As a former All-American football player who loved the sound of clashing pads, Trev Alberts never would have imagined that as the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s athletic director he’d recommend the school drop the sport.
But as he dug into the numbers behind moving the school’s athletic program up to the NCAA Division I level, he came to realize UNO simply could not afford to bring football along.
In easily the boldest and most contentious decision of his 12-year tenure, Alberts moved to cut the school’s football and wrestling teams — the latter just as it wrapped up its third straight Division II national championship.
Even a decade later, now that Alberts was named last week as the new athletic director at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the bitter echoes of that 2011 decision can still be heard.
“It was tossed in the garbage like it was nothing,” former UNO wrestling coach Mike Denney said last week of his program. “(Now) the guy who did it is being promoted.”
But while sparking some heated debate and uprooting lives, the Division I move also proved transformative for UNO, on and off the field.
It ultimately helped the school carve out a new athletic identity within its home city, attracted unprecedented levels of private giving and paved the way for state-of-the-art new facilities, including an $88 million on-campus home for its signature ice hockey program.
“In hindsight, it’s like wow,” said Ben Titus, a former UNO football player and booster who still misses the team but has new perspective, too. “(UNO) took a whole new path.”
Those who know Alberts say the episode also showcased some of the qualities he will bring to his new job in Lincoln: A vision for the future. An understanding of the integral role athletics can play in building a school’s brand. And the guts to make tough decisions.
“He realized there would be a backlash, but he did what he thought was in the best interest of UNO,” said Tom Osborne, the football legend who coached Alberts at Nebraska. “To me, it was somewhat a test of his character.”
For his own part, Alberts said it serves little purpose to relitigate the decisions from a decade ago. It was a difficult choice, he said, but he felt strongly it had to be made, and both he and UNO have focused on moving forward since.
Now Alberts's path is taking him back to his alma mater and one of the highest profile athletic administration jobs in the country. It's a job that will certainly carry its own challenges, including oversight of a proud football program in the midst of a long, dismal decline.
But as his time at UNO showed, Alberts isn’t likely to shrink from such challenges or the public spotlight. And he's certainly proven he can take a hit.
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Ask Trev Alberts what he loves most about playing football, and he mentions the blood-sweat-and-tears camaraderie with teammates, as well as the life lessons the sport offers in perseverance.
“We all get knocked down in life,” he said. “The key is you don’t stay down. You have to get back up.”
The young Alberts also liked the fact that not only was hitting allowed in football, it was encouraged. And few in the college game in the early 1990s could deliver a blow as fiercely as Alberts.
The Cedar Falls, Iowa, native earned the Butkus Award as the nation’s top college linebacker in 1993. The Husker team he helped lead that year fell agonizingly short of a national championship, falling 18-16 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
After his professional career was cut short by injuries, Alberts spent a decade as a TV network college football talking head. But by 2009, the former academic All-American was looking to do something more meaningful.
He talked to Osborne, who at the time was serving as the athletic director in Lincoln. One possible path they discussed was athletic administration. And that would ultimately lead Alberts to NU’s sister school.
When the athletic director job at UNO became available, Osborne helped open a door for Alberts, calling UNO Chancellor John Christensen and offering an endorsement. By the end of the process, Christensen was impressed, choosing Alberts from among a field of candidates.
Considering that Alberts at the time had absolutely no experience in college athletics beyond playing football and commenting on the game, some wondered whether Christensen and UNO were crazy.
“On paper, it was a horrible decision,” said Omaha attorney Rick Jeffries, a UNO hockey booster. “There was no outward evidence UNO knew what it was doing.”
But Alberts was smart, polished and ambitious. And he wowed Maverick fans like Jeffries just weeks into the job by engineering the hiring of Dean Blais, considered by many the best college hockey coach in America. Blais by 2015 would lead the Mavs to the “Frozen Four,” the college hockey final four.
Alberts also early on talked openly of building an on-campus hockey arena, a years-old idea that had gotten little traction. But before that could happen, there were bigger financial challenges to be tackled.
