Posts Tagged ‘Athletics’

Thoughts on recent gathering of Omaha Black Sports Legends

September 29, 2016 Leave a comment



Thoughts on recent gathering of Omaha Black Sports Legends 

It is unlikely there will be another communion of Omaha Black Sports Legends like the one that happened on September 22 at Baxter Arena in Omaha. That’s because in a single room there were Omaha native greats of a certain age whose achievements in football, basketball and baseball saw them reach the pinnacles of their sports.

Just consider who was present:

Bob Gibson – Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, CY Young Award-winner, two-time World Series MVP and multiple All-Star with the St. Louis Cardinals

Roger Sayers – Elite sprinter and dynamic football player at the then-University of Omaha set school records in each sport

Marlin Briscoe – College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Small College All-American at Omaha University, NFL’s first black starting quarterback and member of two Super Bowl-winning teams

Ron Boone – Pro basketball “iron man” who led Utah to an ABA  title

Johnny Rodgers – College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Heisman Trophy Winner and member of two national championship teams at Nebraska

Who was not there:

Gale Sayers – College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, All-American at Nebraska and All-Pro with the Chicago Bears

Mike McGee – All-American at Michigan and member of NBA title team with the Los Angeles Lakers

Don Benning – If not for illness that finds him living in a memory care facility, Benning,  the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university, would have been there. Benning began the wrestling dynasty at UNO, where he was a mentor to many.

Bob Boozer – The late Boozer, who won both Olympic gold and an NBA title, would have fit right in with his fellow legends; as would have the late Marion Hudson, who not only integrated Dana College but set football and track and field records there that still stood six decades later.

And lest we forget, the late Fred Hare, the Omaha Technical High and University of Nebraska great, would have been right at home among his peers.




The fact that so many deserving figures were not there due to scheduling conflict, illness or death underscores the fact that these legends are leaving us and will continue leaving us as time marches on. Gibson, Sayers, Briscoe  Boone and Rodgers look great for their ages, but they are 80, 73, 70, 71 and 65, respectively. I mean, God grant them many more years but the fact is even these legends will eventually pass on to meet their eternal just reward. Yes, as unthinkable as it is, they will one day all be gone, too.

So, kudos to the committee that organized the An Evening with the Magician event for bringing all these gentlemen together for what could very well be the last time. Without this fitting tribute to one of their own, Marlin Briscoe, happening when it did it could have proved too late if left to some indeterminate time in the future.

That Omaha native film, TV, stage actor John Beasley served on the committee that made it happen was apt since he and Briscoe were teammates at then-Omaha U. and he is producing a major motion picture of Marlin’s life called The Magician.

What an experience it was to be in the presence of these guys who made history in their respective sports. All know and respect each other. Some grew up together. Some tested their abilities against each other. All learned lessons in the tight-knit  inner communities they grew up in that, as Briscoe said in his remarks that night, prepared them for the rigors of life. Their personal stories and life experiences have much to teach us. It was great that upwards of 200 Omaha Public Schools students were on hand to witness much of the evening. This is important local history they were exposed to.

More than a decade ago I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these historic figures (minus McGee) and others for a series I wrote called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. I personally look forward to catching up with the legends still living for a book I intend writing about their shared Omaha background and athletic success at the highest levels of their sports.

You can check out my series at–

Will the time come when more contemporary Omaha Black Sports Legends have the occasion to gather like their predecessors did Sept. 22? Will John C. Johnson, Larry Station, Randy Brooks, Kerry Trotter, Andre Woolridge, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, the Wrestling Olivers, Terence Crawford, Kenzo Cotton, and others find a reason to come together? Will they turn out to celebrate one of their own or to honor their shared roots? I don’t know. But here’s wishing they will – because they should. Not only for themselves, but for the community.

And what about the women? Maurtice Ivy, Mallery Ivy, Jessica Haynes, Angee Henry, Peaches James, Reshea Bristol, LaQue Moen-Davis, Brianna McGhee, Chloe Akin-Otiko and many more, have distinguished themselves through athletics. They deserve their due, too.

Thanks to Ernie Britt for being the driving force behind the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame that does indeed recognize these figures and provide a forum for bringing them together.

