There’s no way Shawn Eichorst walked into the press conference with sound bites in mind. That’s not his style.
But as the former trial lawyer stood at the podium on November’s last day and made his case for firing Bo Pelini, the defining moment of his administrative career, he kept coming back to one specific phrase. His thesis statement.
“We just for whatever reason weren’t good enough in the games that mattered ... I didn’t see that changing at the end of the day.”
Moments later, he said it again.
“And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most.”
One more time:
“We weren’t able to win enough games that mattered.”
Eichorst silenced critics who claimed he didn’t have the stomach for controversy. He repudiated fans who claimed nine wins were enough. He raised the bar on the future. Maybe — just maybe — he’d buried the doom and drama of the past decade.
Now 10 months later, doom and drama have rallied. Mike Riley has already lost as many games as Pelini did in 2014. A growing number of Husker fans worry that Eichorst hired the wrong man. And coming to Lincoln is a program that has outscored Nebraska 204-102 in four Big Ten meetings.
This is a Game That Matters. It matters to a Husker team desperate to preserve meaningful postseason goals. It matters to fans desperate to preserve pride. It most certainly matters to Eichorst, whose investment isn’t just professional, it’s personal.
The A.D. declined World-Herald interview requests this week. But put yourself in his shoes.
He was raised in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, 45 miles west of Madison. He played football at Wisconsin-Whitewater, 45 miles southeast of Madison. He practiced law in Milwaukee. Then, after two years in South Carolina, he came home and became Barry Alvarez’s right-hand man.
Fast forward to Nov. 15, 2014. Eichorst’s homecoming. Picture him shaking hands with old friends before kickoff. Then imagine the sting of watching Melvin Gordon dash for 408 yards in three quarters.
Eichorst is level-headed, but friends say he’s also fiercely competitive. On Nov. 30, when he cited the “games that mattered,” which program do you think he had in mind?
He hired Mike Riley, and the tangled web between the red “N” and red “W” got even thicker.
You know that Wisconsin’s A.D., the godfather of Badger football, is a former Nebraska linebacker who lobbied to add the Huskers to the Big Ten. You know that Nebraska’s A.D. is Alvarez’s former protegé.
That’s weird enough, right?
But in 2006, Eichorst had just taken a job at UW when he boarded a plane bound for an athletic event. He sat next to offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Searching for small talk, they found a connection in Riley. Eichorst’s boss at South Carolina had considered Riley in ’04 for the Gamecocks’ job. And Chryst had worked nine years under Riley.
In the fall of 2014, when Eichorst needed to talk to Riley, who connected him? Chryst.
Riley moved to Nebraska. Gary Andersen left for Oregon State. Chryst ended up at Wisconsin. For all the connections, you’d swear the Huskers and Badgers occupied the same city.
The most glaring difference is the athletic director.
Alvarez is a magnetic public figure who enjoys being the center of attention. No matter how many football coaches he shuffles through, no matter how many games the Badgers lose, he’ll always be a Wisconsin icon.
Eichorst is different. He manages a $100 million athletic department but he chooses not to represent NU publicly. This week is the three-year anniversary of his Nebraska arrival, and the average Husker fan has heard him speak, oh, about three times.
Eichorst might eventually be just as effective as Alvarez or former NU A.D. Bill Byrne.
But because of his low profile, he is more dependent on the success of his coaches, especially the coaches he hires, especially the football coach he hires.
At a place like Nebraska, Eichorst can build all the soccer and tennis facilities he wants. He succeeds only if his football coach wins.
Sixteen years without a conference championship have left scars that make Eichorst’s (and Riley’s) job more difficult. The A.D. is drawing comparisons to a man he’s probably never met.
Here’s a sampling of my emails:
“What does UNL do? Get rid of Eichorst would be my suggestion. He’s just another Steve Pederson, maybe worse.”
“If Riley cannot accomplish the task of bringing Nebraska back to relevance, then maybe we should fire Eichorst and Riley, since this smells a lot like Pederson and Callahan.”
“We were mediocre under Pederson, we are pathetic under Eichorst.”
That’s my inbox. You can only imagine Eichorst’s. He surely understands that this is a long race and Riley can recover from a bad season. But the longer Riley struggles, the more Eichorst’s credibility suffers.
Critics of the NU administration often surmise that Chancellor Harvey Perlman hired Eichorst to do what Tom Osborne wouldn’t: terminate Bo Pelini. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. But this is undeniable: The day he hired Mike Riley, Nebraska’s athletic department became the property of Shawn Eichorst.
Now his football program is 2-3 and, for the first time as A.D., his home-state Badgers are coming to Memorial Stadium. It’s Alvarez and Chryst and the red “W.” It’s a game that matters.
Alvarez built Wisconsin football in Nebraska’s image. Now Eichorst is chasing the Badgers.
On Saturday afternoon, he can’t coach pass coverage and he can’t call plays on third down. The only thing Eichorst can do is sit back with 90,000 fans and hope that the Nebraska he envisioned 10 months ago is the Nebraska he sees on the field.
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