All business, Husker A.D. won't duck a fight

Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst mingles with fans at the Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Neb., where Nebraska played Purdue in a men's basketball game.

Sometimes, Lou Holtz says, it seems athletic directors exist only to say no.

In the summer of 2004, Holtz was the head football coach at South Carolina leading a team through preseason camp for the 34th time. One day, in the heat of August, he wanted to cap off practice at the swimming pool.

Holtz's new associate athletic director heard about the plan and told Coach they needed to make sure lifeguards were available.

“He didn't like that,” Shawn Eichorst says.

Eichorst hadn't been in Columbia long enough to make the right phone calls and twist the right arms. Which meant he had to tell the legend, who would retire three months later, that his Gamecocks better find another way to cool down.

Holtz got hot. He directed his fury not at Eichorst, but at the campus rec center. They didn't want his football players? Well, that's fine.

You tell them I'm gonna do my first coach's show from the pool deck. And I'm gonna tell everybody they wouldn't let me use the pool.

That's the starting point for Eichorst in Division I. That's where his “meteoric rise,” as Holtz called it, begins. Over the next seven years, Eichorst worked with some of the biggest sporting personalities in the country — Steve Spurrier, Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema. The former litigator quietly made his mark with a rare blend of intellect and humility.

“He's the smartest guy in the room. He's probably also the quietest guy in the room,” said Joe Armentrout, a former Wisconsin athlete. “But when you're analyzing things, that's the guy you want. Two ears, one mouth.”

Said Bo Ryan, the Badgers' basketball coach: “He didn't have to be a glad-hander. He didn't have to be a 'Woo-woo!' guy. I hate those phony guys. ... What you see is what you get. I'll tell you, coaches really like that.”

In 2011, Eichorst left the comfort of his native Wisconsin and took over his first Division I athletic department. A prestigious academic institution with an iconic football program: Miami.

The challenges Eichorst encountered made Holtz seem harmless: a rogue booster determined to smear the Canes. A looming punishment from the NCAA. A considerable slice of the fan base that resisted not only his ideas, but his personality.

And no lifeguard in sight.

Headed south

Sandy Nusbaum has been around the Miami Hurricanes long enough to recite highlights of the 1984 Orange Bowl. The fumblerooskie. Irving Fryar's drop. Ken Calhoun's deflection.

“Osborne had all the guts in the world to go for two,” said Nusbaum, a 64-year-old broker for Wells Fargo.

He's originally from New Jersey — he still carries the accent. But he graduated from Miami and, since the late '70s, he's been a prominent booster. He hasn't missed a bowl game since '81. He used to travel on the basketball team plane.

When Nusbaum heard Shawn Eichorst was the new athletic director in April 2011, he was skeptical. Kirby Hocutt had just left for Texas Tech after only three years. Now here was another outsider who didn't know the difference between Dade and Broward Counties.

Miami's culture is unusual in Division I athletics. It's a private school with a small alumni base in a massive, diverse city. The Hurricanes have struggled to keep coaches and administrators, Nusbaum says, because their families often don't warm to the area.

Regardless, Nusbaum wanted to support Eichorst. He called and told Eichorst to use him as a resource. If you get lost, give me a call. He liked Eichorst personally. But from the start, something didn't seem right.

A few months into Eichorst's tenure, Nusbaum attended an athletic banquet. Eichorst delivered a short introduction and seemed to be reading his lines.

“I'm sure I could wake up (a Husker fan) at 3 in the morning and say, 'Give me 10 minutes on Nebraska athletics,' and he could just sit up and talk about it,” Nusbaum said. “He still was somewhat reading a speech. And I was like, 'Give me a break.' ”

New generation

Lou Holtz may have been ticked about the swimming pool, but he endorsed Eichorst to be Barry Alvarez's right-hand man at Wisconsin.

Alvarez liked Eichorst's law background. He liked his SEC experience. He liked that he'd run his own department at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Eichorst returned — Madison is just 45 miles from his hometown — and excelled outside the spotlight. He embraced the dirty work Alvarez didn't have time for. Budgets. Contracts. A tedious NCAA certification process.

“He just took the bull by the horns,” Alvarez said. “That's a very in-depth, very thorough evaluation and critique of every phase of our athletic program. ... Everybody dreads doing it. He just took it.”

From the archives

Staff writer Sam McKewon offers another look at Shawn Eichorst in 'Next Nebraska A.D. learning on the job with help of Perlman, Osborne' (Oct. 9, 2012)
Click here  »

A generation ago, most A.D.s were former coaches like Alvarez and Tom Osborne. Eichorst represents the new generation with business expertise.

“Administrators now can't just be a pretty face,” Bo Ryan said. “You just can't throw someone into that position because they were a big name. You've got to have not just people skills, but legal smarts.”

Eichorst, according to one Wisconsin colleague, was a “lunch-bucket guy.” Steady and serious. Careful not to exchange an opinion without collecting all of the facts. When he spoke, you knew he'd given the issue a lot of thought.

He observes, listens and analyzes at a different level than most administrators. He sees things, Ryan said, that others miss.

“Let anybody who's a hustler or a con man beware,” Ryan said. “He reads people as well as anybody I've ever seen. He's got that knack.”

Eichorst's gifts were polished in the courtroom, but his personality is rooted in small-town Wisconsin.

Division I athletics is a dynamic business. The next connection — the next dollar — is just around the corner. Eichorst was different because he didn't self-promote. He didn't worry about spending three minutes with each booster.