Here’s hoping these celebrations continue happening. I would recommend that whenever possible sponsors be found to make these events free and open to the public so that more segments of the community can share in them. And wherever possible, students should be invited to these events. I also advocate that the stories of these and other high achieving African-Americans from Omaha and greater Nebraska be part of an ongoing curriculum in the Omaha Public Schools. Let’s not wait until these figures are gone, Tell these stories while these figures are still alive and cthey an visit classrooms and speak before school assemblies and be the suhject of programs like Making Invisible Histories Visible.

The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  ( It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.



The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit for more information.



A Kansas City Royals Reflection



A Kansas City Royals Reflection


©by Leo Adam Biga

It warms my heart that my Kansas City Royals defy the cold calculations of this digitized, meta-metrics age that’s come to define the way team sports get measured these days. You see, the Royals win in spite of faring poorly in analytic forecasting, and that makes the people for whom these statistical tendencies and barometers truly serve – the gambling industry – mad. KC wins in spite of hitting relatively few home runs, scoring at a less than robust average, getting rare quality starts from its pitchers and lacking even a single superstar on its roster. The Royals win in spite of being a small market franchise with comparatively meager financial resources at its disposal. The Royals win because, well, they are winners and that is not something that can be broken down into data bytes except for wins and losses, divisional finishes, league championships and World Series titles. KC does most all of the little things right that have come to be associated with small ball – manufacturing runs by getting bunts, taking walks, advancing runners, sacrificing, hustling. They also play solid defense at every spot on the diamond and in the outfield. When the Royals are right, they play station to station team ball like no one else in today’s game, though more times than you might imagine they are also capable of keeping the line moving with hit after hit, baserunner after baserunner, enroute to big innings. They put consistent pressure on opponents until foes bend and ultimately break. If the Royals get the lead on you early or if they stay within striking distance late, they have more than enough firepower among their position players and bullpen to close the door and lock up the win or to rally and go ahead, as the situation demands. They may not be a great team in the annals of The Show and in fact these Royals may not even be as strong as the franchise’s glory years teams from 1975 through 1985, but they are consistently excellent four years running now. Should they win another division title and make a third consecutive World Series, then they are firmly in the conversation of a dynasty in our midst. What makes it all so satisfying is that the core of the club is essentially intact during this span and many of the most valuable players on this ride came up together through the KC farm system. Those that were added by trades have been part of the MLB journey to success for the full duration. The Royals may be just one more strong starting pitcher and one more run producer away from writing their ticket to another world title and assuring this bunch a measure of all-time greatness. Best of all, the Roayls are still fairly young and may be looking at another two or three or four or more years of contention. Don’t bother trying to add the numbers up to explain why the Royals are able to do what they do because you can’t quantify grit, energy, determination, desire, camaraderie and teamwork. The Royals are the epitome of guys who come through in the clutch no matter what the stats read. The numbers won’t show you a line for haivng character through advertisity or breaking the will of opponents. Of course, it’s not as if the Royals are without mega talent. The draft and farm system began stockpiling and developing elite prospects going back a decade. It took awhile for the potential to reach maturation and to show results. Each year of this four year run of results has been a different story. The Royals began to live up to their ballyhooed promise in 2013 but still had too many gaps to fill to fully emerge a top tier club. They broke through to the upper echelon and to the post-season in 2014, when they surprised everyone by reaching the World Series. Thet were arguably the better team than the Giants in that W.S. but just couldn’t overcome a certain ace. They were pretty much wire to wire leaders in 2015, when several Royals enjoyed career years, and KC fairly dominated the post season on through to a W.S. title. This season, several of those same players got off to miserable starts. Then came a rash of injuries. Manager Ned Yost and his gang of coaches and his band of brothers players have stayed the course, changed out some parts, and just like the last two years, made true on the next man up credo by plugging in guys who get the job done. So far so good. Two weeks ago or so KC struggled to do much of anything right and seemed in danger of being left out of the race before it began. Now the team has hit its stride and KC finds itself in first place. Nothing is guaranteed with so much season left to go but the team sure has the look of a contender and a champion again. The stats tell you they shouldn’t be doing this but ignore the metrics where the Royals are concerned and go with your heart. That’s what they do and it’s working out just fine.

