By Patrick Cooley, Sports Editor
I caught up with UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts on Monday. He’s a busy man these days, but he let me pick his brain about his decision to recommend eliminating the university’s wrestling and football programs.
The wrestling community couldn’t seem to understand why he would eliminate their championship program and why he would announce it just hours after their third consecutive national championship.
“Wasn’t there a better time to do it?” UNO Wrestling Head Coach Mike Denney asked.
No doubt about it, they aren’t happy.
UNO Wrestling is a sports family unlike any other I’ve seen. It was evidenced in the nearly 500 people that showed up at Sapp Fieldhouse on Sunday for a rally supporting the team. Coach Denney has always run a program based on character, making it even harder for his family to be dealt this hand hours after its euphoric high.
Eliminating such a program seems unthinkable.
But Alberts saw it differently.
“Most people assume things are going great, ‘Hockey is going well, wrestling just won another title. Hey, things are going great,'” he said. “And meanwhile the bills are coming due.”
Ahh, yes, the bills.
This is where the story gets tough, and interesting. The reality is UNO’s Athletic Department has been on a path toward extinction for a while now.
But the human element to this decision cannot be overlooked. These kids pour their hearts and souls onto the mat year after year. While most people assume things are going great – because they keep winning – the reality Alberts faced was the reality so many Americans are facing these days: cuts had to be made somewhere.
“It is my understanding that [this department] had been making a lot of convenient decisions in the past,” Alberts said. “That just isn’t sustainable anymore.”
The department’s budget has risen to $9.5 million, but its revenue has been stagnant for years. This is a real problem. Alberts said he couldn’t count on being bailed out by state and school support any longer. UNO athletics had to become revenue generating. Something needed to be done. But why wrestling?
1. Dropping wrestling wasn’t financial.
Though the athletic department is losing $296,000 per year from the sport, despite what Alberts called “phenomenal” fundraising efforts, this amount cannot simply be saved by eliminating the program. Men’s golf and men’s soccer, both of which will be added , will offset any potential savings from taking the wrestling mats away. Bottom line: Eliminating Division II wrestling and adding two Division I sports cancel one another out financially. The financial argument, on its own, doesn’t work.
2. If it wasn’t financial then what was it?
Alberts, during Sunday’s press conference, said that the wrestling program would need an infusion of funds in order to be competitive. On Monday, he again reiterated that “there is a direct correlation between funding and success in wrestling.”
His department compiled a list of Division I wrestling programs and their budgets on Monday. He pointed to Iowa’s ($1,650,000) and Nebraska’s ($1,003,000) wrestling budgets to show that the new UNO Division I wrestling budget would need to be doubled in order to maintain a championship-caliber program at the next level.
But why does UNO Wrestling need to be a championship program in D-I in order to survive and be successful?
What about South Dakota State and North Dakota State? These two Summit League schools maintained their wrestling programs while moving to Division I. Both Schools compete in the Western Wrestling Conference. SDSU’s total budget of $300,000 is over $115,000 less than UNO’s current Division II budget and NDSU’s total budget of $462,000 isn’t too far off UNO’s mark. These are good examples for what the program should shoot for financially. Iowa isn’t.
Sure it isn’t practical for UNO to try to compete with the likes of Iowa and Nebraska, but do they have to? NDSU and SDSU don’t and they survive. Sure, success wouldn’t come as easy at the next level, but couldn’t UNO be successful with a budget similar to SDSU’s, which would in fact save the University more than $100,000?
Wrestling isn’t a revenue sport, but then again neither are any other sports UNO has except hockey and potentially men’s basketball down the road. Bottom line: The wrestling budget didn’t need to change at the Division I level. If you say it’s not a financial decision, then why argue using finances?
3. Did the Summit League force Alberts and UNO to add more Summit League sponsored sports?
I asked Commissioner Tom Douple Monday. His response?
“We have members who aren’t competing in every sport,”he said. “Obviously from our standpoint we encourage all of our institutions to sponsor all the sports.”
All indications are that Douple didn’t force Alberts’ hand on this one. The A.D. never alluded to it and the Commissioner didn’t either. This was a decision made by UNO. And can you completely blame them? Without these additions, UNO would have only three men’s programs competing in Summit League sponsored events. The league offers eight.
This didn’t sit well with Alberts, and rightfully so.
“When you’re looking at joining a conference, you’d like to be representative of the membership,” he said. “Otherwise why have a conference if we keep keep football and wrestling? If you’re not competing in the same sports, you’re not developing rivalries.”
UNO couldn’t afford to hold onto wrestling while adding men’s soccer and golf. It was one or the other.
This decision was a long-term decision. If UNO is to succeed at Division I athletics, Alberts feels it needs to fully integrate itself into its conference. That means forming rivalries. UNO needs to help develop the Summit League into a Missouri Valley Conference-like league. Wrestling doesn’t fit into this long-term goal.
This was about what made the most sense. The department didn’t want three or four different conference affiliations each with their own rivalries and story lines. Hockey already stands on its own in the WCHA, but it generates money – wrestling won’t.
Alberts wants a united “Omaha’s Team.” And as he alluded to, the wrestling program had been opposed to the changes he has wanted to make since he arrived. In many ways, Alberts represented the new school approach to UNO athletics, and Mike Denney and his 32 years of coaching experience represented the old one.
Adding soccer and golf aren’t essential to UNO, but they get at the goal of moving forward.
Eliminating wrestling wasn’t about finances. It was about UNO fully integrating itself into the Summit League and thus into Division I athletics. This meant it had to cut ties with those who where seen as a stumbling block. Wrestling was in Alberts way, and they let him know it. Denney didn’t want to move to Division I, Alberts did. The old and the new.
Sure, Alberts could have brought along wrestling, but he didn’t want to. He is a man of vision, and his future vision is in the Summit. Adding men’s golf and men’s soccer helped this vision, where as wrestling didn’t. It was in a sense, expendable.
Is this right? Hard to say. People are involved. Families. But the reality is that tough decisions had to made at UNO. Alberts had no qualms about doing so and only time will tell if this experiment will work. He said he never came into the job looking to eliminate programs, but that’s what he felt the job called for at this point in time.
It’s sad to see a family broken up by business, but that might just be reality. One thing is certain, though. Denney’s family will sure be missed.