LINCOLN — After reviewing a 14-page report assessing the Nebraska athletic department’s culture and the leadership of director Shawn Eichorst, the head of the university system on Tuesday responded with one short sentence.
“I feel really good about what we are,” NU President Hank Bounds told The World-Herald.
With a chuckle, he added: “Obviously, it wouldn’t hurt to win some football games, but I think we’re in a good place.”
The report states Eichorst is “valued and highly respected by most of the participants in this review process,” but the report isn’t a blanket endorsement of Eichorst’s acts or style. Bounds noted “tension” between the fourth-year A.D. and some of his coaches, largely because of communication issues.
“Shawn knows that and wants to do it right,” Bounds said. “There is a real commitment to making certain communication internally and externally gets to the right place.”
Eichorst told The World-Herald he is pleased with the culture and environment during his tenure.
“Looking to be innovative and progressive, while recognizing that you can’t be perfect,” he said. “But when things are pointed out, you need to embrace it and be positive with it and move forward, and I’m very confident that will be the case.”
Bounds declined to offer a report card-style grade on the overall performance revealed in the report, except in one area.
“It’s critical that we get an A-plus in how we serve our student-athletes,” he said, “and I think we get an A-plus there. The way we meet their needs across the board is as good as anywhere in the country.”
The six-week independent survey, conducted by SilverStone Group of Omaha at an approximate cost of $45,000, has created buzz since word of its existence got out.
“We’re doing reviews throughout the university,” Bounds said, “but this one is getting lots of interest, for obvious reasons. This is the front door of the university and the primary way that many Nebraskans connect to the university.”
Board of Regents member Hal Daub of Omaha said he liked that the survey of the athletic department was commissioned, especially with a first-year system president in Bounds and a first-month-on-the-job chancellor at the Lincoln campus in Ronnie Green.
“It never hurts to shine a light on what you’re doing,” Daub said. “That’s a look we haven’t taken in some time.
“In the general conclusions, I was pleased to see there were some avenues for improvement. Athletic Director Eichorst is receptive to the improvement all of us feel can be made.”
Any speculation over Eichorst’s job security is tamped down by the first sentence in the leadership section:
“The current Director of Athletics, Shawn Eichorst, is valued and highly respected by most of the participants in this review process.” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany also offered praise, saying: “He is an honest broker on behalf of Nebraska. I never find him in left field.”
Still, issues between Eichorst and some coaches in the 23-sport department are noted, such as:
“Coaches do not feel their input is sought very much, and that they have a desire for greater inclusion in decisions that have an impact on them personally and on their teams.
“Some coaches perceive there to be focus on the creation of rules, procedures and regulations that create some boundaries in how they recruit, conduct speaking engagements, run summer camp, etc.”
That summary coincides with World-Herald interviews over time with Husker coaches about lack of access to Eichorst and a shortage of information on rules implemented or policies changed. Two coaches said the number of books Eichorst assigned them to read outnumbered the personal meetings they had with him.
Bounds said remedies are in the works.
“I think you’ll see Shawn rolling out a strategy in the coming months on what that looks like,” he said. “It’s a big athletic department. Having staff who report to the athletic director and who manage sports vs. ensuring that head coaches get open access to the athletic director is a balancing act. We’ve got to do better there.”
Another concern the report cited was Eichorst’s leadership approach giving too much leeway to senior staff in some management issues.
“Based on feedback,” the report says, “it appears some managers have been empowered without the requisite skills to manage others effectively.”
Another section on “reward and recognition” discusses employee confusion on whether hard work is fairly rewarded, noting: “(that) belief is relatively prevalent for some athletic support staff, assistant coaches and head coaches. There also appears to be some perception of favoritism, which seems to be experienced more so by those with seven to 19 years of experience.”
One section of the report deals with five former NU athletic department employees — either fired or who left voluntarily — who were interviewed. Those fired responded negatively, which was expected.
“The surprising part of these interviews was this group also had positive comments,” the report states. “Those terminated tended to hark back to the culture of the previous administration in which they felt valued for their contributions.
“It appears some former employees were working to sabotage rather than support the efforts of the leadership and staff of this department.”
Electronic surveys were sent to 327 athletic department employees. The response rate was 72 percent. SilverStone also did phone and in-person interviews with college deans, university executives, athletics senior staff, all coaches, all regents and some student-athletes.
Bounds praised Eichorst for his ready acceptance of scrutiny and review.
“Shawn has been in the middle of this process. He has been responsive, and we’ve had a number of conversations, along with the chancellor, of what ‘great’ looks like,” the president said.
“People want the athletic department at Nebraska to get an A-plus in everything.”
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