Bruce Chubick builds winner at South: State title adds capstone to strong foundation

March 18, 2016 Leave a comment

There have been far longer droughts than the one the Omaha South High School boys basketball program had suffered since its last state title in 1990. But it would be fair to say its hoops fortunes dried up for the better part of a generation before Bruce Chubick arrived as head coach about a decade ago. He’s turned what became a perennial loser into a winner. Under him South did everything to reach the pinnacle of Nebraska prep basketball with the exception of a state title – until last weekend. In Lincoln the Packers entered as the No. i rated and seeded team and like two previous times under Chubick they made it to the finals. But where in the past they came up short and had to settle as runner up, this time they finished the job and were the last team standing and cutting down the nets after they beat Fremont 59-50 in the championship game. The story is very similar to what has happened with the South High boys soccer program under coach Joe Maass, except he took over a program that had never had any success and turned it into a juggernaut. His teams did everything but win a state title until they finally broke through in 2013. I have written about Maass and the rebuilding program he engineered that’s made South High soccer a feel good success story. This El Perico story is my first time writing about Chubick and the success story he’s led with South High hoops. It feels good, too.


Bruce Chubick builds winner at South

State title adds capstone to strong foundation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in El Perico newspaper


Coach’s mantra: Survive and advance more online Replay an interview with coach Bruce Chubick from “TBL.”

Omaha South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. is back in Lincoln to chase another state title, though the challenges of the bracket don’t compare to a life journey that’s bested cancer, an in-game heart attack and bears in the backyard.




Entering the 2016 Nebraska boys state basketball tournament, Omaha South head coach Bruce Chubick occupied the same spot his soccer counterpart at South, Joe Maass, found himself in a few years ago.

Maass built the school’s once dreadful soccer program to elite status. But among the high national rankings, multiple district championships and finals appearances, the one thing missing was a state title. Similarly, Chubick’s engineered a dramatic turnaround with South hoops but for all the on-court feats – a handful of state tournament appearances and two runner-up finishes – there was no state title to show for it. Maass and his program finally got that elusive soccer prize in 2013.

Now Chubick has closed the deal after South’s 59-50 win over Fremont in the Class A finals in Lincoln on March 12. The Packers finished 28-1.

South entered as the tourney’s prohibitive favorite and No. 1 seed after a 25-1 regular season in which the team outscored foes 69 to 44 on average. The only loss came to a top Colorado club at a showcase event in Grand Island. In Lincoln, the Packers displayed the athleticism that separates them from their in-state competition. At least three Packers are Division I scholarship commits and D-I schools are looking at a fourth. No one will ever know if South would have reached this pinnacle with another coach, but the record shows the consistent winning ways began under Chubick, who deflects praise to his staff. Among his assistants is his son, Bruce Chubick Jr., who played for him at Atkinson West Holt before playing at Nebraska.

The fact is the senior Chubick, who at 65 is old enough to be his players’ grandfather, has flipped programs wherever he’s coached in his 42-year career. He led former patsy Atkinson West Holt to a Class C-1 title. At his last stop, Council Buffs Abraham Lincoln, he turned a perennial loser into a winner. Just as Maass took the South soccer job when nobody wanted it, Chubick committed to a dead end basketball program with a losing culture. It seemed a bleak challenge. Only Chubick didn’t see it that way.

“I mean, they had nowhere to go but up as far as I could see,” he told this reporter on the eve of the state tourney. “Everybody thought it was a hopeless situation. But I saw it as nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he told another reporter.

He knew he could win there but he didn’t expect to qualify for state six straight seasons and to play in three finals in that same span.

“I don’t know I would have believed that if you told me that nine years ago.”

But raising programs from the bottom up is what he does.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality,” he said. “I used to build houses, so I guess maybe I’m a builder and that’s kind of my M.O. I come in and I try to build programs. Before South, I’d get ’em built and then leave, but I’ve kind of stuck around on this one. I like South O, I always have. It’s working-class, blue-collar type people, and that’s me, so it’s a good fit.”

Besides, he’s found a great student-athlete base there that includes kids who need the strong, positive male role model he provides.

“You know, I’ve been in the Sand Hills of Neb. and the cornfields of Iowa teaching and coaching. I started in the inner city at Tech (Omaha Technical High School). And then I came back to the inner city for this job. This is the most rewarding job I’ve had. I’m not sure when I was in the suburbs or in the farming communities I was helping kids, but I’m pretty sure we’re helping kids here, and that feels pretty good.”

