By Patrick Cooley, Sports Editor
It’s hard to beat a champion, and as UNO wrestling is coming to find out, it can be hard to be one as well.
Fresh off a third consecutive national championship Saturday, the program learned that its athletic department was planning on eliminating it, as well as football. However, the wrestling program is continuing its fight to block the proposal by UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts which, if given final approval by the NU Board of Regents, would signal the end of wrestling at the university.
On Monday, Nebraska State Senator, Tyson Larson, from O’Neill, Neb., along with twelve fellow senators, introduced legislative resolution 121. The resolution, if approved, would outline the legislature’s “clear support for [the wrestling program] and its continuation as a varsity sport.” LR 121 also goes on to ask the Board of Regents to support the “tradition and excellence of [wrestling program].”
While the resolution is not a bill and can do nothing to override the Board of Regents, Larson said if passed, it would send a message to the Board that UNO’s proposal needs to be looked at very carefully, while putting increased pressure on the voting members.
In order to pass, LR 121 would need five supporters in the education committee and 25 of 49 votes in the unicameral. Larson said it may take a few weeks for the resolution to pass, but he thought it needed to be initiated because of how the process has gone thus far.
“I was extremely disappointed to see that five of the Board members said they had already supported the bill,” the 24-year old legislator and former wrestler said. “They do their constituents injustice by deciding on such important matters so early on in the game. I’d like to hear what both sides have to say and hear testimony.”
Larson said he has spoken to three of the elected regents thus far, Board President J.B Milliken, Timothy Clare and Kent Schroeder. While Schroeder and Milliken have already pledged their support for UNO’s proposal, the senator said Clare was the most “open-minded.”
The NU Board of Regents consists of eight voting members elected from districts within the state, as well as four non-voting members.
According to its bylaws, “an affirmative vote of a majority of all members of the Board qualified to serve and vote at said time shall be required for the adoption of any resolution.”
It goes on to further state that “approval of the Board shall be required for the creation of any new teaching department or school or division or any administrative unit of the University, or the consolidation or elimination of any such administrative unit.” Thus, the UNO community awaits a decision by the Board, which may come via a quorum prior to its next scheduled meeting in late April.
UNO’s proposal, presented to the public on Sunday, showed how football was not financially feasible at the Division I level. However, many came away from Sunday’s press conference wondering why wrestling, a sport with far fewer budget concerns, needed to be cut.
Alberts said Monday the decision to cut wrestling was not primarily a financial one.
“You can’t look at wrestling and say ‘it costs too much money, we have to get rid of wrestling.’ That wasn’t the rationale.”
Instead Alberts pointed to conference alignment issues. The Summit League, which would serve as the new conference home for UNO’s Division I athletics, does not sponsor wrestling and football. As UNO athletics now stands, it would have only three men’s championship sports sponsored by its new league, something Alberts said was problematic.
“When you’re looking at joining a conference, you’d like to be representative of the membership,” said Alberts on Monday. “Otherwise why have a conference? If you’re not going to compete in the same sports you’re not developing rivalries .”
Though not required in the school’s invitation to the Summit League, the elimination of football and wrestling would allow the school to add men’s soccer and men’s golf, two sports which are sponsored by the Summit League. As of Tuesday evening, the department was still working on the projected costs of both those sports.
Alberts’ department did however, outline some financial concerns regarding the wrestling program.
According to the department, in 2009-10 the total direct costs for wrestling were $415,593 and the revenue generated, mainly through the program’s Booster Club, totaled $119,012. The athletic department lost $296,581 during the year by sporting a wrestling team.
In assessing the feasibility of a move to Division I wrestling, the department met financial obstacles.
“We asked ourselves, ‘O well let’s take a look a Division I [wrestling].’ There is a direct correlation between funding and success.”
The University of Iowa operates its wrestling program on a $1,650,000 budget and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln operates on a $1,003,000 budget. In order for UNO wrestling to move to Division I, Alberts said it would need a $9.2 million endowment.
“That is what we need to have the program move forward,” he said. “You still can’t find the rationale, we still need the $9.2 million.”
Many had questioned Alberts decision to drop the program, but even more questioned his decision to notify UNO Coach Denney just hours after his team’s championship. Alberts acknowledged the timing concerns.
“The timing was terrible, absolutely,” Alberts said. “But our conclusion was, we can’t stay where we are and we can’t go down to Division III, so you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
The second-year athletic director said difficult decisions had to be made quickly.
“We were given this official invite on Friday; I’m panicking thinking ‘The last thing I need is to have the wrestling team find out before the [championships]. The only thing worse would have been if it had happened before. It was going to leak and the worst case scenario would have been for [Head football coach] Pat Behrns or Mike Denney to wake up Sunday morning, read the World-Herald article and I haven’t even called. That’s even worse.”
Alberts also pointed to departmental concerns outside of just wrestling.
“We have a lot of programs here and regrettably some of the decisions you have to make are going to be bad for some programs,” he said. “This decision is terrible for wrestling, it’s why wrestling has always never wanted to go to Division I. There are only two wrestling programs that fully fund wrestling at D-II. Given the current funding right now, they’d be one of the lower funded ones. But should we paralyze the rest of our programs?”
Many in the wrestling program spoke of a history of poor treatment from the Athletic Director and his department.
Following his team’s victory, Denney returned a phone call from his Athletic Director. The 32-year UNO veteran could tell right away something was wrong.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Congratulations,’ and in the two years I’ve been here, he’s never done that, so I knew something was up,” Denney said.
UNO wrestler Ryan Pankoke also hinted at troublesome relations between program and department, though did not give specifics.
“Ever since he’s got here, he’s treated coach as second class,” he said. “He’s had no respect for him. He’s been trying to cut us down the whole time.”
When asked about his relationship with the wrestling program, Alberts pointed to the program’s difficulty in accepting some of his proposals over the course of his time at UNO.
“There is some truth to the fact that we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions around here in regards to how we spend our money,” he said. “Change is very difficult and some move at a slower pace. But I admire and respect Coach Denney and what he’s done. I certainly didn’t take the job thinking ‘How can I find a way to destroy the wrestling program,’ but there are realities the person in my chair deals with each and every day. There were things we’ve done as a department that we couldn’t continue to do. There wasn’t anything that we tried to do as an executive staff that wasn’t the same for each of the programs. So we never singled out wrestling and said you are going to be treated differently.”
Despite the turmoil, Denney is remaining positive and resolute.
“I’m chipping away,” he said. “I’m trying to manage these challenges. [Senator] Tyson Larson is a dynamo and a great guy. We’re staying hopeful.”