Lincoln, Neb. — For the second time in 10 years, Nebraska has ousted an athletic director during a football season that was failing to meet expectations.
The school’s top administrators said the Cornhuskers’ embarrassing loss to Northern Illinois last weekend wasn’t the sole reason for firing of Shawn Eichorst on Thursday. But the loss that dropped the Cornhuskers to 1-2 for the second time in three years under coach Mike Riley certainly was the tipping point.
“It’s never good to lose to a team that you should (beat). At least that’s the theory,” President Hank Bounds told The Associated Press. “At the end of the day, one sporting event doesn’t cause you to make a decision. It certainly was something we had been thinking about and concerned about when we were thinking about what the future looked like.”
Eichorst was hired to replace retiring athletic director Tom Osborne in October 2012, and has about $1.7 million remaining on a contract that runs through June 2019.
Bounds and Chancellor Ronnie Green said Eichorst was a champion of student-athlete welfare and had done a good job keeping the athletic department fiscally sound.
“Husker fans deserve winning teams, and while we made much progress across many dimensions of Husker athletics, we expect more,” Green said.
Nebraska — which spent $101 million on athletics in 2015-16, the most recent year for which data is available — has not won a Big Ten championship in football or basketball (men’s or women’s) since joining the conference in 2011.
The administrators said they want to be competitive in every sport because the school has the resources to accomplish that.
“We all know the importance of football in Husker athletics. There’s no reason to debate that,” Green said. “We know the importance of it to our brand. The expectations associated with Husker football are high and should be high. With that said, we also expect excellence in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, track and field, gymnastics, volleyball. You go down the list.”
In 2007, athletic director Steve Pederson was fired days after a humiliating loss to Oklahoma State. Osborne was brought in to replace him, and he fired coach Bill Callahan after the season.
Eichorst and Riley have been under increased scrutiny with the continued mediocrity of the program. Eichorst hired Riley away from Oregon State in 2014, replacing the successful but volatile Bo Pelini.
Riley is just 16-13 at Nebraska, a school that has won five national championships, went to bowl games every year from 1969-2003 but has not won a conference title since 1999. Since opening 2016 with seven straight wins, the Cornhuskers have lost six of nine, a stretch that included losses of 59 points to Ohio State and 30 points to Iowa. Eichorst had nonetheless quietly extended Riley’s contract by one year, through the 2020 season.
Green and Bounds decided Wednesday to fire Eichorst and met with him a day later.
“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,” Eichorst said in a statement released by the school. “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.”
Green and Bounds met with Riley alone Thursday to tell him the news before meeting with the rest of the department coaches.
“I was taken back, surprised,” Riley said. “I was probably flat-out saddened by the whole deal. I really, really enjoyed working with Shawn. Besides being a good man, I think he had everyone’s best interests at heart, coaches and student-athletes. Department-wide, the way it was run, was beautiful. The things put in place to help develop young people were great, and the support we got was at the highest level. His interaction with us was the most I’ve ever had.”
Riley said he appreciated Eichorst seeking him out for the job and that he and his staff continue to be thankful to be at Nebraska.
“We’ve tried to develop and grow and be the best we can be,” Riley said, “and we haven’t done as well as we need to.”
Green said he plans to appoint an interim athletic director within a few days to oversee day-to-day operations. Green said the school will use a search firm and will consult with stakeholders, including Osborne, and people who have run successful college programs for guidance and perspective.
The new athletic director will make the decision about Riley’s status, Bounds said.
“Mike Riley is our football coach,” he said. “We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley right now.”
Asked by a reporter what level of competitiveness he desires for football, Green harkened to the national championship years, saying, “This is going to sound a little glib, and I don’t mean it that way, but I’d love to be back in the mid-1990s, right?”
Bounds interjected, “Why not? Why shouldn’t we have those aspirations here?”