ESPN writers Adam Rittenberg and Mitch Sherman discuss the current state of Husker football and try do dissect what’s wrong with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Nebraska‘s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois on in week 3 isn’t the only recent blow that one of college football’s ex-heavyweight champions has absorbed.
But it felt different. It inspired different emotions in Lincoln, and not simply pain. Despite being just the Huskers’ third game, it raised bigger questions about the team, head coach Mike Riley (16-13 in two plus seasons), athletic director Shawn Eichorst and the program as a whole. Perhaps the biggest question is the broadest: What is Nebraska football right now?
We dissect the situation in Lincoln and what could be coming next.
Mitch Sherman: This is the low moment in the past 10 years. It hearkens back to 2007, when Nebraska had that disastrous final season under Bill Callahan, and Steve Pederson, the athletic director, was let go in the middle of the year after the Huskers got blown out at home by Oklahoma State. Tom Osborne had no choice by the end of the season but to fire Callahan and bring in Bo Pelini. Nothing that happened under Pelini on the field was as bad, when you consider the opponent, as what happened Saturday.
From that point of view, it’s pretty alarming because there have been a lot of bad things that have happened at Nebraska over the past decade. And it was illustrated by what happened after the game with athletic director Shawn Eichorst, who is normally under a shield of darkness, offering himself to the media and basically telling the state and the fan base that this is it, everyone has to take responsibility.
Adam Rittenberg: It was a bad week for Eichorst and Nebraska. This week began with the news that Riley had another year tacked onto his contract. Kind of a quiet thing, maybe just for recruiting purposes, but still raises that question of, why are you worried about losing Mike Riley, at his age (64) and given what he has done at Nebraska? Are you just throwing bad money out there?
And then you had Eichorst having to backpedal on the whole Black Friday games issue with the Big Ten schedule. And then this loss. We heard more from Eichorst this week than any other time in his tenure as AD. The hard thing for Eichorst is that unlike many other athletic directors, he is so attached to Riley because of the way things ended with Pelini.
Sherman: It’s the common perception that Eichorst is 100 percent tied to Riley, and my first thought when I saw the news that he went totally out of character and willingly did interviews was that he’s trying to distance himself from Riley. He’s coming out and making harsher comments than you’ve ever heard about Riley. If you read between the lines of what he said, yes, it was supportive, but it was also a little bit of a shot across the bow. It was, “This needs to get better. This is embarrassing. I’m angry.”
Thing is, I don’t think that’s possible at this point to create that distance. It’s worth noting Nebraska’s chancellor is not Harvey Perlman, who hired Eichorst. Ronnie Green was hired a year and a half ago, and while I don’t think he has any huge differences or problems with the athletic director, Eichorst is not his guy. It’s common in hiring football coaches to search for a guy who’s the opposite of the coach you are getting rid of. Eichorst took that to the extreme. This was not about football as much as it was about personality and fit, and how he felt the coach related to the core values of the program. To me, that makes the two of them inseparable. If one of them succeeds, the other one succeeds. If one of them fails, the other one fails.
Rittenberg: That’s the interesting dynamic here. Can Eichorst fire Riley without being fired himself? I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but a few more games like Northern Illinois, and we could be. In talking to coaches around the Big Ten, they say the talent level, especially on the defensive side, has dropped off substantially for the Huskers. Nebraska is at a point as a program where the coaching has to make a difference. Scheme has to make a difference.
Nebraska invested in a proven defensive coordinator in Bob Diaco. I thought that was a good hire. Riley shuffled his staff after last season even though they won nine games. But the Cornhuskers are not at the talent level that they were when they came into the Big Ten. Nebraska is almost in this Wisconsin-ish, developmental, schematic mold where those things have to make a difference, and I don’t know if they can.
Sherman: There’s a little bit of bitter irony for Nebraska. The talent level is clearly not at the place where it needs to be for the program to succeed in the model that they have set up. For a lot of people around this program, and people who spent time following recruiting, the stark reality is the way Nebraska can win is to have an identity in the mold that Wisconsin does and Iowa does. Those programs are so similar. Both of them know themselves so well. If you were to ask me, What’s the biggest problem at Nebraska in football, it’s that Nebraska doesn’t know who it is or really what it wants to be. That could not be further from the situation in Madison or Iowa City.