“He'll look you in the eye without looking over your shoulder,” said Matt Lepay, Wisconsin's radio announcer.

Eichorst may be more introverted than Holtz, Spurrier and Alvarez. But in being around so many alpha males, he learned there's more than one way to succeed. He also learned nobody's right all the time.

“You're not always going to please people,” Eichorst said. “It's a 50-50 deal. You better be comfortable with that.”

Do the homework, acquire as much information as possible and make the best decision you can.

“By gosh, if you didn't make the right decision, own up to it,” Eichorst said. “We all make mistakes. I'm not perfect. I don't have all the answers.”

What mistakes did he make at Miami? Eichorst thinks for a moment.

“I really don't think we made any mistakes at Miami. Not any in particular that I can think of.”

Avoiding the spotlight

Eichorst had been Miami's athletic director for four months when he and the family hit the road to Orlando. A quick vacation before football season.

That's when he got the call about Nevin Shapiro, the Miami booster and convicted Ponzi schemer who said he showered dozens of Hurricane athletes with improper benefits.

“I'm sitting in the president's office the next Monday and the NCAA is laying it out,” Eichorst said.

Friends, including Alvarez, thought Eichorst was ambushed. Why hadn't he been told? Seventeen months later, the NCAA still hasn't released its notice of allegations. But the dark cloud changed everything. It ruined morale. It damaged recruiting.

Eichorst directed all energy toward storm preparation.

“The way I saw it is everybody was going to look to me for leadership. ... So the key for me was to let everybody know that we had this deal under control.”

Internally, Eichorst succeeded in typical fashion. He modernized the department. He established safeguards to prevent the next rogue booster. He improved facilities. He hired a highly regarded basketball coach, Jim Larranaga.

One associate called him a “class act” and “an unbelievable leader.”

But as well as he performed behind the scenes, he left the fan base wondering who he was — and why he was creating distance between the public and the program. According to several Miami supporters, Eichorst failed to rally the community and to present a message of resilience.

You can't comment on the NCAA investigation? Fine. What can you talk about? Eichorst left the public in the dark.

“You saw nothing,” said Harry Rothwell, who manages a Hurricanes retail store.

“Unfortunately,” said Ken Lancaster, a lawyer in Miami, “he wasn't a people person.”

Eichorst rarely accepted a media request. At sporting events, he didn't make the rounds. People didn't know him. He preferred that coaches be the public face of the department.

Those personality traits had always been considered strengths. But Miami had a tradition of charismatic athletic directors. And this was a time of adversity. The A.D. wasn't supposed to seclude himself behind his desk.

“I don't think he ever went out of his way to welcome or make a donor feel comfortable,” Rothwell said.

Miami is not Alabama or Michigan. There's no waiting list for season tickets. Even when the Hurricanes are winning, it's hard to get people off the beaches and golf courses.

“I always say at Miami, you have to work twice as hard for half as much,” Rothwell said. “You have to go out and shake hands and kiss babies and make people want to be part of the program.”

Hard to grade

Criticism intensified when Eichorst limited boosters' access to athletes. Donors couldn't come to practice. Former players couldn't stand on the sideline. Fans couldn't sit with athletes at a banquet table.

These weren't Nevin Shapiros, Nusbaum said. Often they were dads who wanted their sons to meet the quarterback. Or old men and women who wanted to greet the freshman point guard.

“They weren't taking them out on their boats or taking them to dinner,” Nusbaum said. “They were just being nice to them.”

Measures were adopted at the direction of the Board of Trustees, Lancaster said. But a perception formed.

“A lot of people were joking that he basically put crime tape around the department to keep everybody away,” Nusbaum said.

In another move under Eichorst, Miami cut small booster clubs. Previously, volunteers comprised sports-specific groups — basketball, baseball, swimming, tennis — that raised money for their favorite sports.

Eichorst eliminated their fundraising capabilities, giving the athletic department more control over who raised money and who represented UM. The clubs died off.

In some ways, Nusbaum said, Eichorst got a bad rap. Remember the infamous photo of Miami President Donna Shalala in which she's holding a $50,000 check from Shapiro? Eichorst didn't know his environment. Didn't know whom he could trust. Better safe than sorry.

Still, he never appeared comfortable. He succeeded as an administrator, but not as a politician.

Perhaps Eichorst's methods will ease Miami's debt with the NCAA. But until then, he's a hard man to grade, Rothwell said.

“He wouldn't get an 'A.' He wouldn't get an 'F.' He'd get an incomplete.”

Total overhaul

One year after the NCAA called him about Nevin Shapiro, Eichorst got another big phone call. Nebraska needed an athletic director.

The situation at Miami didn't nudge him toward the door, he said. “I just don't run away from things. That's not in my nature.”

But Eichorst couldn't say no. He considered NU as good as any A.D. job in the country.

Miami fans, meanwhile, considered NU a better fit for Eichorst. A place he didn't have to worry about NCAA investigators. A place he didn't have to shake hands and kiss babies and wave the flag.

“I would've loved to have been out and about a little bit more,” Eichorst said. “But the circumstances just didn't lend itself to that. You would only know that if you were behind the scenes. It was a very distressed organization which we totally overhauled in a short period of time to try to build a foundation for sustained success.

“There's only so many hours in a day.”

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>> Video: Shawn Eichorst introduced as Nebraska A.D. (Oct. 9, 2012):

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