UNO makes smart, yet painful move to Division I

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By Brandon Bartling, Contributor

On the morning of March 25, a fresh blanket of snow covered the turf. Maybe it was fitting, for the tenants of Al F. Caniglia Field were about to get the cold shoulder. West of the field, through the doors of Sapp Fieldhouse and up a flight of steps, wrestling’s national championship banners hung from the rafters as remnants of the past. Down in Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents met to unplug the life support that the UNO Mavericks Football and Wrestling teams clung to so desperately.

UNO is now a Division I university, pending NCAA approval and the expiration of a reclassification moratorium. This rise in stature came at a price: collegiate football and wrestling no longer have a home in Omaha. That said, the move to Division I is a great move for UNO’s future.

Football was cut primarily due to finances. Division I requires additional scholarships for a sport  that’s already the school’s most expensive program. Though never confirmed by UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts or the Board of Regents, I suspect a certain university in Lincoln didn’t want another Division I program in the state taking recruits. Cutting football was a painful, but legitimate decision.  

However, I can’t understand cutting Coach Denney’s successful wrestling program. If UNO could succeed at a Division I level, it would certainly boost its image and brand recognition. This week, I learned that even top wrestling programs fundraise significantly to stay alive. Arizona State’s program was cut for financial reasons in 2008, but reinstated after 10 days. This season, the Sun Devils finished sixth in the NCAA.

ASU has a generous donor keeping the program afloat, so financial stability isn’t there. However, if the program is achieving a “Culture of Excellence,” a slogan UNO has been pushing, shouldn’t it be kept? Alberts said UNL’s wrestling program operates with about $1 million per year. Would adding men’s soccer and men’s golf turn a larger net profit than wrestling – considering its success is a great image booster for the University?

There’s another problem – conference alignment. Schools in the Summit League generally don’t offer wrestling. Those who do compete in separate conferences. Had UNO joined the Summit League while keeping wrestling, it would be a member in three conferences: WCHA for hockey, Summit League for most sports and another conference for wrestling. Being in three conferences at once, as Alberts put it, isn’t an attractive offer to the Summit League. Given these circumstances, I think the Summit League still would’ve been accommodating.

Football, though its loss is painful, stood little chance of staying alive at UNO. Also, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a wrestling fan. That said, the wrestling program, which won six national championships in eight years, was unfairly cut. Time is a factor in joining the Summit League, but there was, and hopefully still is, plenty of time for Alberts and Co. to find a way to keep wrestling alive.

Football and wrestling aside, the move to Division I is excellent for UNO’s future. The school has grown dramatically in the few years I’ve been here, making this a logical next step. It’ll boost the public image and exposure of the University, allow other athletic programs to compete for high profile championships and provide financial stability for the athletic department. Once the Mavericks are in the running for events like March Madness or the College World Series, it will be an exciting time for Mavericks far and wide to cheer on “Omaha’s Team.”

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