. Of athletic department turmoil. Some of the student representatives had no interest in sports. No idea what it took to compete. If they gave any increase, coaches figured, it might be 2 percent. A few thousand bucks. That was tradition.

But if Eichorst is known for anything, it's doing his homework.

He invited several Whitewater athletes. He called on them to explain their commitment to the team. He called on coaches to explain how they spent more hours raising funds than they did watching film and drawing plays. He shared budget numbers from Whitewater's peers.

He asked the board: If you want a first-rate academic institution, why wouldn't you want first-rate athletics, too?

Jim Miller, the long-time baseball coach who grew up in this town, watched Eichorst's presentation.

“It was just like he was running a courtroom. He had that student body eating right out of his hand. ... I walked out of there and said, 'Wow.'”

Thirteen years later, Shawn Eichorst has worked closely with Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema. He endured a hurricane of scandal at Miami. He replaced Tom Osborne at Nebraska. He climbed the administrative ladder not with flamboyance or charisma, but with steady, behind-the-scenes leadership.

For all his success, Eichorst's most influential experience — the place he cut his teeth — was Whitewater.

In 4½ years, he overhauled the department and laid the foundation for an unprecedented run. The Warhawks have won eight national championships since 2002, including four in football. The facilities are comparable to many Division I schools. Enrollment is breaking records. Morale is high.

In the fall of 1999, nobody in student government saw any of that coming. They just saw a 32-year-old A.D. with a sales pitch.

But when they released their new budget numbers, the allocated fees for Whitewater athletics jumped from $322,544 to $535,519. An increase of 66 percent.

Eichorst had his first big win.

Leaving his mark

Jim Miller, now retired, is giving a brief tour of campus on a gray day in 2012.

He starts at Perkins Stadium. When he was a kid, this area was all swamp and woods. Now on Saturdays, more than 10,000 fans dress in purple and cram inside.

Next to the stadium: a new football complex with offices, locker rooms, classrooms. Wasn't here when Eichorst arrived.

Down the hill sits another Eichorst project: A $12 million renovation to the Williams Center, featuring a new fieldhouse, indoor track, volleyball arena and weight room that, Miller jokes, made the Badgers jealous.

“Barry had to get a new one.”

Over the past decade, Eichorst has lived and worked in the SEC, the Big Ten, the ACC, now the Big Ten again. He's built a resume that rivals any 45-year-old A.D. in the country. But this is where he left his biggest imprint.

In the '90s, Whitewater was a “mom-and-pop D-3 operation,” said Jack Miller, former chancellor. Eichorst “greatly professionalized” it.

From the archives

Covering Shawn Eichorst's introduction as A.D., Lee Barfknecht wrote that Eichorst's broad-based background landed him the NU job. (Oct. 4, 2012)
Click here  »

“I walked in the door in 2004 and I was almost bored,” said Paul Plinske, the current A.D. “There were no problems. Literally. I walked in the door and I had to start creating things because Shawn had everything so meticulously laid out.”

Eichorst originally came to Whitewater from the Wisconsin River valley, 90 miles west. His dad and mom grew up a block apart in Lone Rock, population 888. They were high school sweethearts. He made glass, she stayed home and raised four kids.

When Shawn was 5 years old, his dad died in a car accident. He leaned heavily on his mom and found role models in coaches. His favorite place was the ball field.

“That's where it all happened,” Eichorst said.

After high school, many of his friends went on to Wisconsin-Madison. It was too big and too close to home, Eichorst said. Most didn't make it. Eichorst, the first in his family to go to college, chose Whitewater because of its business school — and he wanted to play football.

“I was kinda determined from the get-go I was gonna make that place my home,” Eichorst said. “I was gonna hunker down.”

Whitewater, where enrollment nearly exceeds the town population (14,000), is an hour from Madison, an hour from Milwaukee and two hours from Chicago. But most of its students come from small towns.

Eichorst thrived. On Bob Berezowitz's football team, he became a captain and an all-conference defensive back. He graduated magna cum laude in business. Occasionally, he attended a basketball game or a volleyball game and kicked around the idea of teaching and coaching.

Instead, he went to law school, choosing Marquette partly for its sports law program. He explored the world of sports agents.

His last semester, he took the train to Chicago every Monday to work in the Great Midwest Conference office. The commissioner was Mike Slive, who now runs the SEC. Eichorst stuffed envelopes, solved compliance issues, helped prepare for conference championships. A little of everything. It piqued his interest.

But he had already clerked at a boutique insurance defense firm in Milwaukee. It was a safer path for a newlywed.

