ONLY IN THE WORLD-HERALD
The University of Nebraska at Omaha appears bound for Division I in athletics, and the chance to compete at the highest level of college sports may well come at the expense of its tradition-rich football and wrestling programs.
UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts said Saturday they are recommending to the NU Board of Regents that UNO join the Summit League, a 10-team conference that competes at the NCAA Division I level. League officials on Friday extended an official invitation, UNO's ticket to Division I.
But as part of a department reorganization that would accompany the step up in competition, the UNO leaders are proposing to drop football and wrestling — sports not sanctioned for competition in the Summit League.
Faced with growing expenses and flat revenues that caused increasing infusions of state dollars into its budget, the athletic department just couldn't continue on its current course, campus leaders said. That subsidy growth has come as the university has made millions of other budget cuts to academic and other programs across campus, and it's facing more now.
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Replay the live chat to discuss the move to Division I's Summit League and the elimination of the football and wrestling programs.
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Christensen and Alberts described the plan as bittersweet — grounded in the harsh financial realities of college athletics today, but also creating exciting new opportunities in basketball and other sports.
“It's my responsibility to do what's in the best interest of UNO long-term,” Christensen said. “While this recommendation was unimaginable two or three years ago, it's clear to me business as usual is not sustainable.''
The numbers simply don't work for taking the UNO football team up to the Football Championship Subdivision, the group of smaller Division I schools formerly known as Division I-AA. The cost of offering 27 additional football scholarships, and then adding women's sports to comply with gender equity requirements, are prohibitive, Christensen and Alberts said.
“The reality is I simply cannot afford to take football to Division I,'' Alberts said.
Still, the plan is sure to rock the campus.
If the changes are approved by the regents, it means the UNO wrestling team — which Saturday night won the school's third straight NCAA Division II championship and the eighth national title in school history — would never take to the mat again.
And the Maverick football team, after a century of butting heads with schools throughout the region, may have played its final game last November. About 120 football players, including 20 new recruits signed just last month, would be left without a team to play for this fall.
Alberts and Christensen said the university would honor all scholarships, work to find new schools for any of the 150 athletes affected who want to continue to compete, and extend severance packages to the nine coaches who would lose jobs.
Alberts, a former All-American football player at the University of Nebraska, said the decision to drop football was particularly difficult. Christensen, a former college wrestler, said the prospect of cutting any sport is personally painful, and the furor sure to ensue won't be fun.
But Christensen said that when he looked at the results of a nearly yearlong study produced by Alberts and a group of community business leaders looking at future athletic finances, it was obvious what the right call was.
The status quo — UNO's hockey program competing at the Division I level while other sports compete at Division II — is not working financially, Christensen and Alberts said.
The school has been making up for athletic budget shortfalls with increased infusions of state dollars and student fee support. Such subsidies for athletics have grown from $1.5 million to $5.3 million over the past 15 years, Alberts said, and cannot continue unchecked.
While wrestling is arguably the Maverick sport best equipped right now to compete on a Division I level, Alberts said it would be dropped under the plan to align the athletic department's offerings more closely with that of the Summit League. As part of that goal, UNO would add men's teams in soccer and golf.
After receiving the Summit League bid Friday, Alberts waited until after the Maverick wrestlers wrapped up the national title Saturday night before beginning to notify coaches of the plan. Alberts met with UNO football coach Pat Behrns at 10 p.m. and was attempting to reach wrestling coach Mike Denney by phone late Saturday night.
“Regardless of my personal interests, on a professional level, the decision is rather straightforward,'' said Christensen, who was in Kearney on Saturday rooting for Maverick wrestlers. “Every possible option was explored. The facts led to the recommendation.''
Looking ahead, Alberts and Christensen see a bright and exciting future for Maverick athletics in a Division I league particularly known for its basketball.
UNO would above all continue to be a hockey school. This year's team is nationally ranked and drawing big crowds to the Qwest Center Omaha.
