IOWA CITY, Iowa — Former Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst tied his legacy to firing football coach Bo Pelini and hiring replacement Mike Riley in late 2014.
Inside that six-day period, Eichorst either inadvertently or intentionally ignited a phrase that sparked controversy in the Hawkeye state and reverberates three years later.
Two days after Pelini’s crew rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime, Eichorst fired the combustable coach. At his Nov. 30, 2014 news conference, Eichorst was asked if the Huskers’ victory made the decision more difficult.
“Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment,” Eichorst said, “so it did play a factor. But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
Eichorst was asked to clarify. He responded, “As I looked back on the outcomes, I’m trying to look back at who are championship-caliber football teams at that moment and how competitive we were in those games.
“We weren’t playing for a conference championship and neither was Iowa. I have great respect for Iowa. It’s a great institution and a wonderful football program. But in the final analysis, their record was where it was and ours was where it was. Fair enough?”
Iowa fans took it as a slight. Nebraska supporters interpreted the quote as Iowa was not a measuring stick of success.
I caught up with Eichorst at the Big Ten’s spring administrators meetings in 2016. In a 1-on-1 interview, I asked him about the comment. Eichorst seemed surprised the remarks generated such controversy among Iowa fans.
“Gary [Barta] and Kirk [Ferentz] are some of the most beautiful people I know,” Eichorst said. “I have a lot of admiration for Iowa. I grew up across the border. I think it was nothing other than, going back, I think we beat two teams that year that were 7-5. I hope folks wouldn’t read anything into it more than that.”
It was true. Nebraska finished 9-4 after a bowl loss and the only victories were against teams with winning records were Iowa and Rutgers.
But I reiterated to Eichorst that his comments were viewed as insulting by Iowa fans
“I would put it this way: you don’t even have to put a school on it,” he said. “I think anytime you’re evaluating your program, you’re just evaluating who you’re competing against in that year. It doesn’t say anything about anything more than that. I have great respect, look at what they did this year. I didn’t get much play on that. I’ve never heard anything from Gary or Kirk or anybody else about it because they know it wasn’t meant in any other way than my evaluation, not what was going on there.
“To be honest with you, that was media spin. That wasn’t what I was thinking about it. I was just answering a question.”
Since Eichorst’s original comments, Nebraska is 16-13 overall under Riley and 9-8 in Big Ten action. Iowa is 23-7 and 14-3 in league play.