Rittenberg: You’re right, and certainly it’s hard for Huskers fans to think, “We’ve gotta be more like Wisconsin and Iowa,” because historically, they blow both programs out of the water. But it brings me back to, what’s the realistic expectation for Mike Riley and Nebraska? I admire Nebraska fans because of their support for their team, the way they travel, their conduct at games. There’s also a pragmatic understanding that “It’s not 1995 or 1997 anymore, but what can we be?” There’s a sense that they can be more than this.
Nebraska came into the Big Ten coming off two appearances in the Big 12 championship game. The Huskers have been in the easier division in every year that they’ve been in this conference, and they made the Big Ten championship game once, when they were crushed by Wisconsin. So, by an objective measure, they’ve been a disappointing addition, relative to expectations.
Sherman: I still think it’s fine for Nebraska to strive for conference titles. Considering where the program stands now, the trajectory of the program and how long it has been since Nebraska has been relevant on a national level, I don’t think it’s right to strive to be in the College Football Playoff.
First, Nebraska should try to compete in the Big Ten West. Saying you just want Nebraska to have a winning record or make a bowl game, you’re not doing yourself any justice. Nebraska is playing this year like a 5-7 or 4-8 team. When you look at the road ahead, it’s a tough stretch: having to go to Illinois and Purdue, places that this team lost under Mike Riley in 2015, and the October home games — No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. I have a hard time seeing any way, unless there’s drastic improvement, that Nebraska has a winning season.
In the short term, what you have to hope for is somehow the Huskers find a way to fix this thing and prevent the ship from sinking entirely this year to the point where your administration has no choice but to make a change. You go into survival mode.
Rittenberg: It’s only Year 3 for Riley who, in many ways, is only establishing himself now from a recruiting standpoint. He now has a quarterback who came to play for him, and while it hasn’t gone well so far with Tanner Lee, the track record is still very promising at that position. So I wonder how much hesitancy there could be toward making a change. But what does the school have to see from here to retain Riley? And also, who is it watching? You have to be prepared for a coaching change. Are you watching Scott Frost? Are you watching other coaches who might fit at Nebraska if this thing gets worse?
Sherman: Eichorst has to have an eye on the future and has to prepare for any circumstance. I also think it’s realistic to expect he’s going to be the guy who chooses the next coach. You brought up the name everyone’s going to talk about. Frost is going to get called. I’m sure some of that will depend on if the progress continues at Central Florida.
The big problem for Nebraska beyond that is there are not a lot of places to turn. Nebraska has tried different tactics. And if, somehow, this school finds itself in the position to be hiring another coach before the end of this year, that’s four times in 14 years. There are only a small number of programs nationally that can survive four coaching changes in 14 years, and I don’t feel like Nebraska is one of them. So, you need to be in a spot where it’s the only option to make that move.
Rittenberg: The fascinating part of this situation, beyond Huskers fans freaking out, and rightfully so after this loss, is this dynamic between Eichorst and Riley, and the coaching cycle. We could be weeks away from the first major programs firing their coaches, and, as you said, is Eichorst going to get to make that call? But if Nebraska loses another game or two relatively soon, could we see Eichorst getting fired so they can get someone in there to hire the next coach? The timing couldn’t be worse if you’re trying to get an athletic director out of there. You have to be ready to go in November one way or the other.
Sherman: Well, there’s not a Tom Osborne waiting in the wings to step in as there was 10 years ago. And I will say things were worse in 2007 than they are in 2017. It could get to that point, but I don’t feel as if there’s near the dysfunction within the program there was in that final year under Callahan. That’s the strange thing. Oftentimes, when you see a program go into complete disarray, whether it’s Brady Hoke at Michigan at the end, or Callahan at Nebraska, usually you see that dysfunction throughout the program. It’s evident from the outside looking in. You don’t have to examine it very hard to notice there are all kinds of problems in those kinds of situations. But aside from some of these recent missteps from Eichorst, Riley and his staff run a pretty nice-looking ship. It just doesn’t sail very smoothly on Saturdays lately.
I don’t expect Nebraska’s administration to make a move with Eichorst. That would really surprise me. What’s more likely is, if they don’t correct this quickly and get a win over Wisconsin or Ohio State in October, you might see Riley make a midseason move on his staff, which would be out of character. He already has done some things that raised eyebrows with coaches he brought with him from Oregon State. He has gotten rid of multiple longtime sidekicks. There are a couple left on the staff, one who coaches the offensive line, and that line is not doing its job right now. I envision a situation where Riley decides to shake something up in an effort to appease his own boss.