But in Alberts' future vision, Maverick men's basketball could become a revenue sport. As a mid-major school, UNO would play big-time programs in the region and around the country, collecting guarantee checks for the appearances. Then the Mavericks would compete each year for the Summit League's automatic bid into the NCAA basketball tournament.
“Win the Summit and they go to The Dance,'' said NU President J.B. Milliken, who said he expects to support the proposal. “There are some promising opportunities for UNO in the future, and it's very exciting for Omaha as well.''
All the rest of UNO's teams would make the jump to Division I. The baseball, softball, women's basketball and volleyball teams in particular all would have the chance to compete for the conference's automatic bids into the Division I NCAA tournaments.
In addition there would be potential in basketball, baseball and many other sports to create new in-state rivalries with Creighton University and the Huskers.
The changes also would leave UNO's sports lineup similar to those offered by most of its academic peer metropolitan universities. Schools like Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Illinois-Chicago and potential new Summit League rivals Missouri-Kansas City and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis play high-level basketball, but they don't offer football.
In a larger picture, Christensen said, Division I status joins UNO's new campus housing, enrollment growth, rise of top academic programs and development of the university's South Campus as the next step toward making it one of the nation's leading metropolitan universities.
“This is an exciting, next logical step in that transformation,'' he said.
By eliminating football and wrestling and reallocating those funds, Alberts said, projections indicate UNO would be able to fund strong programs in its remaining sports while obtaining long-term compliance with Title IX, the federal sex-discrimination ban.
Under Alberts' plan, UNO would begin the transition to Division I next fall without its football and wrestling teams, likely playing a mixed schedule of Division I and Division II teams, then begin competing in the Summit League in the fall of 2012 as a full member. UNO wouldn't be eligible to compete for NCAA bids until 2015.
The regents next meet in late April but may take up the matter of UNO's Summit League bid in a special meeting sooner, Milliken said.
He said individual regents have been informed, with a generally positive reaction. He expects a full briefing at a future public meeting.
Alberts said there is some urgency to act.
A moratorium the NCAA put on schools jumping to Division I is expiring June 1. Any schools that want to move up must first be invited by a conference.
The Summit is seeking to fill an opening for 2012 created by Southern Utah's move to the Big Sky Conference. Alberts said if UNO does not take the bid, some other school will.
“I have this incredible opportunity that may not come again,'' Alberts said.
UNO's plans ultimately to build an on-campus arena for hockey and possibly basketball are not linked to the Summit bid, Alberts said. At least initially, UNO's men's basketball team would move its games from the UNO Fieldhouse to the Civic Auditorium to address longtime parking problems.
There will need to be significant upgrades in nearly all Maverick athletic facilities to compete at the Division I level, a matter the private fundraising NU Foundation already has begun to address.
The foundation also is ready to provide the $1.5 million it would take to fund the severances and other transition costs at UNO, said Clary Castner, president of the foundation.
“We recognize we need to raise some money to deal with those issues,'' Castner said. “The move to Division I is a huge, bold step, and we're excited.''
This won't be the UNO athletic department's first experience with change — or controversy.
UNO transformed its athletic profile 14 years ago when it began to compete in Division I hockey. The last decade and a half also have brought the school unprecedented success on the Division II level, with a football team regularly making the playoffs and national championships in wrestling, volleyball, softball and women's soccer.
But through much of the past decade, the school has struggled against difficult financial tides.
The hockey program, once seen as a golden goose, started losing money after moving to the cavernous and pricey Qwest Center in 2003. It's expected the success of this year's team will help UNO make money on hockey for the first time in six years.
Christensen took over in 2007 in the midst of a financial scandal involving athletics that cost the previous chancellor her job, and two years ago he hired Alberts. One of his assignments: bring financial stability to the athletic department.
Alberts says what he found on arrival was a department that, outside of hockey, had little acceptance in the community. The football team has long played in the considerable shadow of the Cornhuskers in Lincoln.
Ticket revenues in sports other than hockey today are essentially at the same level they were 15 years ago. At the same time, costs have continued to escalate.
