What is the definition of a college athletic powerhouse?
Many people will provide different answers to that question. For one person, the definition may include fanbase. For another, an emphasis on conference and national championships is stressed. Others think of dominance in high-profile sports, such as football or basketball. Yet many more consider top-notch facilities and funding as an important factor.
What’s the one common thread that runs through these criteria? Division I NCAA status – and perhaps also membership into a “Power 5” or “Power 6” conference.
By no one’s definition would Omaha be considered a college athletics powerhouse. While UNO has certainly raised its profile over the past four seasons as a fully-eligible D-I program, only one of its programs (hockey) has won an NCAA postseason tournament game.
Besides, Omaha currently resides in the Summit League in all sports except for hockey. While the Summit League seems an appropriate level of challenge across most sports today, it is still seen as a mid-major or even low-major conference.
Let’s have a little fun and dive into our imaginations for a bit.
Let us suppose that Omaha desired to become the next Alabama, or Clemson, or Duke. The first step would be to gain access to a conference that would offer extended exposure to the university and its various programs. So, what would it take to get there? A lot of accomplishment, and a little luck.
Luck is a factor because there first has to be a conference willing to take any new members – regardless of who that member is. In light of recent expansions by conferences such as the Big 10 (now with 14 teams), the PAC 12 and the SEC, most power conferences aren’t looking for more teams.
But what if the stars aligned, and a power conference was ready to add a team? Here are the three most important things that Omaha would have to have accomplished to gain admittance into the nation’s finest conferences.
1) Dependable Success
If Omaha were to even consider a move into a conference such as the Big 12 or the Big 10, they would need to show that they are tough enough to fight with the ‘big dogs’ such as Ohio State or Oklahoma. To show that, they would need to show victories against the smaller competition they have faced already.
Take Rutgers for example. As a member of the Big East/American Athletic Conference, Rutgers won four straight bowl games in NCAA FBS football from 2006 to 2009. Other teams have enhanced their resume with multiple conference titles across multiple sports. Currently, Omaha only has one conference championship in Division I athletics – men’s soccer in 2017.
That’s not to say that titles are a litmus test. Rutgers only won four conference titles across all sports during their time in the Big East, which is a relatively sparse number. But the team was routinely competitive across all sports.
It’s always about the money, isn’t it? Omaha needs more of it.
UNO has a couple of setbacks in this area. First of all, it is surrounded by a sparsely populated state with a smaller donor base than other cities like Raleigh (North Carolina) or Madison (Wisconsin).
Secondly, facilities cost a lot of money, and Omaha doesn’t have them yet. The university has desired for some time to build a baseball and softball complex; however, the funding for such a project is still to be procured. The recent collapse of the UNO Dome has even opened speculation that the university may wish to build there.
The third setback is regional competition.
3) Those Huskers Down I-80
There has long been speculation about the Nebraska Board of Regents and the college pecking order. Does the board wish to keep Lincoln as the flagship program? If Omaha succeeds, will the Huskers suffer? These are questions we don’t have answers to.
What is known is this: UNL gets more support for its athletics. Inherently, this is not a bad thing. But Omaha needs a bigger slice of the pie to succeed in their own right.
Maybe one day, we could see Omaha playing on the same level as the Southern Californias and the Auburns of the world. Or maybe not. If so, work is yet to be done.