The UNO athletic department in recent years had been in constant budget-cutting mode because of revenue shortfalls. Earned revenues from ticket sales and sponsorships had been flat for a decade, forcing campus administrators to inject ever-increasing amounts of student tuition and fee dollars to prop up the budget. A financial scandal related to athletics funding in 2006 had even cost a UNO chancellor her job.
Christensen told Alberts he needed to come up with a long-term plan that would solve the “financial nightmare” in athletics.
UNO at the time competed in Division II in all sports but hockey, and Alberts said he soon learned that was not working.
Beyond hockey, UNO athletics had little profile in the community. Few attended football or basketball games, seemingly uninterested in watching the Mavericks play the likes of Washburn, Missouri Western and the other small Missouri and Kansas schools in their conference.
Alberts began working quietly with a group of prominent Omaha business leaders on exploring a new future for athletics.
“He’s competitive, strategic and focused,” said Josh White, at the time a young administrator working under Alberts. “He likes to be around a team he can trust and go to work on problems.”
Alberts said he and the group let the data drive their decisions, and ultimately came to some surprising realizations.
UNO was one of the nation’s largest Division II schools. Urban metropolitan-class universities like UNO tended to compete in Division I and play mid-major college basketball, gunning for a bid in the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament.
Another trait of such schools: They typically don’t have football teams.
Alberts and the group additionally soon realized UNO did not have the budget to play football at even the lowest level of Division I.
UNO’s $1.4 million budget for football would need to double just to reach the average for the schools competing in the Football Championship Subdivision. And that didn’t include the cost of new facilities, or new spending on women’s sports to preserve gender balance.
The school couldn’t realistically expect to make up that kind of money selling football tickets. In the 2010 season, UNO had recorded just over $100,000 in football ticket revenue.
As much as he loved football, Alberts said he concluded UNO simply couldn’t afford to take the sport to Division I.
Alberts subsequently found a conference potentially interested in sponsoring UNO’s D-I membership: the Summit League. It was a basketball-centric conference made up largely of Dakota schools that had at one time been league rivals of UNO in D-II, as well as fellow metropolitan schools in cities like Kansas City, Tulsa and Denver.
But the Summit League didn’t offer wrestling. In fact, UNO had only three of the eight men’s sports the Summit League sponsored. No other school in the league had fewer than six.
In what was perhaps the most controversial move, Alberts decided that if the Summit League offer came through, UNO would drop wrestling and reallocate its nearly $500,000 budget to fund new men’s soccer and golf teams. Chancellor Christensen also signed off on the decision, even though he was a huge wrestling fan and close friend of Coach Denney.
“John and I both knew emotionally this would be extraordinarily difficult for us,” Alberts said last week, “and neither of us liked it at all.”
UNO’s admission to the Summit was quietly approved by league schools in March 2011. The timing could hardly have been worse. The vote came just as UNO’s wrestling team was opening competition in the D-II national championships in Kearney.
On that Saturday, the Mav wrestlers were celebrating over pizza in their hotel hours after winning their third straight title and eighth in school history. That’s when Denney received a phone call from Alberts telling him the news. He was stunned and angered.
The public announcement the next day elicited both excitement and furor.
As is heard anytime a school cuts sports — unfortunately not an uncommon act within college athletics — opponents decried the impact on the 150 athletes whose lives were turned upside down. The young men had to choose between staying at UNO on their current scholarship aid or finding another school where they could play.
Alberts said he never took any offense to such comments and criticism. He knew if he had been one of those athletes, he would have been just as frustrated and angry.
Much criticism also came over the way the move was handled, with a secretive process and no notice of what was coming. But in a meeting that brought Christensen to tears, the NU Board of Regents unanimously approved the move. They, too, were sold on the new Division I vision.
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Ten years later, the UNO athletic department bears little resemblance to what it had been.
The UNO men’s basketball team draws more than four times the crowds it did before the move. Twice in their first six years of Division I eligibility, the Mavericks have come within a single win of qualifying for the NCAA’s big dance.
