Current and former employees of the Husker athletic department and others -- including members of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents -- are participating in an independent review of the athletic program’s culture and leadership.
The SilverStone Group, an Omaha consulting firm, is conducting the review at the request of NU President Hank Bounds, as the first-year president nears a decision on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's next chancellor.
Since Jan. 11, SilverStone has contacted hundreds of past and present employees seeking “candid responses about leadership, not performance” within the athletic department, according to one participant.
A former athletic department employee who was interviewed as part of the review described a series of open-ended questions including these.
* What’s the culture like in the athletic department?
* What is the general approach to leadership?
* Are there opportunities for upward mobility?
* What is the overall perception of the athletic department by the public and media?
* Why did you join the department?
* What are the reasons you are no longer in the department?
The former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the line of questioning didn’t address specific individuals.
“There was nothing like, ‘What do you think of Shawn Eichorst?’” the former employee said, referring to the athletic director hired in fall 2012.
SilverStone's review is likely to extend to other departments at UNL, but the initial focus on the athletic department comes after a disappointing 2015 football season during which some fans questioned Eichorst's leadership.
Top administrators and regents last fall were rumored to have spiked talks of an extension to Eichorst's current contract that runs through 2018-19. A long-scheduled regents' meeting generated speculation that a leadership change would be made.
Those rumors were unfounded and untrue, Bounds said at the time.
This winter's review is to result in a summary report including findings and recommendations "for function and leadership" within the athletic department.
Another participant in the survey said the questions were focused on the athletic program in general -- not individuals.
“It was really trying to get a grasp on what the climate is like,” the former employee said.
At least two members of the university's governing body were interviewed by SilverStone, although regents do not oversee athletic department operations per university policy.
Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, a former Husker defensive back under Coach Tom Osborne, said he was interviewed over the phone. He declined to describe the content of the interview, saying he preferred to let the results tell the story.
“The report is the story, whenever that comes out,” Pillen said.
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Regent Hal Daub of Omaha, chairman of the regents’ Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee, said he was given a chance to prepare answers ahead of an hourlong phone interview with a SilverStone associate.
The former congressman and Omaha mayor said SilverStone was hired to do the study because of its expertise with NCAA rules and regulations.
The results of the review, Daub said, would be used internally by both Bounds and the next UNL chancellor to make “aggressive utilization of best practices” in the athletic department.
“It is very routine when you change presidents or chancellors to review the institution, so the new person coming in does not have any surprises,” he said.
Both Pillen and Daub, as well as Regents Tim Clare of Lincoln and Rob Schafer of Beatrice, said they believe the external review of Husker Athletics is routine and part of a series of audits and program reviews being done as UNL prepares to transition its leadership for the first time in a decade and a half.
Chancellor Harvey Perlman will retire to the UNL College of Law this year after 15 years leading UNL. During that time, he hired Steve Pederson to lead the athletic department, then fired him in 2007. He also hired Osborne and Eichorst as ADs.
Asked in January about his working relationship with key players in the university system, such as Bounds and the Board of Regents, Eichorst said he's honored and privileged to be at Nebraska and serve the institution and the student-athletes.
"Leadership takes a lot of courage to do the right things at every turn, and I think we have people in place that are well-intended, and when you have really talented people who are well-intended, good things happen," he said. "You know me. I'm a positive person. Very optimistic by nature. So that's the way I look at things."
According to a contract between NU and SilverStone signed Jan. 5, the “initial focus” of the Omaha firm’s study would be on “the Athletics Program due to the high profile and intense interest in building this program for sustainable success.”
“The University is interested in receiving recommendations designed to bring the best to the University system from a program and program leadership perspective in light of the upcoming transition in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor role,” the contract states.
NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee said Husker Athletics was looked at first because of its importance to the university as a “visible and high-interest” program whose “long-term success is vital to the future of the university.”
Regent Pillen agreed with the focus of the review: “Athletics is a big deal and important to the state and important to the university.”
Before moving to NU, Bounds conducted program reviews each time leadership changed at one of the campuses under his purview as commissioner of higher education in Mississippi, Lee said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if any of those reviews was tied to athletics. Bounds declined comment.
Headquartered in Omaha, the SilverStone Group was founded in 1945 and employs more than 200 associates at five offices.
One of the firm’s clients, according to a 2007 issue of the company's newsletter, is Tenaska Energy -- the Omaha company co-founded by Howard Hawks, a member of the Board of Regents since 2002.
The Hawks family name is on Hawks Field, UNL’s baseball stadium at Haymarket Park, as well as the Hawks Championship Center indoor practice facility that connects via skywalk to Memorial Stadium.
Hawks was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
NU will pay the SilverStone Group as much as $38,000 in state funds for the review, according to the contract.
The university president can execute a contract for less than $400,000 without Board of Regents approval, and the university is only required to competitively bid contracts greater than $150,000.
Lee said the SilverStone Group “has a lot of experience” conducting reviews of collegiate athletic departments. NU hopes the review highlights strengths, opportunities and best practices moving forward, she said.