He’s rarely had this kind of talent to build around. Several players have gone on to play college ball and there’s more talent in the pipeline. This year’s squad started four seniors but it’s most impactful player, Nebraska basketball pledge Aguek Arop, is a junior wing. He led South in scoring and teamed with his older brother Makoor to key a high pressure defense and high efficiency offense. They’re among many South Sudan natives to emerge as difference makers in hoops just as Mexican-Central American natives key South’s soccer resurgence.

“I’ve had some really good teams over the years,” Chubick said, “and three years ago here was the most talented team I’ve ever coached. Just tremendously gifted. That was a special bunch. They’re all playing college ball somewhere. But the chemistry wasn’t good. They didn’t really mesh together and they didn’t really like each other.”



Omaha South Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. recovers from heart attack. @nebpreps




He ranks his 2015-2016 Packers as “not very far behind talent-wise” from that earlier team but far ahead in terms of cohesion. “Their chemistry is great and they’ve worked hard to get to where they’re at.”

Point guard Monte’ McGary, signed to play wide receiver at South Dakota State, said, “I think the biggest thing is we all get along as a team. Everybody likes each other, so it’s really fun. The majority of us played on the same team starting in sixth grade and then we all came here. Even if didn’t play together, we all knew each other.”

McGary said the team’s tight bond is reflected in its unselfish play.

“When we’re at our best we’re all playing defense and just having fun sharing the ball, not caring who scores. We’re just out there playing.”

That’s just what South did, too, down in Lincoln.

The Packers’s baseline to baseline game wore down the bodies and the will of opponents.

Aguek Arop said it was text book South style ball.

“We move the ball, we attack, we force turnovers, we get deflections, all that. With great defense we get easy buckets off transition.”

Aguek and McGary said they were “very hungry” to finally bring a title trophy back to South. McGary spoke of wanting “to put our names in the history books.”

With the title now in hand, McGary said, “We’re happy for the program and the school. It’s really special.”

“It’s been our goal the last three years to be the last one standing,” Chubick said. “We came close last year. I don’t think there was any denying these guys. I just think they were on a mission and they weren’t going to let anything to get in the way.”




Before the tourney Chubick praised guard Caleal Walker as the team’s “unsung hero,” adding, “He leads by example. You want a complete player that gives a hundred percent  – that’s Caleal Walker.”

In the title game Walker flashed big time moves and dunks in scoring a game-high 20 points. He scored 56 points in Lincoln and was named the all-tournament team’s honorary captain.

Chubick added,Then you’ve got Monte’, who’s steady at point guard, and Karlon McSpadden at wing. Aguek is probably the most gifted of all of them. He’s really special.”

The coach didn’t mention South big man and Iowa football recruit Noah Fant, who was in his doghouse. But the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder gave South a solid interior presence and physicality.

Chubick said, “They’re all humble, really good kids, fun to coach, fun to be around. I can’t imagine not being around them. They’ve sacrificed and done everything we’ve asked them to do and driven us crazy along the way, but they’re kids, they’re supposed to do that.”

He thinks enough of his players that when he suffered a heart attack the day of a late February road game versus Lincoln Southeast he decided against checking himself into the ER until after coaching the contest. “I didn’t want to quit on the players,” he said. The next morning a physicias inserted two stents to unblock arteries. The youthful Chubick, who stays in great shape and had no prior heart problems, said he now has “more energy” than before. He earlier survived a cancer scare and he deals with rheumatoid arthritis.

Arop said Chubick’s toughness rubs off on them. “For him to be able to fight through his heart attack, I mean it’s just a good example for us fighting through like fatigue, adversity.”

Chubick admits to being old-school but adds, “I try to stay current school, too. You gotta do both. The kids don’t want to hear stories all the time about this team you had 30 or 40 years ago. They cant relate to that, so we don’t go there.”

McGary said there’s no generation gap with this coach, who’s known to get animated on the sidelines.

“He communicates and relates to us really well. From the stands he can look kind of crazy but he’s really cool with us, we never have any problems with him, nobody gives him trouble or anything like that.”

