We are pleased to welcome Nebraska Athletic Director, Mr. Shawn Eichorst (L ’95) to the #SLBrief series, who has spent a majority of his post-law school career in college athletics. In addition to his previous athletic director positions, Shawn was the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Administration at South Carolina from 2004 to 2006 and, from 2006 to 2011, held a similar position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before eventually serving as its Deputy Athletic Director. Shawn has held his current position, Nebraska’s fourteenth Athletic Director, since October 2012.
Passion for Education, Law School Journey
“Having had athletics in my life through grade school, high school, college — I played football at Wisconsin-Whitewater. I always had a key interest in athletics. I’m a first-generation college student in my family. I came from a very small town [and] not many folks from there went to college, so I saw athletics as an opportunity to open up the avenue of education for me. I always had a passion to go to law school.
“As I started to look at law schools, (Marquette’s Sports Law Program) was in the infancy stages with Marty Greenberg and Chuck Menkowski developing this sports law angle, and that intrigued me. Whitewater was only about an hour from Milwaukee, so it seemed like a natural fit at the time. And of course, the Sports Law Program has grown leaps and bounds since then. For me specifically, it was an interplay between my passion for athletics and getting a law degree.”
“When I was going through the Sports Law Program, we were still walking before we were running. So there were a couple courses angled toward sports, Amateur Sports Law and Professional Sports Law. But, certainly all of the other courses that I had taken have underpinnings for what we (the Nebraska Athletic Department) do on a daily basis, whether it’s contractual work, HR (human resources) work, real estate or construction work, or compliance.
“The biggest piece of the curriculum at the time was the internships, and my opportunity, toward the end of my third year, was to go to Chicago every Monday for the second semester to work in Mike Slive at the Great Midwestern Conference offices on 35 East Wacker. At the same time, Paul Anderson (who was Shawn’s law school classmate) was doing his internship at Wilson Sporting Goods. … The (sports law) curriculum was really in the infancy stages, so most of what helped me was the practical piece and being in a conference office working with a really good person in Mike Slive and seeing how (the industry) works.”
Law Practice, Teaching Law
“I practiced law for five years before I actually got into athletics. I did the (sports law) internship and really liked it, but I was also clerking at a really good, boutique insurance defense firm in (Milwaukee). I was litigating product liability and medical practice and other areas around insurance defense. Then, I came to Wisconsin-Whitewater as Athletic Director and, at the time, Matt Mitten and Paul reached out to myself and (DePaul Senior Associate Athletic Director) Kathryn Statz (L ’00) to put together this program really geared around intercollegiate athletics. Kathryn and I co-taught that course for a year or two, and it really helped me think more deeply about having sat in that chair as a student and figuring out what I can provide them better.
“There’s really no textbook or, I think, any specific program in general that can get you ready because this field (college athletics) is so wide-reaching — Division III, NAIA, Division II, Division I. It’s really a unique beast within the confines of higher education, so (teaching) got me thinking a little bit more about what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, it helped me become a better administrator in the short time that I was teaching and helped folks get a better understanding of what (athletics department) do.”
Athletic Director Experience
Before arriving at Nebraska, Shawn’s previous AD stops have included the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 1999 to 2003, his alma mater, and the University of Miami (FL) from 2011 to 2012.
Overseeing Alma Mater’s Athletic Department
“You have that deep pride and passion that most folks from the outside wouldn’t have because you went there and played there. The other unique piece is that the football coach that I played for and have such respect for was the coach when I went to (Wisconsin-Whitewater) to be the AD. Talk about a role reversal from being a player to now being a supervisor. That was really unique at thirty-one years old with no experience in athletic administration. More than anything, it was the pride and passion that I had for the place and still have today, so I worked hard every day to create an exceptional environment for our students and coaches that would make the university and community better.
“I’m really proud of where Whitewater has gone since I was there. [It is] clearly the preeminent Division III athletic program in the country [and] the first to win the football, basketball, and baseball national titles in the same year.”
Intersection of Division I & III
“There are more similarities than differences, but the main difference is just budgetary as you have a few more zeros on your budget. … The caliber of the coaching, at the end of the day for me, is not that much different. I had some exceptional coaches that I worked with at the Division-III level, and I certainly have the same here. The visibility and attention at this level (Division I) is a little bit different, but the way in which you go about your business and making sure you’re providing an exceptional experience for the students, and keeping that balanced. At the end day, we’re an educational environment and athletics is a piece of the pursuit.