For almost five years, Eichorst worked as a litigator. Then he heard about a job in the metropolis of Whitewater. The money wasn't so good. He'd probably have to take tickets and sell popcorn. But ...

“At the end of the day,” Eichorst said, “you kinda got to follow your passion, right?”

Changing a culture

The student government meeting, Eichorst said, was a “watershed moment.” It nearly doubled each coach's budget and gave him instant credibility. But it was only the first hurdle.

For years, Whitewater employed two athletic directors. A man administered the men's sports. A woman ran the women's sports.

Both were very good at telling coaches “No.”

“Everyone was fighting,” baseball coach John Vodenlich said. “The baseball coach was mad at football because they got more. The women's basketball was mad at men's basketball. You can imagine.”

Said Plinske: “The department was at wit's end.”

From the archives

Staff writer Sam McKewon looks at Shawn Eichorst's transition in 'Next Nebraska A.D. learning on the job with help of Perlman, Osborne' (Oct. 9, 2012)
Click here  »

Eichorst was charged with creating a new administrative structure. One director, one department. He had to enforce it with coaches who were, in some cases, twice his age. A few, retired chancellor Gaylon Greenhill said, felt like they owned their program. They resisted change and occasionally tried to undermine Eichorst.

“He bruised some egos,” Greenhill said.

Complicating matters: The football coach was still the legendary Berezowitz.

“It had to be tough,” Berezowitz said, “knowing everybody was scrutinizing him because his former coach was still here.”

Then there was Title IX.

One source of the budget problem, Greenhill said, was a gender equity complaint filed by a disgruntled former employee. The Warhawks had discontinued women's golf in the late '90s and fallen out of balance.

It's one of the reasons Eichorst was hired — he had the legal background to help navigate the issue, which dragged on a few years.

Put it all together, Eichorst said, and “the world was kinda spinning.”

'Significant vision'

Here's how Eichorst stabilized it:

» He planned and constructed major facility upgrades, most notably adding on Kachel Fieldhouse to the Williams Center.

Said Whitewater football coach Lance Leipold, a former assistant at the University of Nebraska at Omaha: “I look at what we have here and what we had in Omaha, it's night and day how much better this place is.”

» He lobbied to give coaches more time to focus on their sport. At D-III schools, even head coaches have to teach classes. And assistants often have to help in a secondary sport.

» He revamped his staff, filling weak spots with young, energetic coaches, many of whom are still winning a decade later.

» He expanded budgets, enabling coaches to schedule and recruit more aggressively, especially in football. They couldn't give out athletic scholarships, but it didn't mean they couldn't raise their talent standard.

In 2005, Berezowitz started a streak of seven consecutive national championship game appearances for Whitewater. Seven. Leipold was responsible for the last five.

» He installed a rewards system, not for coaches' salaries, but for their programs. Win a national championship, your budget grows by $5,000. Graduate 80 percent of your players, collect $2,000. Develop an All-American, here's $500.

» He changed the school logo, part of renovating the Warhawk brand.

» He added women's bowling to help solve the gender equity problem.

Eichorst did it all in a small town, where, if you rub someone wrong, you're bound to see him at the grocery store the next day.

In '03, Jim Miller retired from coaching baseball. Eichorst tapped his assistant, Vodenlich. They had known each other since college. They were friends. Vodenlich said their meeting went like this:

Eichorst: Look, I'd like you to be the head coach. This is what we can offer you.

Vodenlich: That's less than a lot of other guys out there.

Eichorst: Well, this is what we have. You can take it, you can leave it.

“And that was the end of the discussion.”

Vodenlich laughs about it now. It's typical Eichorst, who thinks long and hard, but delivers a point quickly.

“He doesn't come in and immediately grab everyone's attention like Matthew McConaughey,” Vodenlich said. “I don't remember him giving these illustrious speeches. He's not that guy. ... But the one thing he always did is he brought this significant vision.”

Two years after Vodenlich said yes, Whitewater baseball won a national championship.

Eichorst watched the celebration from afar. Late in 2003, South Carolina Athletic Director Mike McGee, whom Eichorst had met in administrative circles, called with his own sales pitch. A job offer. Associate A.D.

Eichorst could stay home and watch the trophy case grow. Or, for the first time in his life, move from southern Wisconsin. Take on the SEC. Oversee Lou Holtz's football program.

Take it or leave it.

Eichorst made his decision. The budget was about to get bigger.

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>> Video: Shawn Eichorst introduced as Nebraska A.D. (Oct. 9, 2012):

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