If not for some ill-timed injuries and suspensions, South may be in the midst of a dominant run like Omaha Central went on in the early 2000s with six titles in eight years. Only Chubick’s “cut loose” some of his best players for violating team rules and school policies. If they’d played, perhaps South would be celebrating a dynasty, too. “We’re an eyelash away from the same thing except we haven’t been very lucky,” he said. “Some of those disciplinary things we could have looked the other way and probably given ourselves a real good chance to win it, but I don’t want it that bad if you’re not going to do the right thing,”

With no major injury or disciplinary problems this season, he speculated South’s time had arrived, saying, “Maybe it’s all going to come together now.” Before the state tourney, he expressed confidence in his team’s ability to seize the moment.

“They’ve risen to the occasion every time except for one bad quarter. I’m not going to question whether they will or not this time. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna. The bigger the stage, the better they play. They love the attention. I hope this ends with a state championship, but if it shouldn’t work out that way I still think the world of these kids.”

Maneuvering his players like chess players in the South gym during a walk-through practice before heading to Lincoln, he told his team, “We’ll do what we do.” Code for: South’s up-tempo, full-court game will be too much for opponents.

Sure enough, South proved too much. After the nets were cut down, Chubick made it know he’ll be back at least one more year to make another run to Lincoln.

“I promised Aguek (Arop) when he came in I would stay until he graduated, so I want to keep my word, so I’m back next year anyway.”

Whenever he does leave, he’s secure that a foundation’s been built.

“It’s there. I think it’s kind of a turn-key thing for somebody down the road, but I’m going to keep her for awhile anyway – just as long as the health holds up.”


Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution

April 24, 2015 Leave a comment


Soccer is still no where near as popular in America as football, basketball and baseball but it’s undeniably growing year by year in having a hold on people’s interest and imagination. The emergence of soccer as a prime sport at Omaha South High School gives insight into the demographics at work that will likely one day see the sport challenge the big three team sports and perhaps even overtake them, not just in Omaha or greater Neb., but around the nation. South High is a microcosm for how South Omaha has changed from its largely Eastern European population base from the late 19th century through the 1970s to a largely Hispanic, African and Asian base in recent years. Then and now many of the immigrant and refugee families drawn there have found work in the meatpacking industry, and thus the school’s nickname, Packers. This demographic transformation has had many effects, including a student population that is increasingly soccer-centric. Boys soccer head coach Joe Maass has been there since 2000, when the change was near full flower. Since then he’s taken a moribound program that couldn’t win and nobody wanted to coach and turned it into a budding dynasty. He’s done it with players of Mexican and Latin American heritage and more recently of African heritage who have played soccer practically from the time they could walk and run. These experienced, skilled and passionate players, wave after wave and class after class of them, have made South a perennial contender for metro, district and state titles. Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a a high school soccer game to outdraw a football or basektball game, but that’s often what South high soccer manages to do. When the program first emerged as a force to be reckoned with a few years ago and the team made it to their first state finals, record crowds turned out and most of the fans were rooting for South. The majority of fans were Hispanic. It was a hugh love fest for the team, the school and the South Omaha community. Maass is the mastermind who’s embraced this flood of talent and passion and let it flourish. My El Perico story about Maass and the evolution of South High Soccer was published just as this year’s team has found itself and climbed to No. 1 in the rankings. With the way the Packers are playing, they will be the odds-on favorite to win their second state title in three years.

As this story mentions, South soccer has earned national attention in recent years as one of the country’s best high school squads. It’s also been singled out on the national stage for being part of a turnaround in South Omaha that is Hispanic-led. Somehow I missed until just now that the program got featured in Sports Illustrated in 2015. The feature is part of a larger series on the changing face of sports in America, as demographic shifts compel changes on and off the field at every level of sport. Titled “American Dreamers,” the article highlights the Packers’ journey from an after thought to a perennial power. It also looks at the ongoing transformation of South Omaha and South High and how this immigrant community takes great pride in their soccer team and the impact it’s had across the state. After South cemented its elite status by beating arch rival Omaha Creighton Prep for the 2013 championship players wrote to then-Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman asking him to work to help improve the lives of those in their community. The story also highlights “new life” at Omaha South, including an energized community and recent academic achievements.



Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


Omaha South High soccer coach Joe Maass enjoys being part of a transformation that’s seen his soccer program blossom from awful to brilliant and his school rise from woebegone to thriving.