Direct university dollars going into athletics have increased from $700,000 in 1995 to more than $3 million today. In all, $5.3 million of the $9.5 million athletic budget comes from various sources of institutional support: taxes, tuition dollars, tuition discounts or student fees.
Such subsidies are the norm even at most Division I schools. Nebraska is one of only a handful of schools nationally that fund sports totally from athletic revenues. At Nebraska that's thanks largely to Husker football.
Historically schools have defended such subsidies, given the importance of athletics to campus life. But as the subsidies have grown they have come under increased scrutiny, both at UNO and around the country.
“The Board of Regents and (NU) system were saying ‘Where does this end?,''' Alberts said.
That subsidy growth has come while the university also made $18 million in budget cuts over the past decade, with more likely ahead later this year, Christensen said.
“This is not academics versus athletics,'' Christensen said. “But it's fair to say that the budget reductions that have occurred in the past and those we're facing going forward certainly sensitize everyone to the need to make sure all decisions are financially sound.''
Even with the increased institutional support, the UNO athletic department has been in budget-cutting mode over the past six years. Alberts said it became clear to him that “in a short amount of time, we'd be out of business.''
As Alberts began his examination of athletic finances, a steering committee of top university officials and prominent business leaders in Omaha had already launched strategic planning on what it will take to financially meet UNO's long-term housing, parking and academic needs.
Included in the ad hoc group were Omaha construction executives Ken Stinson and Walter Scott, Union Pacific Railroad CEO Jim Young, investment executive Dana Bradford, Christensen, Milliken and Castner.
Alberts started working with the group in April of last year, and athletics soon became its primary focus.
They put all future contingencies for UNO on the table: Division I, dropping to non-scholarship Division III or having no athletic department at all.
They saw Division II wasn't working. Division III would require dropping hockey. It was decided in November that going Division I in all programs was UNO's best option.
They then began to financially model how UNO could fit into Division I, eventually enlisting a top college athletics consultant.
While Alberts had come to UNO with visions of one day taking UNO football to Division I, he said it soon became clear such a move would create even greater financial hardships.
Requiring large numbers of participants, football is by far the department's most expensive program, its budget currently exceeding revenues it generates by $1.3 million, Alberts said.
With increased costs of scholarships, coaches, travel, recruiting and support services, moving up would only increase the program's net deficit and subsidy requirements, he said.
On average, schools competing at the Football Championship Subdivision level spend $1.7 million more in revenue than they generate. That's even considering their “money games,'' when they collect a big paycheck — and typically take a pounding — from stronger Division I teams.
And those costs don't take into account significant new women's athletic investments that would be required for gender equity.
Many schools that have made the jump to Division I football with financial success have done so with big infusions of institutional support. They typically are in small states where their teams represent the state's highest level of football, Alberts said.
By the time the review was done, Alberts said, it was clear UNO could not move up in football.
UNO began exploring its Division I conference options in December. On Feb. 18, Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple told Alberts the conference was interested in sponsoring UNO in Division I.
Things moved quickly from there. Alberts made a presentation during the Summit League's men's basketball tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., last weekend. Summit officials visited UNO Wednesday and Thursday before extending the official bid on Friday.
It was only in recent weeks, as the Summit discussions got serious, that Alberts and Christensen concluded that UNO would drop wrestling and add men's soccer and golf if the bid came. Otherwise, UNO would sponsor only three men's sports offered by the Summit: basketball, baseball and tennis.
“We wanted to compete in the same sports as our new conference rivals,'' Alberts said.
While there are several Summit members who wrestle and play football in other leagues, Alberts said UNO would not pursue those options.
He and Christensen said their excitement about the Summit offer is tempered by the other tough decisions they had to make. Given the state of college athletic finances, they suspect many other schools will face similar choices.
“Of course that doesn't make our changes here any easier,'' Christensen said. “But I think it's today's reality.''
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• Video: Saturday's UNO press conference:
• Video: Q&A session at Saturday's UNO press conference:
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