In college sports, every school has an identity based on which sport they are most popular for.
For example, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is considered a football school. When one thinks of basketball schools, Duke (for men) and Connecticut (for women) immediately stand out. Minnesota Duluth could be considered a hockey school. Some schools take the jack-of-all trades approach, such as Florida – in fact, Florida finished in the top 10 in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup (where voters select the best athletic department in the nation) a record 35 times in a row.
So that begs the question – what sport is Omaha known for? Well, the picture included probably gives you a good idea.
The easy answer would be hockey. While Omaha has only been a Division I institution since the fall of 2011, UNO hockey began competing at the D-I level since its inception in the fall of 1997.
The concept of an Omaha hockey team was so thrilling that season tickets sold out within 16 days after their release. The Omaha City Council then granted approval for the Omaha Civic Auditorium to install ice, giving UNO one of the country’s largest homes for college hockey.
The hockey tradition certainly has the resume to back itself as Omaha’s defining sport. With three NCAA tournament appearances (one going all the way to the Frozen Four in 2015), the program has shown the potential to compete on the national stage.
Other intangibles, such as the construction of Baxter Arena, also suggest that the athletic department’s focus is certainly found on the ice.
However, there is a case to be made for another sport that has had more recent success: men’s soccer.
The program doesn’t have the rich history that the ice hockey program does – it only began play in the fall of 2011, whereas the hockey team has competed for over 20 years – but it does have three conference championship appearances in the past three seasons. One of those ended in a Summit League championship (the first from any sport in UNO’s Division I history) and an NCAA tournament appearance.
That resume is boosted by its own share of intangibles. For example, the university replaced the football field with a soccer turf that has two-star certification from FIFA. Only three other fields in the entire country share that honor.
“We went into it with an emphasis on our men’s and women’s soccer programs,” said Associate Athletic Director Mike Kemp in a recent interview with Jack Yates. “We wanted to make it a real showplace for college soccer.”
After the program’s first coach Jason Mims departed for a Major League Soccer job in Salt Lake City, he was replaced by a college soccer legend – Bob Warming. His accomplishments include two-time national coach of the year (and six-time finalist), 28 conference titles and more than 60 players under his tutelage that went on to play professionally.
And don’t forget the women’s soccer program, who made their first Division I conference championship appearance this season. The team is led by Tim Walters, who plays a part in Warming’s rich Omaha soccer history – of all four Division I NCAA soccer coaches in Omaha, three played for Warming themselves, including Walters.
What is Omaha’s athletic identity? It remains to be seen. No one would be surprised if Omaha continued its rich history of hockey. And with all the resources mentioned above, the soccer program could take off quickly. But the program and its Division I history is young, time will tell what it will grow in to.