He was 26 when he got the job in 2000. That’s unusually young for a big school head coach but it wasn’t like candidates were busting down the doors. Slowly but surely though Maass turned that no-win situation around. He now has South soccer a perennial contender and a point of pride for the school and community it represents.

South has built a near dynasty on the strength of mostly Latino players who’ve become the new face of the more than century-old school. Michael Jaime became the first Gatorade Nebraska Boys Soccer Player of the Year (2013-2014) from South, one of several all-state players with Spanish surnames the school’s produced. In 2010 Manny Lira was the captain of the all-state team. Those players and several others went on to earn college scholarships.

For the ninth consecutive season South’s regarded as a major threat. The No. 1-ranked Packers opened the season with 10 straight wins. Since their first and only defeat of the year, 1-0 to Papiliion LaVista-South on April 13 in the Metro Conference championship game, they’ve beaten traditional rivals Omaha Westside and Omaha Creighton Prep, and on April 20 they avenged their lone loss to Papio LaVista-South. They’ve come together as a team despite injury and suspension.


The 2013 Omaha South soccer team waves to fans before taking on Omaha Creighton Prep in the Nebraska Class A boys soccer championship match at Morrison Stadium. The Packers won 1-0.




Maass says the prospects for his 2015 team are promising.

“As a unit we’re really good. I have a lot of pretty good players but there’s not like one or two players miles ahead of everybody else in the state, so this is definitely going to be a team year where a lot of different kids contribute. I think making state would be a fair goal and then maybe when we get there…”

Anything can happen. Only a few years after being a losing team, South made its first state final in 2010, the game infamous for the “green card” incident when opposing fans threw mock green cards on the field to insinuate South players were illegal immigrants. It was the most public in a long line of racial insults directed at South.

Maass says he was proud of “the way his team handled it,” adding, “The kids didn’t retaliate – they stood up for the team and school and for what was right and wrong.”

South then put together arguably the greatest season ever by a Neb. Class A boys soccer team in 2013, going 23-0 en route to the state title, setting many records in the process. Elite Soccer Report named South the top team among states where soccer’s a spring sport.

“We won the whole thing and we did it the right way,” Maass says.

None of it seemed possible 16 years ago.

“Everything that’s been accomplished I would never have imagined. I have a huge sense of pride in that and in knowing that if I stopped coaching tomorrow South High soccer’s still going to be pretty good because we’ve built a strong program.”

Not bad considering what Maass started with.

“The guy who was the head coach before me saw I had some energy and passion, so he stepped down and recommended me to replace him. The truth is nobody else applied, so they just gave it to me because essentially nobody wanted that job. There was nothing desirable about it. It was not very forgiving.

“The program was pretty bad back then. The school really didn’t fund the program. The uniforms were really old. The sport of soccer didn’t get much attention or respect, especially down here.”

Besides low interest and expectations – South won eight games his first four years – it was hard getting kids to play and fans to follow.

“I had somewhere around 11 or 12 players. The first practice there were 15 kids on the field and four of them were off the streets, they weren’t even students. I only had one senior. The next year it was maybe 13 to 15 players. Then 18. Each year it just grew a little bit.”

He scoured South O parks and fields for promising talent and before long gifted players, even some elite club players, filled his rosters.

The facilities were subpar until Collin Stadium opened in 2009, giving the by-then vastly improved program a distinct home advantage with its full-sized soccer field.

The one constant, Maass says, is that “the kids were great kids.” “But,”
he adds, “I don’t think anybody saw South going from being the worst team in the state to what it is now. We’re pretty much a projected top 10 team every year and that’s where we want to be – a top 10 team that everybody has to kind of somewhat fear.”

These days the program gets 100-plus students trying out and carries 80 to 90 players across its varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads. Grads are getting scholarships to play at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Bellevue University and other schools. Several are coaching for South, including Leo Enriquez and Cesar Lira, and several others are coaching for club teams or competing schools.

Where South soccer used to be an after-thought, it’s now a conversation starter. Cara Riggs was South’s principal when Maass engineered the turnaround. More than all the wins, she appreciated the way Maass cared.