The men’s soccer team, playing on the same field as the former football team, has twice qualified for the NCAA tournament, and this year won its first tournament game.
UNO has also completely rebranded its athletic teams at D-I. The athletic department developed a distinct, tri-color “O” logo that came to be adopted campuswide. And the teams now go to battle with “Omaha” rather than UNO on their chests, adopting the city they call home as their primary identity.
UNO athletes also have among the highest collective GPAs of any D-I school.
The D-I move certainly hasn’t solved all the budget challenges in athletics.
UNO’s athletics budget includes millions more student fee and tuition dollars than it did a decade ago, though that money is also a significantly lower percentage of the budget. An NCAA finance database for 2019 shows roughly 50% of UNO’s $20 million athletic budget came from campus subsidies, among the lowest for schools outside the Power Five conferences.
What’s most notable financially is the $100-plus million in private giving the D-I move helped unleash. That includes over $40 million toward the hockey and basketball arena inaugurated in 2015, and $24 million for a new baseball and softball complex that opened this spring.
Howard Hawks, a former NU regent from Omaha, said such support simply would not have been possible if UNO was still muddling along at Division II. White said it’s likely no Division I athletic department outside the Power Five has raised more money privately over the past decade than UNO.
“I can’t say enough good things about Trev and what he has done,” said Connie Claussen, the longtime administrator who helped found women’s athletics at UNO. “He had a vision and was able to get so many big donors to trust and believe in him. And we have more to come.”
Indeed, a third construction phase for other sports is on the drawing table. But it won’t be completed on Alberts’ watch.
On Wednesday, he was introduced as the new athletic director in Lincoln.
Within minutes of the announcement, the arrows from those upset by the decision a decade ago began to fly on Twitter. One high school wrestling coach suggested Nebraska would soon be dropping football and wrestling in favor of badminton and curling.
“Oh wait, that’s his UNO resume,” the coach wrote.
Over the years, many in the wrestling community both locally and nationally have never hidden their disdain for Alberts. Denney said his phone began blowing up with calls and texts immediately after the announcement of Alberts’ hiring in Lincoln.
Denney for the last decade has been wrestling coach at Maryville University, a private Division II school near St. Louis. He remains so bitter over what transpired he avoided during an interview referring to Alberts or UNO by name, often calling them “the A.D.” and “that other place.”
Among many criticisms, Denney suggested Alberts showed a lack of concern for the UNO athletes impacted in 2011.
“We are supposed to be about the student athlete," he said. “How what went down is about as far from that as you can get."
Alberts declined to respond to Denney’s comments other than to say he considers him “a good man and a wonderful wrestling coach.”
Others who worked with Alberts at UNO say it’s unfair for anyone to suggest he showed a lack of concern for affected athletes. White said the weight of the strain on Alberts in those days was visible.
“Trev cared very much about student athletes,” Claussen agreed. She pointed to how Alberts subsequently raised private money for an academic, health and life skills center serving athletes — a facility located in the school’s former wrestling room.
You can still hear conspiracy theories today that Alberts cut UNO football as part of a handshake agreement between him and Osborne that Nebraska would not start a hockey program. Osborne calls such tales ludicrous.
Overall, UNO football advocates have never been as fiercely outspoken about the move as wrestlers. Titus, the former player and booster, said he does still think about the lost opportunity to keep more football players living — and ultimately working — in Nebraska.
One former UNO football player and booster, Van Deeb, has since turned into a big Maverick basketball fan. He sent Alberts a congratulatory text after Wednesday’s announcement.
“Trev is a good guy,” Deeb said. “Nebraska is going to be in a better place — just like UNO.”
When Alberts got off the elevator at his announcement press conference, one of the first to shake his hand was Mark Manning, the Husker wrestling coach who was a Hall-of-Fame wrestler at UNO under Denney. Alberts told Manning he’s looking forward to working with him.
Similarly, Alberts said he looks forward to attending lots of Husker men’s and women’s athletics contests — including those contested on Saturdays in Memorial Stadium.
“I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I was pretty excited about going to football games,” he said.