Today should be a day of celebration at UNO. But it will feel like a wake.
This is a day for which we've long waited. UNO intends to go Division I. But there won't be a parade or confetti.
I applaud the plan but do so with a heavy heart. The Mavericks will be growing up, but the powers-that-be are recommending that two great friends of Omaha, UNO football and Mav wrestling, be left behind.
It's all pending the backing of the NU Board of Regents, but finally, after years of indecision, UNO has announced its identity. Dodge Street High has decided what it wants to be when it grows up.
UNO will be a hockey school and a Division I basketball school. It will be a Summit League school, with a shot at the NCAA tournament, playing in an intriguing mix with former North Central Conference members and schools from Indianapolis, Tulsa and Kansas City.
UNO is not the state's school. UNO can never be UNL. It can't be North Dakota, which is the UNL of its state, with all the subsidized benefits of being the big dog.
For years, people — including myself — have wanted UNO to figure out what it wanted to be. Before hockey came in 1996, it was easy. Don't blame hockey. Hockey was a brilliant idea. Back then, UNO was the nice little Division II school down the street. But it was looking for an identity in Omaha, its slice of the pie. Creighton had basketball. UNO had hockey.
But the byproduct of hockey was having one foot in Division I and the other in Division II. For the most part, the hockey people and other coaches made nice. But the combination wore thin. The hockey people were competing against other Division I schools and budgets and wanted to raise the budgetary and marketing ante. But UNO had a Division II mentality, too. Eventually, you had a water-and-oil mix of treating hockey big-time — going into the Qwest Center Omaha — with a Division II athletic budget.
Through it all, UNO has had to deal with its own awkward growing pains; booming expansion, the dorms, the Ak-Sar-Ben move, and the scandal in the administration building. It was maddening to watch. How could UNO ever reach its full potential with incompetent leadership? You'd watch UNO and say, this could be so much better. If only they had a clue. If only they had a plan. A commitment to something, anything.
That commitment, that identity, comes today.
I applaud it. I applaud UNO deciding, once and for all, what it wants to be in this world. I don't applaud good men and teachers like Pat Behrns and Mike Denney losing their jobs or the programs they built. I don't applaud young men losing their chance to compete as champions. This is heartbreaking collateral damage for a move that could make UNO athletics financially viable and competitive in the bigger picture.
There's incredible irony here, too. For years, Behrns has quietly pushed for UNO to move up to Division I and play in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as I-AA. Behrns has tangled with the administration at times, but it was all with good intentions and a vision in mind. Behrns felt UNO athletics had big potential in the city, with the money people and the casual fans. FCS football was part of that vision. It beat the alternative, which was staying in a Division II world that is becoming flooded with schools that are “lower-level" and “lower-commitment" football schools, those with 24 scholarships.
It's the sort of philosophy that says, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
So UNO finally announced it wants to be Division I and leaves Behrns behind.
This is a tough one. Al Caniglia. Sandy Buda. Behrns. Marlin Briscoe. Ed Thompson. Even in the mammoth shadow of Nebraska's Cornhuskers, UNO football carved its own footprint in this community. The Mavericks may not have been good enough to play in Lincoln, but they were good enough to play championship football on gorgeous fall afternoons at Caniglia Field against the best competition in Division II.
But football, by virtue of its unwieldy size, is always the elephant in the room when it comes to athletic budgets. You either feed it or cut it. There's no in-between. Getting better or getting worse.
Trev Alberts says he can't afford to take UNO football along for the ride, and that's the honest truth. We're talking going from 36 scholarships to 63. UNO football has its share of Omaha businessmen who love their Mavs, but not nearly enough who can step up and cover the difference. And that's not taking into account the added expenses in travel, stadium expansion, etc., in going to FCS. UNO would also have to add women's sports to balance the gender equity scales. UNO is already maxing out on subsidies. The state of Nebraska is not going to step up to save UNO football.
It's a nice pipe dream some of us had, UNO going FCS. But the brutal reality is, UNO was never in position to make that move financially. Why? The city. Count the larger cities that have competitive college football with a full-time commitment. Nebraska is a football state, but a Nebraska football state. Many of the Division II football powers are the thing to do in their town or area. UNO is one of many things to do around here.
At its best, Mav football is going to draw just under 10,000. Lately, and Behrns can take some of the blame here, attendance has dwindled dramatically. Last year, UNO averaged 3,777 for seven games. Take away the big crowds for Nebraska-Kearney and Northwest Missouri State and UNO averaged 2,446 fans.
It's unthinkable, but Maverick football — once the bell cow for UNO — became expendable.
College wrestling is a niche sport, but UNO wrestling made a national imprint — it won its third straight Division II national championship on Saturday. For years, Denney has been a hidden gem in Omaha, a coach's coach whom you could see thriving in any sport. His wrestlers have been a credit to UNO and the city, champions to the end. They deserve a better fate, but it's not about that. At some point, nonrevenue sports are all the same, interchangeable parts, soccer and golf for wrestling, in the grand scheme of gender equity compliance and the business of college sports. But if you care about good people, losing Mav wrestling is a punch in the gut, one that no doubt knocked the wind out of Chancellor John Christensen, a big wrestling fan.
In the end, this is about a bigger picture. That vision belongs to Christensen and Alberts. Who knew? When Christensen hired Alberts, the cynics cracked that he was hiring a figurehead, a cheerleader, someone to put a happy face on an athletic program stuck in the mud. Alberts has been a bull — who took the UNO bull, literally and figuratively, by the horns.
Division I was Alberts' primary goal from day one. How he would get here would be interesting. But, wow. This is incredibly creative, if not cruel. And it's flat-out full of guts. We all assume Alberts wants to eventually throw his hat in the ring to replace Tom Osborne at Nebraska one day. The primary duty of that job is to take care of Nebraska football, no questions asked. And so here comes Alberts, with a recommendation to cut UNO football. What will the Huskers think?
I know Alberts, and he did not take this lightly. He's a football guy and former player. If there's blood on his ax, it includes some of his own.
The bottom line is, Alberts is taking care of UNO's future, its best interests, just as Osborne would do for UNL. Hockey has become UNO's Husker football. And a financially fit UNO means a healthy hockey program.
There's another angle at work here. The one high hurdle folks thought Alberts might never clear is getting the Board of Regents to approve UNO going Division I. Why? Voting to create an in-state competitor for NU football would be widely frowned upon. Under this plan, that is no longer an issue.
What's indisputable is UNO is on the verge of deciding its own fate. The Mavs want to take on Creighton in this hoops market, and let the comparison of admission standards begin. They're going to feed the hockey machine. No longer will they have to worry about Division II dragging down hockey, or even what happens to Division II. They're not UNL. They're not UNK. They're the city school, bustling and growing and doing the city thing. It's a risk, but that's what bold people who aren't afraid to make changes do. Welcome to the new UNO.
This saga reminds me of a signature line from a classic movie, “Shawshank Redemption." The line is, “Get busy livin' or get busy dyin.' "
Today, Maverick fans must feel like they're doing a little bit of both.
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