By Mo Nuwwarah, Opinion Editor
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents voted unanimously in Lincoln Friday to accept UNO’s invitation to the Summit League, moving the Mavericks to Division I athletics. The decision means an almost certain end to storied football and wrestling programs.
More than a dozen speakers marched to the podium to address the Regents in an extended public address period. Most spoke in opposition to the plan, outlined by UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts. Many were former football players and wrestlers who gave impassioned speeches in hopes of swaying a board that was likely to approve the move, based on comments printed in the Omaha World-Herald March 13.
“Is this the best that our athletic director can do?” asked Mike Denney, head coach of UNO Wrestling. “Is this the best that you can do, John? Is this the right way to treat people in your organization, your family?”
Denney, who has been coaching at UNO since 1979, asked the Regents to “make a wrong right.” He called for the removal of the “Culture of Excellence” banners around the Sapp Fieldhouse if the vote passed.
Dave Boocker, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke in support of the move on behalf of the academic deans at UNO. Their support was based on a stronger academic fit with members of the Summit League than members of the MIAA, UNO’s current athletic conference for Division II sports.
“UNO is on the move academically,” he said. “Moving to the Division I and becoming full partners in the Summit League reflect UNO, NU, and Nebraska’s commitment to excellence both athletically and academically.”
Former UNO Athletic Director Don Leahy and Connie Claussen, a longtime department employee who oversaw the inception of women’s sports at UNO in 1969, also spoke in support of the move. Claussen lauded Alberts for “intelligence and integrity” and said he and Christensen showed “guts” in their decision-making.
However, detractors far outnumbered supporters.
State Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill said wrestling taught him more than a Georgetown University education or running a successful legislative campaign. He criticized Alberts and Christensen for a lack of communication. Larson asserted that in a conversation he had with Alberts, the athletic director was unable to answer “simple questions” such as, “What are the projected costs for a Division I soccer program?”
“If I were to step on the floor of the legislature or even go home to a community forum and not know the answers to simple questions such as that on my own personal proposals, I guarantee I would be torn to pieces both by my colleagues and constituents,” he said. “Due to their lack of administrative abilities, we find ourselves in the situation we’re in today.”
Larson called for a delay on the vote so more research could be done.
Former Maverick football player David Carey called into question the validity of the feasibility report prepared by researchers Alberts hired. He said there’s no data to support the idea that keeping football doesn’t make sense, pointing out that the report calls for an 84 percent increase in donations without the department’s two largest donating groups, football and wrestling. Also, UNO students receive less than $4,000 per student in aid, compared to $5,300 at UNK and $6,200 at UNL, he said.
“These few pages that make up the feasibility report are a slap in the face to students and student athletes,” Carey said, his voice cracking with emotion. “All we want is an honest and sincere intention, a fair shake and good faith.”
After the public discussion time ended, Alberts and Christensen delivered a presentation outlining their plan for the Summit League move and provided numbers and reasoning behind the need for reclassification to Division I. They pointed out the ever-climbing need for University support, which rose from $1.9 million in 2001 to $5.9 million in 2010, while revenues actually dropped from $4.6 million to $4.5 million during that time frame. They projected a further increase of $2 million in support would be needed by 2016, which they called “unsustainable” if revenue remained stagnant as expected.
“Athletic departments do one of two things: they contribute to advance the mission of the institution or they detract,” Alberts said. “As a result of not being financially stable, we were detracting from the mission of the University.”
Some have criticized the decision to add men’s golf and soccer while cutting wrestling and football, sports perceived as more popular. Alberts and Christensen’s presentation pointed out that without these additions, UNO would compete in just three men’s sports sponsored by the Summit League, while every other member school competes in at least six.
Finally, Alberts said the move would make UNO compliant with the first prong of Title IX, which requires schools to “provide athletic participation opportunities that are substantially proportionate to student enrollment.”
In the end, the Board of Regents seemed convinced that the move to the Summit League was the best thing for UNO, as most of the eight voting members voiced support for the move before each voted “yes” to the proposal.
“The new conference fits well with our institutional goals,” said Michael Crabb, regent and UNO student body president. “Fiscally, we didn’t have much of a choice.”
Despondent supporters of Maverick football and wrestling sat in silence as the regents announced their votes. Some buried their heads in their hands through the chorus of affirmatives.
“I can’t believe it was a unanimous decision,” said Esai Dominguez, a junior wrestler and three-time All-American. “I was hoping there’d at least be some people on our side in the Board of Regents.”
Crabb said his responsibility to the future of the student body was the driving force behind his vote. Press coverage, Maverick brand equity, campus life and school spirit would all be greatly helped by the move to Division I, he said, aiding UNO as it aims for its goal of 20,000 students.
Though he felt the decision was essential in ensuring that UNO had athletic competition in the years to come, Crabb understood the pain felt by many who opposed the move.
“I think it will be a positive long-term path for the University, even though it will be difficult to see the effects it will have on some of the students,” he said. “When I put myself in their shoes with the stuff I’m involved in, I know I would be devastated.”