Shawn Eichorst, who took over as athletic director Jan. 1, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he admires how Pelini runs the Cornhuskers' program and he believes Pelini is on track to win a championship.
The Huskers were 10-4 this past season, finishing with a 39-point loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and a 14-point loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Pelini is 49-20 in five seasons, never having won fewer than nine games but never losing fewer than four.
Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since 1999 or played in a BCS game since the end of the 2001 season.
"Nobody is going to have higher expectations for this place than me, nor coach Pelini, so that's a given," Eichorst said. "I've yet to be at a place at this level that doesn't want to win championships. So I get that. So we'll just keep pounding the rock and trying to close the gap. We're not far away, and I think there are a lot of folks out there that feel the same way."
Eichorst, hired away from Miami in October, succeeded the retired Tom Osborne after spending two-plus months as special assistant to chancellor Harvey Perlman. Eichorst signed a five-year contract that pays him $973,000 to start.
He takes over after a spate of major building projects. Football stadium expansion will raise capacity to more than 90,000 this fall, the new downtown basketball arena opens next season, and an academic center and basketball practice facility opened in 2011.
Eichorst said he plans to "look and listen and learn" the next few months.
"I'm really not coming in with any sort of preconceived agenda," he said. "I just don't think that's something that would be successful."
In an email, Perlman said he was impressed with the way Eichorst interacted with university leaders during his first few weeks on campus.
"There have been no surprises on my part," Perlman wrote. "He understands the role of athletics within the broader university and I suspect he will be a good partner that will produce benefits for both athletics and academics."
One of the main questions upon Eichorst's arrival was how he would view Pelini and the football program, which generates about 85 percent of the revenue in a department with a $95 million budget.
Osborne, who hired Pelini in 2008, set a high standard during his 25 years as coach. The program has not come close to recapturing the aura of Osborne's mid-1990s teams, which won national championships in three of his last four years. The team hasn't finished a season in the top 10 since 2001.
Eichorst said Pelini has the Huskers on the right track.
"I think that our head football coach is an excellent coach, character-based, fundamentally sound," Eichorst said. "I'm impressed with his staff. I'm impressed with our players, their attitude, how they go about their business, their academics."
Eichorst said many programs would love to play in conference championship games three of the last four years and in New Year's Day bowl games, as the Huskers have done.
"I know the expectations and the tradition and history here," he said. "Everybody's got room to grow unless you're winning that (national) championship game."
The new AD, who played defensive back at Wisconsin-Whitewater, said the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game didn't raise any red flags with him.
"That happens in football," he said. "I've been around it long enough. Just one of those days. But again, we're there. We'll break through."
Osborne, who turns 76 next month, keeps an office one floor above Eichorst's, and serves as a sounding board and consultant.
"He parks in the same spot and all that stuff," Eichorst said. "He's around, he's visible, and I'm glad because there are things I have to bounce off him on occasion. And folks — student-athletes, staff members — really like to see him and are energized to see him."
Osborne wears the title of athletic director emeritus and is scheduled to stay on through July 31 to ease the transition to Eichorst.
The best advice Osborne gave him?
"Be yourself," Eichorst said. "Do what you think is right and continue to ... lead with values and treat people with respect and understand what it is we're trying to get done. Provide a situation where student-athletes can be successful and have a better life and can make our communities better and all those sorts of things."
Eichorst said he considers it a privilege to succeed a man of Osborne's stature, and he hopes Osborne maintains a presence in the department and around campus.
"I hope he's here for as long as he wants to be here," Eichorst said. "He and I have talked about that, because it's important to me and important to all the folks in this building and the state."