Nebraska's identity crisis proves Huskers are no longer a top-tier gig

The University of Nebraska football program lost to Northern Illinois on Saturday, the first time in 13 years a team from outside a power conference won in Lincoln. The deeply humiliating loss prompted swift and merciless change just five days later. Nebraska abruptly announced the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst on Thursday, the first step in an inevitable overhaul of the athletic department.

Let’s not dance around this. A new athletic director is going to come in and hire a new football coach. (And likely a new basketball coach.) The loss to Northern Illinois and sluggish 1-2 start marks the beginning of the end of Mike Riley’s three-year tenure in Lincoln. Riley is a nice guy, and in less than three months he’s on track to get fired and paid more than $6.6 million to find out where nice guys tend to finish.

The university’s decision to remove Eichorst is about football, pure and simple. The university’s awkward press release complimented Eichorst before noting, “those efforts have not translated to on-field performance.” Notice it didn’t say court. Or pool. Or mat.

In other words, Riley going 16-13 through three seasons and losing to a MAC team for the first time in school history isn’t going to cut it. When he is inevitably let go, Riley will make $170,000 per month through February 2021. Former coach Bo Pelini is still slated to get nearly $2.2 million between now and February 2019 and Eichorst is due $1.7 million. You don’t have to be on the House Appropriations Committee to deduce that Nebraska potentially paying out $10.5 million for three people not to work isn’t the most efficient use of state funding.

Firing Eichorst isn’t a big loss for Nebraska. He was an awkward fit, never comfortable with the external demands of the job. Eichorst is a buttoned-up lawyer miscast among the boundless passion of Nebraska, a benign personality who lacked the dynamism and creativity necessitated to forge a new identity and stop the school’s free-fall from relevancy. He was doomed as soon as he hired Riley, now 64, who was already deep in his twilight at Oregon State. Riley offered little other than a smiling foil to Bo Pelini’s perpetual scowl. Eichorst simply gave Riley a retirement cushion, and anyone smart enough to realize Nebraska is flat and the Earth isn’t could have seen this Riley flop coming.

This leaves Nebraska with both a football problem and an identity crisis, and those two are intricately intertwined to make this one of the trickiest jobs in college sports. To solve the problem will take a deep and painful look at the school’s modern realities. And the answers are going to be uncomfortable for Big Red loyalists, who double as one of the school’s strengths. Nebraska first needs to realize its limitations before maximizing its strengths.

So let’s start with a few cold body blows. Nebraska’s football job is not one of the top 20 jobs in college football. The school has established no consistent identity since joining the Big Ten in 2011, lacks a fertile recruiting base and has lost all of the major advantages it held by winning or sharing the national title three times from 1994-97. Nebraska is a worse job than Wisconsin, as it’s been bereft of talent and resonates with modern recruits less than places like Mississippi State, Boise State or TCU. Calls to athletic directors and industry sources on Thursday kept yielding the same defining left-handed compliment: “Well, it’s on the right side of the division [in the Big Ten].” Yep, Nebraska is the potential prom date being tabbed as having a “great personality.”

Nebraska football head coach Mike Riley (R) chats with Shawn Eichorst during fan day in Lincoln. Nebraska fired Eichorst on Thursday. (AP)
Nebraska football head coach Mike Riley (R) chats with Shawn Eichorst during fan day in Lincoln. Nebraska fired Eichorst on Thursday. (AP)

So what can Nebraska be? One Power Five athletic director offered this analysis: “Nebraska can be a better version of what Virginia Tech, Wisconsin and Kansas State have been,” the AD told Yahoo Sports. “They can be on the high end of that. They can’t be what Ohio State, Alabama and Florida have been recently.”

Nebraska’s first task should be establishing an identity. And to do that, they need a much stronger leader than the past two whiffs at hires outside the Nebraska family – Steve Pederson (2002-2007) and Eichorst (2012-2017).

Nebraska needs someone who can tap into the school’s two best resources – its passionate fan base and strong tradition. The issues come with maximizing those without trying to chase the past. “Twenty years ago they had a period of success that their fan base expects to get back to,” said the athletic director. “It’s hard to get back there with any level of consistency like they did 20 years ago.”

So who is next? They better have experience hiring coaches, as basketball coach Tim Miles is squarely on the hot seat as well. Former Cornhusker star Trev Alberts, who is the athletic director at the University of Nebraska Omaha, is a popular name. He’d be the quintessential foolish nostalgia hire of an unqualified alum, one we’re not sure Nebraska is too smart to avoid. Perhaps the best name floated on Thursday was Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard, who is widely respected and has navigated the challenges in Ames with aplomb.

There’s a crew of young athletic directors from outside the Power Five who could get looks – Mark Harlan at USF, Danny White at UCF, Patrick Kraft at Temple, Tom Bowen at Memphis and Boo Corrigan at Army. The one thing Nebraska has going for it is that it’s a much better job than California and Virginia, the two Power Five jobs it’ll be competing against for candidates.

And that leads to the next question: Who will Nebraska hire as coach once the new athletic director settles in and parts ways with Riley? That’ll be fascinating, as it will be interesting to see where the school goes philosophically. The dream target will be Chip Kelly, as the same can be said for the aspirational fan bases at struggling schools like Texas A&M, Tennessee and Auburn. The obvious candidate would be Scott Frost, who went 24-2 as a starter at Nebraska and led the Cornhuskers to a national title.

It would be hard to say no to Kelly, who is close to Riley and has said fit and people are the two most important things he’s looking for in a job. (That’s why the right AD is so important).

But here’s the bigger question: Should Nebraska shift away from the spread offense philosophically if it can’t land a home run like Kelly? The spread goes against what traditionally works in that geographic region. It didn’t work for Bill Callahan and had mixed results for Pelini. Look at the formula that’s won games at Wisconsin, Iowa and even North Dakota State – power football behind the region’s best talent asset – bruising linemen. Those programs have established identities and consistently won games. “It’s hard to say that’s what their identity should be,” said an athletic director who has followed Nebraska closely. “But they’re the one school from that [geographic] peer group that’s tried to be something else.”

Do they hire a more traditional pro-style coach like Greg Schiano? Or former Huskers assistant Craig Bohl? Or a defensive-minded coach like Dave Aranda or Brent Venables? Or a young up-and-comer like Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield, Toledo’s Jason Candle or Memphis’ Mike Norvell?

There’s no easy answers. But at Nebraska, the questions and expectations need to change. Two decades removed from being consistent contenders for the national title, the Huskers need a shift to stable leadership and on-field identity that allows them to exploit their best advantage. For now, that’s playing in the West division of the Big Ten. Nebraska needs to establish itself there before dreaming any bigger.