Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst could not survive the shaky start to Nebraska’s football season, also raising questions about the future of coach Mike Riley with the Huskers.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green announced Thursday the firing of Eichorst, citing a lack of on-field performance.
“We’re not satisfied with the results,” Green said. The chancellor insisted that he was “talking about competitiveness in all sports” — not just football.
However, it was no coincidence the firing came five days after a 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois that left the Huskers 1-2 and created much angst within the school’s passionate, success-starved football fans.
Eichorst’s most high-profile move as athletic director had been his surprise decision in 2014 to hire Riley, the former Oregon State coach who came to Lincoln with a less-than-spectacular career coaching résumé.
As he prepares to begin Big Ten play in his third season in Lincoln, Riley has gone 16-13, a record that’s also trending in the wrong direction. The Huskers have won only three of their past nine games.
Green and NU President Hank Bounds, who joined Green for an afternoon press conference, had little to say about Riley’s status going into Saturday’s home game against Rutgers. Bounds said he understood the speculation but said he expected the Huskers “to compete Saturday regardless of where we are in the discussions.”
“Mr. Riley is our football coach,” Bounds said. “We expect him to compete. This is not about Mr. Riley right now.”
Riley said after practice that he was surprised and “flat-out saddened” by the firing. But Riley also remained his affable, mild-mannered self, expressing no concerns about what the news meant for him.
He said he understood expectations but also feels “confident in what we’re doing.” His message to his team: You can only control what you can control.
“This is supposed to be fun,” he said. “And it’s only fun, I’ve found, when you win, so we’re trying every way to do just that.”
The sudden mid-season firing — announced in a 1 p.m. press release — brought back memories of 2007, when an embarrassing home loss to Oklahoma State had fans leaving Memorial Stadium at halftime in droves and led to the firing two days later of then-Athletic Director Steve Pederson. Coach Bill Callahan was dismissed weeks later at the end of a 5-7 season.
Much will likely hinge on whether Riley, his staff and team can turn around a season that started with a close 43-36 win at home over Arkansas State, a 42-35 loss at Oregon in which the Huskers trailed by four touchdowns at halftime, and Saturday’s embarrassing loss.
Green said he expected to name an interim athletic director in the next couple of days while the university engages with a search firm and other stakeholders to find the school’s next A.D. He and Bounds gave no timetable and declined to discuss specific candidates, saying that they were looking for the most talented person they could find.
“We want to get started,” Green said. “We’ve got work to do.”
Some names were already starting to surface within hours after Eichorst’s firing.
One source told The World-Herald that former Husker All-American Dave Rimington has been approached about stepping in on an interim basis. It wasn’t clear whether Rimington, currently head of a charitable foundation, could also be a candidate for the permanent job.
Other names floated among fans and boosters included Trev Alberts, athletic director at UNO, and Ed Stewart, a Big 12 administrator. Both are also former Husker All-Americans.
When Pederson was fired mid-season in 2007, Chancellor Harvey Perlman turned to Husker football coaching legend Tom Osborne to step in as interim athletic director — at the time probably the only man capable of uniting the school’s divided fan base.
After learning of the firing announcement from The World-Herald on Thursday, Osborne chuckled when asked whether he’d again been asked to step in as interim athletic director.
“I think I’ve aged out,” he said. “I’m quite certain at this point that I wouldn’t be in the picture and wouldn’t want to be in the picture at this point.”
But Osborne said he would be willing to help out in any way as the school moves forward. (Green later said he had reached out to Osborne.) Osborne also expressed confidence in the process ahead.
“I do have a great deal of confidence in Ronnie Green and his judgment and Hank Bounds and I’m sure whatever was done was what they felt was right for the best interests of the university,” he said.
Osborne declined to comment on Riley’s performance as coach, saying that unless you’re at every practice and watching the film you can’t know what’s happening. But he said he knows from experience the pressure at Nebraska that comes with losing.
“When you lose, people are going to be disappointed, and certainly losing to Northern Illinois was something that was unexpected,” he said.
Other boosters and regents also seemed to back the decision to fire Eichorst.
Regent Hal Daub said he appreciated Eichorst’s overall record as athletic director, calling him “a very fine person.” But he added, “It was time for a change.”
Daub called Thursday’s move “an appropriate leadership decision that embraces responding to the brand, the Husker brand, and to a much more aggressive football program going forward.”
Regent Bob Whitehouse said that like most Nebraskans, the regents want to see Husker teams be competitive in the Big Ten and nationally.
Dan Cook, a Dallas-based booster who leases a Memorial Stadium skybox, said he liked Eichorst, whom he considers a friend. But he also stood by the decision to fire him.
“We have to get more competitive,” he said.
Green said the decision to fire Eichorst was made Wednesday. He and Bounds met with Eichorst on Thursday and also spoke with Husker coaches.
Eichorst said in a statement released by the university: “While I am deeply disappointed in the decision today, I am grateful for the wonderful years that my family and I have spent at Nebraska. I am proud of how our student-athletes, coaches and staff represented this great university and state, and I am confident that the future is bright for Nebraska athletics.”
Perlman, who hired Eichorst, declined to comment on the firing Thursday.
There are probably few places outside Nebraska where the firing of a university athletic director would create a statewide sensation. That reflects the pride Nebraskans feel for the football program, which boasts five national championships since 1970.
But since Osborne led the Huskers to three national titles in four years before retiring in 1997, the program has largely disappeared from the national landscape. The school has gone 17 straight seasons without winning a conference championship. Husker fans yearn to again be competitive — a word that was thrown out repeatedly in the afternoon press conference.
When asked what they meant, Green and Bounds harkened to those days.
“I’d love to be back in the mid-1990s, right,” Green said. “I don’t need to say more.”
Interjected Bounds: “Why shouldn’t we have those aspirations here?”
Both also said they thought the success Husker athletes have shown in the classroom under Eichorst can and should go hand-in-hand with wins on the scoreboard.
“Winning can and often does happen in concert with well-run, quality college programs that work to ensure the success of the student,” Green said. “That’s our expectation. This is not an either-or equation.”
World-Herald staff writer Rick Ruggles contributed to this report.
Photos: Shawn Eichorst's career at Nebraska
Husker Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst has been fired, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green announced Thursday. Eichorst, who was hired in October 2012, has about $1.7 million remaining on his contract that runs through June 2019.
Follow The World-Herald's coverage of Shawn Eichorst's firing at Omaha.com/eichorst.
Did Nebraska make the right decision to fire Shawn Eichorst?
The University of Nebraska announced Thursday that athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been fired. Did administrators make the right decision in making a change at the top of the athletic department?
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