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Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer 80d

Did Nebraska just make Mike Riley a lame-duck coach?

College Football, Nebraska Cornhuskers

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's administrative leadership met with the football coaching staff on Thursday to deliver the news that athletic director Shawn Eichorst had been fired.

University system president Hank Bounds and chancellor Ronnie Green told the entire staff at once -- that is, except third-year head coach Mike Riley. He was informed separately.

"I don't know what that means for sure," Riley said.

Riley, in fact, said later that he thought he was pulled aside out of respect for his relationship with Eichorst. 

"I appreciate it," Riley said Thursday, his voice trailing off. "I don't know." 

What Riley does likely know but didn't say in public, surrounded by some three dozen reporters for an otherwise inconsequential post-practice briefing ahead of the Cornhuskers' meeting with Rutgers on Saturday, is that he's left to twist in the wind as Nebraska considers candidates to determine the coach's fate.

The move to fire Eichorst, Bounds said earlier on Thursday, "is not about Mike Riley." It unquestionably, though, involves his football program, 1-2 for the second time in three seasons after a home loss last week to Northern Illinois.

The Huskers had endured such a three-game start just once in 54 years prior to 2015.

Bounds and Green emphasized that they strive for Nebraska to "compete," presumably for championships in the Big Ten and beyond. The Huskers last won a league title in 1999 and this season celebrate the 20th anniversary of their most recent of five national championships.

"Why shouldn't we have those aspirations here?" Bounds said.

Nebraska has rarely appeared further from the top than at this moment.

After Rutgers, it goes on the road next Friday to face Illinois and conceivably may not be favored to win again in 2017 -- what with Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule from the Big Ten East and divisional games at Purdue and Minnesota, and home against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.

If Riley's team fails to "compete" against the Big Ten's best, this year won't end well for the coach.

"You control what you can," the 64-year-old Riley said. "And what you can't, then you've got to let go. I know I'm really confident in what we're doing and the people that we have, how this thing is being run in the football office. I understand both expectations and performance. I get all that, but I actually am energized about the future.

"It's not that complicated. It's clear where we have to go on the football field. It's clear we have to get recruiting to that point where we can get where we want to go."

The coach said he's especially excited about the 2017 group of newcomers, most of whom are not playing this fall, and the current group of committed recruits.

Is he just trying to buy time?

That doesn't seem to be Riley's style. But in keeping pace with the school's administration, time is apparently of the essence -- especially in this season that features a new three-day December signing period, which may cause programs nationally to expedite coaching changes.

We likely witnessed on Thursday Nebraska's attempt to get ahead of the curve.

An interim athletic director -- apparently from outside the program, as Bounds and Green bypassed the opportunity to immediately promote one of Eichorst's lieutenants -- will be named soon. Nebraska plans to use a search firm to find a permanent replacement.

Don't expect the school to drag its feet.

Asked if he felt his equity in the program had diminished, Riley grew momentarily agitated, the only time his cadence quickened in a 15-minute inquisition.

"I'm not going to worry about that," he said. 

The departure of Eichorst, a one-man search committee in picking Riley to replace Bo Pelini, saddened Riley and surprised him.

"It's going to be perceived in a million different ways," Riley said. 

None of those ways shine an especially positive light on the coach, 16-13 at Nebraska after losing six of his past nine games.

"What we've always done when it's hard is not to treat people any differently," Riley said. "Don't make up things. Just coach. When you just approach it that way, it's not that hard." 

Coaching and playing football is supposed to be fun, Riley said. Clearly, Thursday was not, the latest in a line of dark days over the past 15 years, which have seen Nebraska replace three coaches and now look to fill the shoes of a fourth departing athletic director. 

"It's only fun, I've found," Riley said, "when you win, so we're trying every way just to do that." 

His time to win, perhaps, has grown short. 

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