Randy York’s N-Sider
Editor’s Note: Shawn Eichorst will meet members of the Nebraska Athletic Department prior to his 11 a.m. press conference Tuesday at UNL’s Visitors Center. The press conference will be carried live on Huskers.com and feature Husker Sports Network analysts. Huskers.com also will host a chat with Eichorst, using fan-submitted questions from Tuesday. In addition, HuskerVision will produce a feature video on Eichorst and make it available on the next N'Side Nebraska show.
Welcome to Nebraska, Shawn and Kristin Eichorst, and while we’re at it, the N-Sider is throwing out a Big Red welcome mat for your three sons, too – Jack, Joseph and Bennett. Even though we know most of your next three months will be spent working directly with Harvey Perlman, our chancellor, we also know that once you begin your new job on Jan. 1, 2013, Husker Nation can and will trust you.
We can trust you not because we’re collectively clairvoyant. We will trust you because Barry Alvarez trusts you. You were, after all, his right-hand man when Barry was helping Jim Delany decide which school would become member No. 12 in the oldest conference in intercollegiate athletics.
That worked out well for everyone, but even a leader like Alvarez – an All-Big Eight linebacker at Nebraska and a Hall-of-Fame football coach and successful athletic director at Wisconsin – thinks long and hard before giving his stamp of approval on Perlman’s pursuit to find a successor for Tom Osborne, the most legendary and iconic figure in the history of the state of Nebraska.
Seriously Sold on Eichorst
“I take my role seriously. I take it dead seriously because it’s important to me, and I’m sold on the guy,” Alvarez said of Eichorst Monday from Atlanta on his way to a speaking engagement at the First and 10 Club in Mobile, Ala., a state he knows well since he played on two Bob Devaney bowl teams against the Crimson Tide.
“I know the guy, and I trust the guy,” Alvarez said of Eichorst. “When Harvey called and asked me about Shawn, I really put a lot of thought into what I said because I want to make sure I send the right guy to Nebraska. I want to feel real good about the choice just as much as Harvey does ... and I do.”
There are a number of reasons why Alvarez has so much faith in Eichorst, so let’s get to the first two: 1) his previous Big Ten experience as the No. 2 person in Wisconsin’s athletic department; and 2) his experience “running his own shop” from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater to Division I Miami.
He’s Seen It All, Done It All
"Shawn’s a very bright guy who’s been prepared well for this position, and his background really lends itself to being successful at Nebraska,” Alvarez said. “He’s worked his way through the ranks, and having a law degree certainly helps. He’s been a Division III AD, has a good background at South Carolina and I certainly gave him a lot of responsibility that he handled very, very well at our place. He’s been at some good schools. He understands the business, and he’s worked at every stage of it.”
To be sure, those are critical factors in Nebraska’s offer, but let’s get down to what really counts to every Nebraska student-athlete, coach, athletic department employee and fan across the country and around the world – how the new athletic director "in waiting" views Tom Osborne and how he plans to keep the Hall-of-Fame coach and three-term U.S. Congressman integrated into a future for which Osborne was the chief architect.
“I think Shawn understands the culture and tradition and how much it means to everyone in Nebraska and supports Nebraska,” Alvarez said. “I think he understands how important Tom is and how he’s made the Nebraska athletic program so successful."
Eichorst Will ‘Lean’ on Tom
“He will lean on Tom heavily, which is the smart thing to do,” Alvarez said. “Shawn’s experience at Miami, where he was really ambushed with that NCAA probation, is another important success for him. Getting through that really shows his leadership skills and how to get things done. He knew nothing about that problem coming in, yet was able to put everybody at ease and handle it the right way.”
When he hired Eichorst at Wisconsin, “Shawn had a handle on everything,” Alvarez said. “He wasn’t just strong in one area. He had a strong grasp of the entire program and its people. In this business, to be really good, you have to understand every aspect, and Shawn does.”
