First-year AD leaves Huskers stuck in limbo

LINCOLN, Neb. -- If Shawn Eichorst, the first-year athletic director at Nebraska, peers out a window from the third floor that houses his office on the towering north end of Memorial Stadium, he can almost see a figurative line drawn in the sand.

On one side stands the pro-Bo Pelini crowd.

Its members point to the sixth-year coach’s clean football program, the undeniable fight and pride and resolve present in these Huskers -- on display again Saturday as Nebraska, with its No. 3 quarterback and an offensive line decimated by injuries, beat Penn State on the road in the cold and snow of overtime.

They speak of Pelini’s improving defense, his 56 wins since 2008, the most of any coach hired that season, his excellent record in close games and how only Nebraska, Alabama, Oregon and Boise State have won nine games in each of the past five years.

The Huskers, at 8-3, can reach the mark again on Friday with a win at home over Iowa (noon ET, ABC).

On the other side lurks the anti-Bo crowd. It references the occasional blowout loss, the lack of a conference championship or BCS bowl game under Pelini, the recurring problems with turnovers and special teams and untimely penalties.

It talks of the four losses every season, recruiting missteps, a vanishing act from the national landscape and signs of general stagnation.

As the countdown reaches four days to the regular-season finale, the Pelini debate has grown red hot around Nebraska.

Factions on each side think the other is out of touch and unrealistic.

With every dramatic victory or heart-stabbing defeat, public opinion appears to sway. Really, though, the week-to-week events simply offer a revolving stage for each group to scream from the flatlands to the sandhills of this state. And loudly.

Yes, a figurative line has been drawn in the sand. It’s divisive and damaging, potentially long term, for a program whose foundation was built upon unwavering support.

Eloquent receiver Kenny Bell, who returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Penn State, spoke passionately in defense of his coaches last week. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck, by all accounts, grew emotional on Saturday when asked the criticism.

Among some in the media, the tone has turned angry.

Eichorst sees what is happening before him. That much we know.

Nearly all else about the law-school-trained administrator, including his stance on Pelini, remains a mystery.

Eichorst came to Nebraska from Miami last year. He wants to stay out of sight and out of mind during the season. An email request for his comment on Monday was returned with a polite acknowledgement but no hint of his plans to talk on the topic.

Meanwhile, Pelini addressed the team last Thursday as rumors circulated about his job status, assuring Nebraska players that he would not quit on them.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” the coach said on Monday.

After the victory at Penn State, veteran running backs coach Ron Brown told the Omaha World-Herald, perhaps directed at the administration, that he sensed common traits between this team and the Huskers’ 1992 and 1993 squads that set the stage for three national titles.

Nebraska recruit Peyton Newell shared on Twitter last week a private message from defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, encouraging Newell to “look past the noise.”

“I can tell you this bro, if I’m ever going into a fight,” Kaczenski wrote, “and I could pick one person to stand by my side -- I’m picking coach Bo.”

Pelini on Monday said he’s not discussed anything with Eichorst about the end of this season.

“I’m not coaching to save my job or anything like that,” Pelini said. “At the end of the day, I want to be here. And I want to be here if [the administration wants] me here. If somebody doesn’t want me here -- and I’m not saying Shawn doesn’t -- if they don’t want me, then I’ll move on. I’ll go on my way.

He said he likes the direction of the Nebraska program.

"I like where we are," Pelini said. "I think the future is bright. I really do."

This fan meter on Pelini, if my gauge is accurate, is close to 50-50, minus the small cluster swayed week to week by the loud arguments of the group on stage. This week, the pro-Bo crowd is making noise.

Eichorst’s silence has placed him at the center of the storm. His invisibility causes more harm than good. It’s time to talk, unless, of course, he’s planning a change, because what does he have to say in that case before this weekend?

My hunch: Eichorst, in his first year, doesn’t want the blood on his hands that this kind of controversial firing would create. And the Huskers’ unwavering spirit must count for something.

Pelini may, in fact, be out, but only if Eichorst decided in September he couldn’t work with a coach who made the comments revealed on two-year-old audio tape in which Pelini was critical of the fans and suggested he was ready to leave Nebraska.

Outwardly, Eichorst appears the sophisticated type, riding shotgun with Chancellor Harvey Perlman -- whose own lawyer persona is at odds with the often-gruff Pelini. Will it matter?

Four days and counting to the end of this debate. For the sake of this program’s stability, it can’t get here soon enough.