Nebraska Magazine Winter 2014

 

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A Look Back at Year One: Shawn Eichorst

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A Look Back at Year One: Shawn Eichorst

 
 

"My expectations are to carry on the history and tradition. I don't think this is a place where you have to reinvent the wheel. I think what you have to do is get yourself immersed in everything Nebraska. My goal would be to make something that is already great, better."
 – Shawn Eichorst on Jan. 3, 2013, his first day as director of athletics at NU

Fast forward 365 days, and it's readily apparent what "immersed in everything Nebraska" means to Shawn Eichorst.

In that time span he has made 173 appearances – almost one every other day, including 146 in state and 27 out of state. He has met with the campus senior administrative team and every dean and director on campus as well as donors, alumni, Nebraskans, season ticket holders and members of the media across the state and nation.

"The one thing I always hear from alumni who've met Shawn is how approachable and genuine he is," said Diane Mendenhall, executive director of the Nebraska Alumni Association. "Shawn has been very generous with his time at our alumni events. We're so happy to have him as a Husker."

Eichorst's predecessor, Tom Osborne, said, "Shawn has worked hard to meet people throughout the state and the university and has developed a good understanding of some of the unique aspects of Nebraska and the athletic program."

Building dedications, ribbon cuttings, athletic tributes, graduation ceremonies, award banquets, campus activities, Big Ten meetings and more have filled the pages of his calendar. He started semi-monthly Connecting on Campus columns for Husker fans and has completed 12 monthly radio shows, with a guest coach or expert and student-athlete accompanying him each time, predominantly from under-publicized sports.

"Shawn is an unique AD, maybe one of a kind, in his understanding of and respect for the role of athletics on a research campus," said Ellen Weissinger, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs. "He spent his first few weeks at UNL forming close relationships with the academic deans and learning a lot about our strengths in creative activity, scholarship and research all across campus. He writes about UNL's academic successes in his weekly column – including a story about Dean Donde Plowman's plans for a new CBA building and a feature about our philosophy faculty coaching an award-winning Ethics Bowl team."

Eichorst also accompanied Weissinger on a visit to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), the academic consortium that connects the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago.

"Needless to say he was the first AD ever to come calling in the CIC's 60-year history," Weissinger said. "The CIC leaders were so impressed with his intellect and his sophistication on academic issues, and I have to admit I was really proud of the way that Shawn enhanced our reputation in this very prestigious group."

For her part, CBA Dean Plowman is equally enthusiastic about the new director of athletics.

"Shawn spoke to 250 CBA partners in September and they were blown away by him and his interest in partnering with the colleges," she said. "We are lucky to have him at UNL. He has an incredibly important job and yet he makes himself available to the rest of the campus. He is a campus leader – not just the leader of the Athletics Department."

Perhaps most importantly, Eichorst has attended countless Husker athletic contests, including approximately 100 home events since Aug. 1 alone, and has made multiple road trips with teams.

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman recalled asking him during his job interview how he would be able to measure his success as an athletic director five years from now. Eichorst replied: "If the coaches and the student-athletes have been successful and nobody knows my name, it will be a success. The athletic department is all about the success of coaches and student-athletes."

A year later, those coaches and student-athletes understand what the farm boy, lawyer and former athletic administrator at Wisconsin and Miami meant.

"The University of Nebraska and Shawn are a perfect fit," said baseball coach Darin Erstad. "From the first time I met him it felt like he had been here for years. His mentality is identical to the blue collar work ethic Nebraska hangs its hat on.

"The first thing Shawn said to me was what can I do to help you be successful," he added. "He wants nothing more than to support the student-athletes and coaches and let them do their thing. As a coach it is very important to know he has the trust in all of us to lead our programs."

That trust was evident in Eichorst's support of football coach Bo Pelini late in the season.

"My approach has always been not to comment publicly about our coaches until their full seasons are complete, as I strongly believe it is unfair and counter to best practices," he announced on Nov. 30. "However, given the volume of unfounded speculation and conjecture about our head football coach, I want to reaffirm what I have said many times since I arrived at the University of Nebraska – that I positively respect, appreciate and support our football student-athletes, coaches and staff, as we do everyone in the Husker family. We very much look forward to our upcoming bowl game and Coach Pelini continuing to lead our program in the future."


Student-athletes believe in Eichorst's approach as well.

Sunny Russell, a senior on the rifle team, is president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee that includes representatives from all 24 men's and women's varsity sports.

"Eichorst has done an exceptional job intentionally reaching out to connect with and serve our student-athletes," Russell said. "He requests regular feedback from us about our experience at Nebraska, and he reminds us regularly of his open-door policy. His focus on bettering our experience helps student-athletes feel more connected to the athletic administration, and facilities and improvements that are made are more suited for our needs because he seeks our feedback," she added.

During the director of athletics' first year, the women's basketball team advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 while the women's gymnastics and tennis teams and the men's outdoor track and field team won Big Ten championships. The softball team advanced to the College World Series and their coach, Rhonda Revelle, became NU's all-time winningest coach, while the bowling team captured the NCAA title.

This fall, the soccer team won the Big Ten Soccer regular season and tournament titles and UNL hosted four rounds of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament to determine a final four team (not yet completed as the magazine went to press). Nebraska continued to lead the nation in Academic All-Americans, reaching 310 and counting, and increased its lead in NCAA Top Ten Award winners when tennis player Mary Weatherholt earned this most prestigious individual student-athlete honor based on academic achievement, athletic accomplishment and community service.

In addition, Nebraska now boasts some of the finest athletic facilities in the country with the opening of the East Stadium Expansion project, the renovated Devaney Center and Pinnacle Bank Arena, as well as Eichorst's recently approved plans for a Nebraska Soccer and Tennis Complex adjacent to Nebraska Innovation Campus.

Beyond the playing fields and facilities, the director of athletics has been quick to emphasize the importance of the student-athlete experience.

From the beginning, he made academic services and life skills among his highest priorities, according to Keith Zimmer, associate AD for Life Skills and N-Club.

"He has genuinely honored this commitment," Zimmer said. Our student-athletes have been impressed with his accessibility and direct presence at meetings, practices and competitions. He welcomes student-athlete feedback and has already demonstrated his conviction to ensure the best student-athlete experience possible."

And for the alumni, Eichorst revamped the N-Club to be more inclusive, linking the previously independent group to the Athletics Department's Life Skills program.

Husker baseball alum and current N-Club Advisory Council member Charlie Colon welcomed the move, calling it "an important and very strategic move for two reasons.

One, it creates alignment with the overall mission of the athletic department and ensures that the events/reunions moving forward have a consistent approach. Two, it focuses on the mission of Husker alumni helping current Huskers by sharing various life and career experiences," he said. "It creates specific opportunities for mentorship and sharing, and ultimately, the ability to connect the past to the present through relationships."

"Nebraska letter winners have a strong sense of pride and ownership in the university and the facilities the athletes have at their disposal," said another N-Club council member and football alum, Frosty Anderson. "Shawn recognized that the N-Club could benefit from the direct support of the athletic department to embrace that connection … a win-win for all involved."

 "I know it must be hard to follow a legend," Vice Chancellor Weissinger concluded. "But I have a feeling that Shawn will be our next generation legend. Under Shawn's leadership, we are building a 21st century athletic department that will add even more academic value for our students, including students who are not directly a part of the athletic department."