A busy Alvarez has not talked much with an equally busy Osborne. On the day before the Nebraska-Wisconsin game in Lincoln, Osborne did pull the former Husker off to the side and ask him about Eichorst. “I just told Tom that he’s a smart guy, did a good job for me and I thought he’d be a great fit for Nebraska,” Alvarez said. “Tom and I were both really swamped with people, so we didn’t get a chance to talk a whole lot.”
Didn’t Know Him Before Hire
We asked Alvarez how he learned about Eichorst and what led him to Wisconsin. “Shawn applied for the job. I didn’t know him beforehand,” Barry said. “I looked at his background and saw where he grew up right down the road from Madison. I liked the fact that he ran his own shop. I liked the Division I background he had at South Carolina, and I found out later that he was in Law School at Marquette the same time that my daughter (Stacey) was.
“I really like having that law degree for some of the people who work for me,” Alvarez said, “because I like the way they think. I can lean on them for contracts and all kinds of other things. I was very impressed the first time I visited with Shawn. He’s very sharp, and he was a football player at Wisconsin-Whitewater, so he’s seen the game from both sides.”
Eichorst was the Chief Operating Officer for a Wisconsin athletic program that had an annual budget that was nearly $10 million bigger than Nebraska’s.
We asked Alvarez about Eichorst being the AD at Miami for just a year-and-a-half after he left Wisconsin. “Jobs like Nebraska’s don’t open up very often,” Alvarez said. “It’s a top five AD job in the country. Not many schools sit where Nebraska sits and enjoys full stadiums, full suites and operates in the black every year without getting a dime of tax money.”
He Cleaned Up Miami’s Mess
Eichorst was so effective cleaning up the mess he inherited at Miami that he deserved a sizable bump in pay, but in lieu of that, Miami waived a personal buy-out of his contract. Monday, at lunch, I was asked how long Eichorst would stay at Nebraska before succeeding Alvarez at Wisconsin.
“I’ve had that same question asked of me, and there’s a simple answer – Nebraska is a destination AD job,” Alvarez said. “Nebraska fills the one stadium that really counts for everyone and that new arena has to help get basketball squared away, too. Plus, Nebraska is playing in the best and the most secure league in the country, and all of that adds up to be one of the best AD jobs in the country.”
I didn’t ask, but truth be told, Alvarez probably never would preclude a native son from returning home. But consider this: Eichorst will have so much opportunity to achieve success that he and his family will become a part of the very fabric of Nebraska. Only time will tell what will feel more like home. The Eichorsts could end up like the Alvarez family. Barry grew up in Pennsylvania and he considers Nebraska “home” even though he became a Hall-of-Fame coach/AD at Wisconsin.
Key: Understanding Tradition
So what advice did a former boss tell his one-time right-hand man before he would give a chancellor his seal of approval?
“Tradition is important and just about everyone knows the history of that program, particularly the football program,” Alvarez said. “You have to know how important the athletic program and the university are and understand why everyone focuses in on both.
“There are no Packers, there are no Bucks and there are no Brewers in Nebraska,” Alvarez said of Wisconsin’s three major sports franchises. “That’s why it’s so very, very important to focus on that university.
“Shawn understands that he will be operating many times under a magnifying glass,” Alvarez said. “It’s a small state, and everybody knows what’s going on. Nebraskans take great pride in their university and in their athletic program. They take pride in the success of all sports, and they want to keep winning."
Going Incognito Not an Option
Alvarez chuckles when he hears that Eichorst told Perlman he’d consider himself successful if every program was a winner at Nebraska and no one knew his name.
“I’ve had a few conversations with Shawn and told him that second part’s not going to happen,” Alvarez said. “In Nebraska, unlike a lot of other places, an AD is never going to be able to go incognito.”
The Nebraska experience, in fact, will be more like the theme song from Cheers.
“Just about everybody in Nebraska’s going to know his name,” Alvarez said.
And there’s nothing particularly bad about that.
It’s the price that anyone following a legend must pay.
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