“Joe sometimes comes off as tough, maybe even gruff. Underneath that exterior is a very soft-hearted, compassionate man who cares very deeply about the kids he works with. He has high expectations of your hard work and he’s willing to go above and beyond for you and your success. His loyalty to South High, its students and South Omaha is as strong as a Mack truck.”

Tobias Maertzke, a German exchange student who played at South a few years ago, lived with Maass and his wife while going to school there. “He’s like a family member almost,” Maass says.

Maass acknowledges he’s softened and matured since becoming a father. He and his wife have two children.

“I’ve mellowed quite a bit. I’m still fiery but not overly fiery like I used to be. The first couple years i was probably a little bit rough actually. I had a great understanding for the game but maybe not an understanding for all the kids, whereas now I feel I understand the kids, the game, how the referees work. I feel the refs respect me, so they’re not as quick to give me a yellow card if I step out of line.”

Riggs says South soccer made a positive impact far beyond the field.

“The success of Joe’s soccer program has been a definite booster for school pride and community respect. The success helped put South back on the map and recognized again in the Omaha community.”





Maass, whose roots are in that neighborhood, says, “The sense of community that came back to South Omaha is just amazing to me.”

Having built South to be an elite program and kept it there, Maass is not sure which feat is more difficult.

“It was really hard to get there but it’s hard to stay on top though because more kids are playing the sport now and other schools are starting to mirror the things we’ve done.”

Of all the achievements South’s attained, including district and metro crowns and records for most goals scored and most shutouts recorded in a single season, the 2013 state title stands out.

“Winning a championship at South after they hadn’t won one in years was big. It felt great to feel our program was on top of the world.”

Championships and records are nice, he says, “but at the end of the day” it’s the relationships he forges with “the kids” and following their life pursuits that matter most to him.

“I see them out in the community. It’s interesting to see where they end up. I hope in some way I’ve impacted these kids. That by far outweighs everything else.”

Just like the team’s Twitter page tag line reads, “We are a family, friends and a team with one big heart.. Packers.”


Lincoln Southeast v. Omaha South, Boys Soccer, 05/08/2013

Requiem for a Dynasty

July 28, 2011 8 comments

This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program in 2011. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.

UPDATE: By 2014, Denney had already made Maryville a national title contender. His team is ranked No. 1 in 2015-2016 and is the favorite to win this year’s D-II championship.


Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith



Requiem for a Dynasty: 

Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in the New Horizons

The For Sale sign spoke volumes.

Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.

The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.

On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.

But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.

Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.

“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”



UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship



A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.

Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.

“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”

Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.

Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.

“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.

The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”

Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”

Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.

Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.

An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.

Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.






USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”

“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.



Trev Alberts and John Christensen announcing the end



“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”

The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.

“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”

Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.

Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.

“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”

Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.

“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”

Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.



Don Benning



For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.

“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”

A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.

He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.

With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.

Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.

He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.

“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”

“We were a positive force…”

With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.

“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”

Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.

Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.

“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”

In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.

“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.

Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”

“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.

Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.

“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”

Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him —  wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”

There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.

Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.

“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”

That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.



Denney keeping things positive



What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.

“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”

Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.

Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.

“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”

Just like he taught them.

“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.

“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”

On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.

“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”

“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”

His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.'” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.

“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”

In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.

“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”

Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.

“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”

But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.

Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.

Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star

Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.

“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”


 Denney and his wife after the Regents vote




Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.

Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.

It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.

One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.'” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.

Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?'”

The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.

“I was like, ‘Really?'”

The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.

“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”

“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”

The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.

It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.

“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”

After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.

“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”

In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.

Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.

“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”

Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.

“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.

For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.

Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.

“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”

Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.

“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”



Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way



Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.

“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”

Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.

“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”

And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”

“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.'”

Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.

“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.

“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”

His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.

“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.

The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.

“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.

“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”


After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads a strong Maryville Saints wrestling program



Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.

Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.

Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.

“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”

“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”

While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.

Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.

In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”

Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.

Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.

He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.

“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”

Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”

Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.

“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.

“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”


Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero

July 4, 2011 4 comments

I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.



Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

With baseball season in full swing, El Museo Latino hosts a touring exhibition from Puerto Rico celebrating National Baseball Hall of Fame legend Roberto Clemente.

Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.

It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.

When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.

The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.

He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.

In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.

His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.

With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.

Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.

“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”



Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”

Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.

Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.

“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”

She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”

Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.

Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”

Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.

El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit

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