The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.
Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.
Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.
The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.
He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.
UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.
News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.
Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.
Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.
Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department.
“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”
Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.
Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”
Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.
Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”
It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.
“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”
What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.
The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.
Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.
“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”
Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.
Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.
Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”
The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.
Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.
In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.
As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.
On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”
Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”
Visit baxterarena.com for more information. Omaha Magazine