McKewon: Shawn Eichorst made changes needed for Huskers, Big Ten

Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst is working to improve communication in the athletic department. “Our mission is on point,” Eichorst said. “We have a pretty good sense of that. We build our vision and our plans around that. We have exceptional core values.”

LINCOLN — March 9, 2014. No-Sit Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. One of the better days in the history of Nebraska basketball. The women won the Big Ten Tournament title and had flown back to celebrate. The Husker men had just beaten ninth-ranked Wisconsin in front of an epic crowd.

As I finished interviewing Badgers coach Bo Ryan on his walk back to the locker room, I saw Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. I figured he’d want to share his thoughts on the big wins, especially because Nebraska had beaten Wisconsin, where he once worked.

Eichorst, talking to some friends, politely declined. He thanked me for asking. I asked again.

“C’mon — no football questions,” I said, knowing the 2013 football season had been taxing for him and many others. Still, Eichorst’s answer was no.

Missed opportunity, I thought. A missed opportunity to share in a good moment and brag a bit about Tim Miles, Jordan Hooper and the basketball programs. Although Eichorst has always preferred coaches and players to get the lion’s share of the attention, he was too reticent that day. Too guarded.

As I read the 14-page intensive survey into the culture and leadership of his department on Tuesday, I thought of that moment.

The review of Eichorst and the department was mostly positive. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany offered sincere praise. Eichorst’s relationships within the larger academic community at Nebraska are strong. The athletes had plenty of praise. I’ve seen Eichorst interact with players, and, with the exception of the football team — members of which were conditioned by former coach Bo Pelini to disrespect Eichorst — those interactions are solid. University of Nebraska president Hank Bounds — a straight shooter who’s focused on the quality of student life — said Eichorst’s grade with the athletes was an “A-plus.”

But the report also indicated there’s some work to do.

The uncertainty over how staffers and coaches are rewarded, the concern over a rules-heavy environment, the suggestion that some administrators have been empowered to lead without having the skills to actually manage a team of people — these mild critiques all lead back, at least in my view, to a greater desire for Eichorst, and perhaps his senior team, to be more relational.

To get messy, if you will, to engage in more give and take, offer more face time.

To clearly provide the “why” for many decisions, including some tightening of the ship — which I suspect was necessary — when Eichorst arrived. There’s a reason the Big Ten isn’t an annual mess like the bickering Big 12. The Big Ten isn’t as homey as the Big 12. It’s more buttoned-up.

Now in his fourth full year as AD, Eichorst inherited a football coach who was a poor match for Eichorst’s can-do-and-you-should-too leadership style. Eichorst’s crisp approach, in turn, was a poor match for Pelini, a natural pessimist who needed to kibitz and be reassured, and someone whose tenure at NU ran its course and ended in mental exhaustion and dysfunction.

Mike Riley is a good fit for Eichorst, who’s loosened up some since Riley arrived — perhaps even because of Riley’s influence.

But other coaches within Nebraska’s athletic department also don’t fit the Pelini profile. And because their salaries and talents afforded them the most latitude to be honest in such surveys, their few appearances in the report are notable and not entirely positive.

Here’s one: “The data also indicate many of the assistant coaches and athletic support staff do not feel their input is sought.”

On Tuesday, I asked Eichorst if coaches had come to him asking why certain rules had been put in place.

“Actually, we were very proactive in communicating with our folks about those sorts of things,” Eichorst said.

It seemed as if, I asked at another point, there was a certain familiarity — or informality — to the way Tom Osborne ran the athletic department that changed when Eichorst took over.

“Anytime you have a transition in leadership you’re going to have different ways of doing things,” Eichorst said. “The other thing is our environment has evolved and changed so rapidly — and not that it didn’t prior — but certainly we are dealing with a different governing structure at the national level ... as the result of the ever-changing and evolving environment, hopefully you have an organization that can evolve as well. The Big Ten has new institutional standards. To the degree that we’ve retooled the way things have been done in the past, I don’t think anybody should pass any sort of judgment any one way or another. You’re just moving forward.”

But sometimes “moving forward” feels like the train has already left the station.

Eichorst has a “regular Joe” side to him. He’s a sports fan — he’s on the Packers’ season-ticket waiting list, for example — but he’s as inwardly driven and competitive as coaches. You get him going, and there’s always a little bit of edge in his demeanor. His answers, though often too-carefully chosen, do not lack for confidence.

“Our mission is on point,” Eichorst said. “We have a pretty good sense of that. We build our vision and our plans around that. We have exceptional core values.”

Eichorst also said he likes being visible and available as AD.

I countered that he’s been a lot more visible in the last eight months. Really, since the night of the Michigan State game. On Monday of that week, after a loss to Purdue, he released a statement in support of his signature hire, new football coach Mike Riley, instead of answering questions in front of the full media.

Among media members, that approach went over like a lead balloon, and it didn’t much help Riley.

Since then, Eichorst has been more engaged and out front. He appeared with Riley during a four-day in-state tour. He talks at length and in depth about recruiting — we’ll have more at a later date on that.

Still, the report suggests the “utilization of top-level media expertise” that “should ensure timely and respectful response and engagement with the media aligned with a sound strategy for positioning UNL and UNL athletics front and center to Nebraskans as well as the country.”

In short: Communicating more often and more frankly. Plain talk. It’s part of the Nebraska Way.

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