Big-time college athletics is not a black-and-white business. It’s a trophies business. Those are the only things that talk. And according to the people who get to make the decisions on things like that, Nebraska’s former Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst didn’t have enough of those in the trophy case.
People in positions such as this keep their jobs objectively, but they often lose them subjectively. This is the path they have chosen, and it can get rocky quickly.
So Eichorst is gone as of Thursday.
“Husker fans, as we know, the best fans in the nation, deserve winning teams,” Chancellor Ronnie Green said at his press conference. “And while we’ve made much progress across many dimensions of Husker athletics, we expect more. Winning can and often does happen in concert with well-run, quality college programs that work to ensure the success of our students. That’s our expectation here at Nebraska.”
A fine statement. One that certainly won’t anger any Husker fans, but what does “more” look like, exactly?
“Clearly the best, most objective way is wins and losses, but there are differences in wins and losses,” President Hank Bounds said. “There are programs that we compete with that we should compete with, and there are programs where we are . . .”
Bounds never finished that thought, instead taking a different path with his answer. But, subjectively, it seems pretty clear what was left unsaid: With these resources, you can’t lose to Northern Illinois at home. Especially not when the men’s basketball program was 75-86 with one NCAA Tournament appearance under Eichorst’s watch. Not when baseball was capable of making the NCAA Tournament but hasn’t done much (1-6) when it got there. Not when women’s basketball, a Tournament team in 2015, fell to 7-22 last year after a controversial coaching change.
But all of that would’ve remained tenable, at least for a little while longer, if Nebraska had just beaten Northern Illinois. It’s unsatisfactory but not infeasible to think about how the Huskers could’ve come out of that game with an ugly 17-14 win. They had that lead in the fourth quarter, but the Huskies responded immediately with a long pass down the sideline that led to a touchdown drive and the last lead Northern Illinois would need. After the game, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco called it a “50-50 ball.”
What’s the famous Cormac McCarthy line? “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”
Eichorst lost his job, a good one. If Nebraska knocks that ball away, maybe he’s still here. Because Nebraska didn’t, in combination with the performance across all sports, he isn’t. Eichorst put himself in the position for the final decision to come down to a coin toss and he lost. That’s not up for debate, but it’s still shocking how quickly things can turn.
And with that, thoughts immediately turn to football. It’s inescapable, really.
“We all know the importance of football in Husker athletics,” Green said. “There’s no reason to debate that.”
Nebraska football goes from pursuing its immediate 2017 goals, still technically intact, to staring yet another rebuild straight in the face. Mike Riley, Eichorst’s hand-selected coach, will get the chance to win his way out of this predicament, but he better win a lot. It’s too early to even have a realistic list of candidates for the open AD job at this point, but whoever gets the job has to view Riley as unfireable at year’s end.
That’s not the Riley era to date. Not at 16-13.
The most likely scenario here is that Nebraska starts over again. That is the tough reality of the decision that was made on Thursday, and it comes with consequences. The Huskers will get tsk-tsk’d and SMH’d from outside sources the way any program that’s pursuing past glory does. It never makes sense. What’s a program to do? Accept mediocrity? Throw in the towel? But it always happens.
Nebraska is now dealing with that again. It never stops until the decision-makers get it right, and eventually they will be evaluated on the quality of their decisions.
You’ll know things didn’t work if they’re judged subjectively.
In this business, objectivity is reserved for winners.