LINCOLN -- In the minutes following the Nebraska football team’s stunning Sept. 16 home loss to Northern Illinois, Shawn Eichorst took the unusual step of meeting with reporters to express his frustration, calling the loss, “not acceptable.”
Four days after Eichorst resolutely stated he would, “work hard and hunker down and provide great leadership,” though, Chancellor Ronnie Green and President Hank Bounds decided he would not.
Change in the Nebraska athletic department’s leadership arrived forcefully Thursday afternoon when the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced it fired Eichorst, the school’s athletic director of more than four years.
Bounds and Green said in a Thursday news conference that on-field success drove the decision, which they made Wednesday night.
Eichorst was informed in an early morning meeting Thursday. The Board of Regents learned of the decision prior to a Thursday campus visit in Omaha.
"While we deeply appreciate all of his efforts, those efforts have not translated into the on-field excellence that we expect," Green said of Eichorst. "Our fans and our student athletes deserve leadership that drives the highest levels of competitiveness on the field, as well as across all facets across Husker Athletics.
"The fact of the matter is that we need to raise our on-field competitiveness. Competing at a high level is required for the long-term success of Nebraska Athletics. We intend to bring in a new athletic director to drive that on-field success."
Green said a search firm and a consulting group will be utilized in the search for a permanent replacement, which began Thursday morning. He added that he would seek the counsel of former football coach and athletic director Tom Osborne and others.
Bounds said discussions with interim athletic director candidates had already started and that the position would be named, "in the next couple of days."
As for the timing of the decision, Green said, "We want to get started (on the search). We've got work to do."
Eichorst’s final public statements came after Nebraska’s 21-17 home loss to NIU, and pointed to the same lack of competitiveness cited repeatedly by Green and Bounds.
“On the outside looking in, it's hard to objectively say (there's progress)," the embattled Eichorst said then, when asked about NU's 3-6 record over the previous nine games. "But I do see that on a lot of levels. ... My obligation is to these young men who are in our program and our coaches and our staff.
"We'll be judged week to week based on our performance, and today's performance was not good and not acceptable.”
Eichorst, who was hired by Harvey Perlman, had about $1.7 million remaining on his contract, which ran through June 2019.
In the release, Eichorst said, “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.”
Bounds lauded Eichorst's leadership in several areas, but reiterated the need for improved on-field success.
“You look at graduation rates, life skills, life after college and all of the things that have happened there, you couldn’t ask for a better job," he said. "But competing and those other very important issues are not mutually exclusive.”
Green said he met with head coaches from all Huskers sports Thursday afternoon.
"We have personnel that manage teams and that are the motivators for those teams," he added. "We absolutely have responsibilities there, but the leaders also sets that tone for competitiveness. It's shared, all responsibility, but the leader sets the tone."
The crown jewel of the department, of course, is football. While Bounds and Green both cited the need for competitiveness across all sports, they made it clear that head coach Mike Riley and his program are at the forefront.
"We all know the importance of football to Husker athletics," Green said. "There's no reason to debate that. We know the importance of it to our brand. The expectations in Husker football are high, should be high and will always be high."
The third-year coach signed a one-year contract extension on Aug. 1 that was recommended by Eichorst and Green in January.
"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-90s," Green said when asked about his definition of competitiveness. "I don't need to say more than that."
Added Bounds, "And the truth of the matter is, why not? Why shouldn't we have those aspirations have here?"
Eichorst succeeded Osborne at the top of the department in October 2012 after less than 18 months at the University of Miami. Before that, he served from 2009-11 as deputy athletic director at the University of Wisconsin, where his responsibilities under athletic director Barry Alvarez included serving as the department's chief operating officer and overseeing day-to-day operations.
He was set to earn a $750,000 retention bonus in December.
Eichorst's biggest move as Nebraska's athletic director came on Nov. 30, 2014, when he fired Pelini a day after Nebraska's win against a 7-5 Iowa program.
Asked if the comeback win against the Hawkeyes factored into the decision, Eichorst said at the time, "We were not playing for a conference championship and neither was Iowa. And I have great respect for Iowa ... but in the final analysis, their record was where it was and our record was where it was."
Since those comments, Nebraska is 16-14 and Iowa is 23-8.
Four days after firing Pelini, Eichorst hired Riley.
Riley stands at 16-13 overall in his career here after the program lost two of its first three games for the second time in his tenure.
How much Eichorst's removal will affect Riley's future as Nebraska's coach remains to be seen.
In 2016, the Omaha-based SilverStone Group conducted a survey of leadership and culture within the Nebraska athletic department.
The responses came back generally positive, although the consulting firm that performed the audit said Eichorst should be more visible and communicate better.
Eichorst, who also serves on the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee, had drawn criticism because of a reluctance — perceived or otherwise — to speak with the media. Eichorst did appear to be more visible, at times, in the public following the survey.
Senior team members said Eichorst approached the role by "walking a fine line to stay somewhat in the background to allow greater visibility for the student athletes, coaches and coaching staff."
Asked if he had concerns about the executive staff NU's athletic department, Bounds said, "I do not."
Eichorst's final full week here will stand among his most tumultuous. The Lone Rock, Wisconsin native, who typically preferred to work behind the scenes, met with reporters Thursday and Saturday.
Thursday's hastily gathered session came two days after he and Riley each expressed support for moving Nebraska's final conference game away from Black Friday, where it's been scheduled each year since 1990. He walked that statement back Thursday, saying he made a mistake in not communicating clearly and that he would do everything in his power to keep the Huskers playing on Friday past 2019.
Then Saturday, following one of the most stunning losses since Eichorst took over, he for the first time in his tenure took questions from reporters in the postgame media area.
Eichorst is not the first Nebraska AD to be fired during a football season. Steve Pederson, who hired Bill Callahan as football coach, was fired seven games into the 2007 season, the final straw a humiliating 45-14 homecoming loss to Oklahoma State.
"There will be days of follow-up questions about ... why three weeks in (to the football season)," Bounds said. "The answer will be the same. We want to compete. We want to be competitive. We want our fans to know that we intend to compete and we are going to figure that out."