Shawn Eichorst, who does not block or tackle or coach blocking or tackling, was fired Thursday because the Nebraska football program is not competitive enough. We know this because the c-word got thrown around quite a bit by the two guys who fired Nebraska’s athletic director.
“We want to compete,” University of Nebraska system president Hank Bounds told reporters in a press conference. “We want to be competitive. We want our fans to know that we intend to compete, and we’re going to figure that out.”
That’s quite a message, and it must have sent chills up the spine of Nebraska football coach Mike Riley. Oh, Bounds and Lincoln campus chancellor Ronnie Green said this was only about Eichorst and not any football coaches he personally hired. “Mike Riley is our football coach,” Green told reporters. “We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley.”
Except of course it’s about Mike Riley. The firing came five days after Riley’s team lost to Northern Illinois. There was a minor-but-embarrassing about-face involving Eichorst and whether Nebraska wanted to play on Black Friday in the future, but if the Cornhuskers don’t lose to the Huskies, Eichorst probably is still employed. Essentially, Bounds and Green fired Eichorst because he’s the guy who hired Mike Riley. Which means if Riley doesn’t go on a miracle run that his team doesn’t seem capable of achieving, he’s probably next.
Let this be a lesson to all the aspiring athletic directors out there. When you hire a coach, don’t make “being the exact opposite of the guy I just fired” the primary criterion. The primary criterion should always be “the coach who will win the most games,” especially when the guy you just fired won a lot of games.
This isn’t the time to re-debate Eichorst’s firing of Bo Pelini. There was a case to be made for the firing after Pelini verbally nuked the fanbase in a rant recorded without his knowledge. There also was the matter of a recruiting dip that was apparent to all. But we can still point out that Pelini—who is still being paid by Nebraska even though he’s now Youngstown State’s coach—never won fewer than nine games in seven seasons at Nebraska. That he couldn’t get Nebraska off a 9–4 plateau was his biggest problem. But instead of hiring a coach who could get the Cornhuskers climbing again, Eichorst hired someone who sent them rolling downhill because his only plan seemed to be to hire the antithesis of Pelini.
Pelini probably yelled at Eichorst a lot. Heck, he yelled at pretty much everyone. So Eichorst responded by hiring the nicest coach in America. Never mind that Riley’s best days at Oregon State were probably behind him. Hiring Riley after the 2009 season, after 26 wins in three seasons in the Pac-10’s toughest job, would have made sense. Hiring him after the ’14 season, when his teams had gone 29–33 in the previous five seasons, made little sense. That’s why Riley’s hiring stunned the college football world. Eichorst managed to keep his pursuit of Riley a secret because no one would have believed him had he said publicly that he was considering Riley.
Riley can still coach his way out of this, but that will require significant improvement from his team. Using a hybrid offense that incorporated the skill set of the quarterback he inherited from Pelini (Tommy Armstrong Jr.), Riley’s team bounced back from a 5–7 regular season in 2015 and won nine games last year but got hammered by Ohio State and Iowa and closed with a Music City Bowl loss to a Tennessee team that had just been whipped in the same town by Vanderbilt. Then Riley fired longtime defensive coordinator Mark Banker and hired former Connecticut coach Bob Diaco to shore up the defense. Riley would be running his preferred offense now that pro-style slinger Tanner Lee had sat out a year after transferring from Tulane. Three games in, the Cornhuskers are 1–2, and it’s tough to find five more wins on the schedule to get them bowl eligible. If they lose to either Rutgers or Illinois in the next two games, it would portend a positively disastrous season.
Nebraska fans seem to have accepted that the college football world has changed and the Cornhuskers likely won’t be annual national title contenders again. But it is realistic to expect Nebraska to compete for the Big Ten West title every year, to win it every few years and occasionally be competitive in the Big Ten title game. Of course, the guys in charge want even more than that.
“I’d love to be back in the mid-1990s, right?” Green told reporters. “I don’t need to say more.”
Bounds immediately chimed in. “And the truth is why not?” Bounds said. “Why shouldn’t we have those aspirations here?”
A cynic might answer “because Prop 48 isn’t walking through that door,” but we shouldn’t mock the Big Red boys for shooting for the moon. Nebraska is a proud program with wonderful fans, great facilities and plentiful resources. There is no reason the Cornhuskers can’t achieve the realistic expectations described above. (By me, not by the chancellor and president.)
The question now is how whether they’ll hire a new athletic director before they make a decision about Riley, who was extended through 2020 earlier this year. If Riley keeps his job, the obvious answer is yes, but if the season continues to go poorly, the timing could be awkward. Expect plenty of support for former Cornhuskers linebacker Trev Alberts, a living link to the glory days who currently serves as the athletic director of Nebraska-Omaha. Alberts presided over some financial difficulties as the Mavericks moved to Division I, but Bounds—who also is Alberts’s ultimate boss—knows all about that.
Eichorst’s ouster means Green and Bounds didn’t want Eichorst to have any input if they decide soon they need a new football coach. They paid lip service to Riley’s chances of staying employed Thursday, but his only chance is to win a lot between now and November. If he can’t, he’ll join the guy who hired him in that buyout life, and Green and Bounds—and their consultant and search firm—will go searching for someone who can bring their team closer to the impossible dreams they have for it.
One person already seems ready to apply.