You don't care about the University of Nebraska-Omaha. It's a directional Division II school living and playing in the considerable shadow of the other, bigger directional school down the road.
You know that school as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
But you needed to care about UNO on Sunday. For years there was the feeling that Nebraska football was going to kill Nebraska-Omaha football. Too big, too close. Nebraskans love their football but what would you rather eat on Saturday -- steak or baloney? Still, UNO was a nice, little, competitive program that was a credit to its community. It was shocking, then, that the hammer came down Sunday afternoon, not from Nebraska's almighty influence but from UNO itself. The school announced it was cutting football and wrestling essentially so it could afford to jump up to Division I in basketball.
You wouldn't care except that on Saturday night that wrestling program won its third consecutive Division II national championship. Last month, the football program signed 20 or so recruits promising them a free education and a chance to play football. In essence, the administration deceived both the coaches and athletes on those teams, planning their demise while the teams played on.
"How could you sit there, if you know this was going to come down, and let them sign letters of intent?” former Mavericks football coach Sandy Buda told the Omaha World-Herald . “Those kids are out. They got nowhere to go."
You will care further knowing that one of the butchers in this case is Trev Alberts. Yep, the old Nebraska star is UNO's AD. You might remember him as the ESPN football analyst whose ego allowed him to throw away one of the plum jobs in broadcasting. Alberts was hired a few years ago because of his name. It certainly wasn't his AD experience, of which there was none. The affected athletes and coaches are understandably in shock. Nine football coaches are suddenly out on the street. National champion wrestlers picked up the trophy, then got kicked in the butt.
"We're incredibly sorry," Alberts said Sunday. "Those students who choose to stay, we will help them."
Actually, Trev, the NCAA mandates that you honor scholarships in cases such as this, so don't go benevolent caretaker on us. This looked more like Enron than college athletics. There was deception at the highest level of the UNO administration. Alberts and chancellor John Christensen countered by saying they didn't know it had an invitation from the hallowed Summit League until last week. Maybe, but the administration's quick acceptance didn't come out of the blue either. This is a decision to made over time -- and shared with the people it is going to affect. You don't make it after 20 kids have pledged to play football. You don't do it less than 24 hours after the wrestling team has brought glory to the school.
And for what? The basketball team is moving into the Summit League, one of the worst Division I basketball leagues.
"Omaha has clearly spoken that mid-major basketball is a player here," Albert said.
No, Omaha has clearly spoken that Creighton is the city's team playing in one of the best mid-major conferences in the country, the Missouri Valley. Omaha has been following a private institution that is ingrained in the community for decades. UNO is a commuter campus. There is no assurance at all it will take off as a D-I basketball program.
Maybe it was inevitable. UNO football always struggled because it played in Nebraska's shadow. By moving up, UNO couldn't afford the addition of the 27 scholarships it would take to play in Division I-AA. Alberts said the average I-AA program loses $1.7 million. Alberts added that the reliance on subsidies (like student fees) for the athletic department was reaching critical mass. We'll take him at his word since he has been so up front with us to this point.
The school's signature sport remains hockey; the Division I Mavericks are finishing their 14th season. But in a system that is looking for accountability, Alberts and the UNO administration joined the Tressel and Pearl wagon train this season. No one said UNO had to keep football and wrestling. It did have to be honest with those coaches and players. Tell them that dropping the sports they have devoted their sweat, blood and lives to are in danger of being cut.
Football coach Pat Behrns had just hired Bobby Petrino's cousin to coach the secondary.
The century-old football program produced Marlin Briscoe who shattered racial barriers as a black quarterback, long before such a thing was possible in the NFL. There have been 13 playoff appearances, three bowl games. Three Mavericks have played in the NFL since 2000. You've especially got to feel for Behrns, the school's winningest coach. In 17 seasons, he delivered seven first-place finishes and three seasons of at least 10 wins. There have been 15 straight winning seasons.
Everyone will eventually get the equivalent of out placement. For now, you need to care about the human carnage, the emotions, the families, the educations, the careers ripped apart. The school got out of whack with Title IX when it added hockey. Then it moved its games to the swanky Qwest Center. Good aesthetically, but more of a debt burden. That's not the only reason, but one of the reasons.
UNO is not big time today because it plays hockey in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and future basketball in the Summit. It looks petty, heartless. It looks like Enron and Tressel and Pearl. Hiding the truth while innocent, virtuous people worked their asses off. Here's the clincher: Someone please take my bet that in five years neither Alberts nor Christensen will be at UNO. It's the nature of the business. They are fixers, passing through town. They inherited part of this mess, but they sure as hell didn't make it better.
There's another model, one employed by many schools who can't afford athletics -- Division III, no scholarships. Washington University in St. Louis, one of the most prestigious schools in the country, does it that way and is a national power.. But that wouldn't have been big time enough for UNO. Guess we'll have to wait until the Summit League Battle of the Hyphens at Omaha's Civic Arena -- Missouri-Kansas City vs. Nebraska-Omaha. They should be busting down the doors for that one.
If a few football players and wrestlers don't bust some administrative jaws first.