“(Athletics) can be perceived as taking too much of their (the student-athletes) time away from other things, whether it’s studying abroad or participating in other activities on campus and those sorts of things. For me at the Division III level … Whitewater was a public school; I worked at South Carolina, which was a public school; I worked at Wisconsin, which was a public school; Miami (FL) was private, so I had that private-public piece. Obviously Nebraska is public and, going back, my undergraduate degree was from a public institution and law degree from a private, so I really got a good sense of different scales of operations, and different philosophies on admissions and similar areas.”
Balancing Athletics, especially CFB, and Academics
“There’s a delicate balance there, no doubt. We have twenty-four sports, 600 student-athletes, 300 full-time employees, and legions and legions of donors, ticket holders, program supporters. Nebraska is the only Power-5 school that doesn’t have an NFL team or another FBS team in its state, so we are sort of the Green Bay Packers of college football in the sense that it’s a community deal. Everybody thinks they have a piece of it, and that’s good. Nebraska is filled with a bunch of humble and hard working people who care about everything and everyone.
“It’s a heavily regulated business that we’re in. … I’m at a public institution; although we don’t receive any tax dollars from the state or subsidies from the institution, there are a fair amount of people out there that don’t believe that. … In fact, at Nebraska we operate on our bottom here at athletics by making a major contribution back to the university. We pay all of our tuition, room, book, and board, and then we write an assessment check back to the university, so we’re actually adding value to the institution instead of taking it away through my subsidies.
“My primary role is being Chief Reputation Officer of the university because we know we’re so visible. You could build a tradition and reputation for 100 years, but in a second, it could all be destroyed by decisions that someone may make in the organization. And I think the magnification and the speculation and the scrutiny in athletics is probably higher than other departments on campus. You really need to surround yourself with really good people who are well-intended.”
“I see a continued and enhanced environment. I think we’ve come a long way in which we’ve restructured ourselves from an Association perspective, getting autonomy in the Power 5 and having practitioners getting more involved in governance and decision-making. I see a group of administrators across the country who are more engaged than they’ve ever been on these very important topics. The core of everything that we do is to provide an incredible educational environment, where in which athletics play a role. We need to balance that; it’s not the only thing we do, it’s part of what we do.
“Anything we can do to provide our student-athletes with a balanced opportunity is good. Going to the full cost-of-attendance is good, and all of the other things that we are able to do from a nutrition perspective, which by the way we were doing at Nebraska anyway. So a lot of changes that have been made in the last couple years are things, in my cases, that we were already doing at Nebraska. We’re quite a leader in all things student-athlete related, and their welfare and safety and health is a top priority.
“What I hope to see in the years to come is a better understanding of where we fit in higher education and to continue to add value. The student voice and vote … is transformational, especially talking about time demands right now. Our students here at Nebraska and across the country are really engaged in that conversation because, in many ways, the athletes depending on sport think differently about the balance they should have. … We’re really headed down a good path.”
Public & Media Misconceptions of College Athletics
“There are people that are doing much more important work than what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, and folks never really realize that from afar. Everyone for the most is well-intended in what they believe they think is going on. An extension of that is a majority of them do understand that we’re in the education business. We’re not in the entertainment business. We’ve had to drive revenues associated with how others in the entertainment business are doing it, but those revenues are being driven because our costs are being drive in a certain direction. I believe that my life has been transformed by athletics and higher education, so I want to continue to perpetuate that in a real broad manner and certainly don’t want to get into situations where you have to reduce our sport offerings or the support systems that you’re putting around our people and student-athletes.
“Everyone has a platform to make folks believe that they are a legitimate part of the media. We all know what perceptions do to reality; they’re different. We just have to continue to educate and inform people. You read it all the time about folks who are not informed about our business and think we’re making all of this money. I think there were only ten or so schools that actually operated on their bottom last year in the Power-5, so that’s not making a lot of money. Certainly, a few of our sports associated with a number of our athletes are driving the train, but there’s a balance to all of that.
“There’s a lot of passion in our space. When you got 600 student-athletes that you’re trying to provide these experiences to, just like any other student on your campus, they’re going to get frustrated once in a while, whether it’s their academic experience, or maybe they didn’t mesh well with the coach so it’s a playing time issue. There is a lot of opportunity to fail, and you and I both know what happens when folks fail or systems fail, there’s a lot of finger pointing. Most often in some of these situations that involve personnel and/or student at a private and public institution, you’re limited as to what you can say because of privacy laws. It’s a really dynamic and ever-evolving business. The media is not going away, and your detractors aren’t going away, so we just have to continue to do a better job at informing people of the reality so that perception doesn’t take that over.”
In closing, we greatly appreciate Shawn taking the time out of his busy schedule to discuss his Marquette Law experience, his intercollegiate athletic director experiences, balancing academics and athletics, and many more very interesting topics. We wish him the best of luck at Nebraska and hope to talk with him soon.
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