LINCOLN, Neb. — The University of Nebraska at Omaha is going to NCAA Division I, leaving more than a few broken hearts in its wake.
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents voted unanimously Friday to approve the school’s move to the Summit League this fall. As part of the move, the school will eliminate its 100-year-old football program and a powerhouse wrestling program that has won six of the last eight Division II national championships.
After 90 minutes of emotional testimony from 28 people, several regents noted that they would cast their votes with mixed emotions because of the ramifications for the student-athletes and coaches who are losing their programs.
Athletic director Trev Alberts has said the two sports must be dropped to accommodate the conference switch and shore up the athletic department budget.
The Mavs already compete in Division I in men’s ice hockey in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
UNO currently sponsors five men’s teams and nine women’s teams at the Division II level, but the Summit League does not offer football and wrestling.
Minutes after the vote, wrestling coach Mike Denney spoke through tears about his pride in the team he coached for 32 years and how he was never given a chance to find a way to save his program.
“Maybe there was an agenda too early,” Denney said.
Chancellor John Christensen said the athletic department’s financial trend lines were heading for a “train wreck” if it remained in Division II. Expenses were $10.3 million in 2009-10, with $4.5 million in revenue. The estimated $5.9 million in institutional support required in 2009-10 was projected to increase to $7.9 million by 2015-16.
Christensen and Alberts told regents that the greater revenue potential associated with going to Division I, plus the elimination of the two sports, gives UNO a better chance to have a sustainable business model.
“If we didn’t achieve financial stability, we weren’t going to have an athletic department at all,” Alberts said.
Alberts said the move also would give UNO greater visibility and prestige and would better align it with peer universities.
Detractors complained that Alberts and Christensen made the decision without allowing boosters, alumni and athletic department staff to offer input and possible solutions. Several said the feasibility report Alberts uses to support the move is flawed and that more time is needed to study the matter. Others lamented lost opportunities for prospective student-athletes from the state.
Denney, in his testimony, chided Alberts and Christensen.
“Is this the best our athletic director can do?” he asked. “Is this the best you can do, John? Is this the right way to treat people in your organization and family? Are you inspiring a culture of excellence? The answer is no.
“There has to be a better way of doing it.”
At that, Denney turned to supporters in the meeting room, raised his hands and voice and said, “Ooosss”—the team’s battle cry that challenges wrestlers to bring their best in competition. His supporters in the meeting room responded in kind.
Then Denney turned to the regents, raised his hands and voice, and again said “Ooosss.”
“The way this was done was not right,” Denney said. “You can make a wrong a right.”
According to a feasibility report by Massachusetts-based college athletics consultant Alden & Associates, the elimination of football and wrestling are necessary to keep athletics afloat.
UNO loses about $1.2 million a year on football alone. The report said that figure would increase significantly in Division I because the program would require 27 additional scholarships, additional coaches and more funds for recruiting and travel. Football coach Pat Behrns did not attend the meeting.
The report also said wrestling couldn’t sustain its success given that it would be impossible for UNO to fund the program at the level it would require to be competitive in Division I.
UNO’s wrestling team won its third consecutive national championship on March 12. Hours later, Alberts told Denney by phone that the program was targeted for elimination.
Mario Morgan, who won the 141-pound national title, spoke directly to Christensen. Morgan reminded the chancellor, a former college wrestler, that he was a member of the team’s family. Morgan said he remembered Christensen standing with his father as he wrestled in a tournament.
“What did we do to deserve this?” Morgan said. “What has our team done wrong?”
Morgan closed by sarcastically thanking Alberts and Christensen for congratulations he said they have never offered to the team for winning the national championship.
Said Alberts: “This is obviously an emotional day, but it’s also a day of great opportunity for UNO.”