Loyalty is hard to find in sports— business and money tend to take its place. But for Trev Alberts, loyalty isn’t just a word or a forgotten principle— it’s something that’s always been a part of him.
“I was raised on loyalty,” says Alberts, the director of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). “My father taught me about loyalty and Tom Osborne reinforced it to me.”
Alberts’ loyalty showed a few weeks ago during a tense time throughout the state of Nebraska. The Huskers had just fired Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst due to a lack of onfield success. Among the carousel of names that may replace Eichorst was the former star linebacker Butkus award winner and fifth overall NFL draft pick—Trev Alberts.
But as soon as speculation started, Alberts closed that door and cemented his stance in the job and place he has called home for the last eight years. An email sent by Alberts to faculty and staff stated that he withdrew his name from consideration at Nebraska because “he has unfinished business at UNO.” He also stated that he remains committed to working hard and reaching those goals. Those goals, established by Alberts, were created in one of the darkest times in the history of the Omaha athletic program.
On the “D-day” of UNO athletics, the decision was made to cut the football and wrestling programs. Alberts and other UNO leaders chose to embark on a different path, a necessary one for survival amongst the competition of nearby schools like Creighton and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They were hoping the change could give UNO national prominence in a small market.
Since then, even without overwhelming support, the underdog has thrived. A Frozen Four banner hangs in Baxter Arena—the major showground where UNO athletes can finally call home. The men’s basketball team was one win away from dancing in March Madness and played on ESPN in the Summit League Championship. The men’s soccer team achieved a top-10 ranking earlier in the season. Don’t forget— this is all at the Division I level.
Even with the recent success, Alberts knows that there will be some people who will never forgive him for cutting the two programs. He understands how they feel. He has put himself in their shoes and said that he would have been just as mad as they were maybe even more mad.
“I know there are people that will never come back, but we challenged ourselves with making decisions that were in the best interest of UNO athletics, UNO as an institution and the community as a whole,” Alberts says. “It was the hard thing to do but it was the right thing to do.”
Many could argue that Alberts has helped make UNO prominent in all three of those aspects. The athletic program is creating value in playing for the Mavericks, UNO as an institution has had the highest enrollment and retention rates it’s had in years and the community is involved more than ever in what Alberts calls, “the brand.”
The brand is Omaha. Not Nebraska- Omaha, just Omaha. It’s how UNO gets nationally recognized. Not everyone around the country knows what UNO stands for, but they certainly know Omaha. Since 2013, royalty payments from jerseys and apparel have doubled. 450,000 people walked through Baxter Arena’s doors last year and there were 125 events that took place. The brand is taking hold.
After all the backlash and tough times, and in the recent wake of success, it would have been easy for the marketable Trev Alberts to leave for greener pastures. Assuredly, he’s had opportunities for other jobs but just remember, Alberts stayed and stood by UNO athletics through thick and thin. How many Omaha natives can say that? It’s the loyalty and commitment exhibited by Alberts that is so hard to find in the sports industry.
Just ask Isaiah Thomas.
It’s easy to see that Alberts often reflects on his time as a player at Nebraska and uses those lessons as life’s teaching moments. In addition to loyalty, one of the qualities that Tom Osborne instilled in his players was the importance of finishing.
“Whether on the football field or in life, Coach Osborne always drilled into our heads to be finishers,” Alberts says. “He wanted us to finish every play on the field and be finishers in education off the field.”
It’s a story Nebraskans know all too well. Tom Osborne: the stoic legend who coached life as well as football. But it’s worth noting, because to Alberts, Osborne was not only a great coach, he was the epitome of what a leader should be.
“I watched Coach Osborne in the most difficult of times stand in front of the team and take the heat,” says Alberts. “And when things were going really well, I watched him stand in the back and deflect the praise to other people.”
This is what made Tom Osborne a champion in Alberts’ eyes. Osborne was selfless. He was a winner, and most importantly, he was a finisher.
“Champions are finishers,” says Alberts. “Coach [Osborne] motivated me to be a finisher.”
When you talk to Alberts about his tenure at UNO, it’s clear he has an ideal vision of what he wants the program to be. That vision, in his eyes, is not complete. He is not satisfied with glimpses of success. Like a true winner, Alberts yearns for sustained, perennial dominance. He also has a knack of rooting for the underdog, which he feels resonates with the culture at UNO.
“I’ve seen the impact that having a home for hockey has made on that program…and if we are going to be a Division I athletic department, we would like to be able to provide those resources to every sport, so athletes feel like they have a home.”
Not only does Alberts want to enhance facilities, he wants to grow on past achievements and compete for conference championships in every sport. While he appreciates the Frozen Four banner in Baxter Arena, it “bothers” him that there is no NCHC conference championship banner hanging as well.
Some fans may think that the rise of UNO hockey, soccer and basketball is just UNO catching a much-needed break. However, this is no happy accident. For Alberts, it was all part of the plan.
“We sponsor sports that we can have an impact in regionally and nationally. We want to be a relevant athletic department in this marketplace, and it’s very hard because it’s extremely competitive,” he says. “We have had glimpses of real success, but we haven’t been consistent.”
Throughout his tenure at UNO, Alberts has had to endure and answer lots of tough questions. He did not inherit a program like the one he has created. He has had to deal with animosity for creating a solution to a problem he didn’t cause. Still, every day for the last eight years you can find him walking with a smile on his face everywhere he goes. Whether it’s a full-time coach or a student worker who puts in five hours a week, he makes sure everyone knows how essential their hard work is to the overall success of UNO athletics. He has always taken the blame when people are upset, and he has always commended others when receiving praise.
Just like his former coach, Alberts is about serving other people. It’s not about accolades or wins and losses. What keeps Trev Alberts coming back to his office every morning is not the Frozen Four banner or any kind of trophy. It’s seeing the joy in his students and coaches faces when they succeed, and not just on the field, but in life.
“In my eight years here, the most gratifying thing to me was not going to the Frozen Four or opening Baxter Arena,” Alberts says. “It was when Tra-Deon Hollins got his college degree; I saw the smile on his face, and it meant the absolute world to me.”
It’s in this exact moment where Alberts appears more human than ever. For once, he isn’t the former first-round draft pick or the famous ESPN announcer. He isn’t the scary 6-foot-4 Butkus award winner. In this moment, it’s clear that Alberts is simply a man with a heart, who does his job because he believes it can make a difference in people’s lives.
Most people remember Tra-Deon Hollins as the basketball player. He still is, but to Alberts, Hollins was a young kid whose path to graduation was harder than most. Instead of just seeing Hollins’ steal numbers, he saw his dedication and commitment to earning a college degree. With Alberts’ help and guidance, Hollins earned something much more than just a diploma. He earned a future.
“It’s not always easy for them,” says Alberts with tears in his eyes. “But to give a young man or woman a chance, even if it’s a second chance… to watch them earn their college degree, that makes me feel like what we’re doing here has real value.”
If that’s not leadership, then I don’t know what is.