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A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Like a lot of you out there who root for the athletic programs of all three in-state universities competing at the Division I level, I’m feeling conflicted right now. While it does my heart good to see the Creighton men’s and women’s hoops teams seeded so high in the NCAA Tournament, and this coming off strong performances by the Bluejay men’s soccer and women’s volleyball teams, I’m disappointed that both the University of Nebraska’s men’s and women’s basketball teams suffered historic losing seasons and didn’t stand a chance of making the Big Dance. The fact is that every major Husker men’s team sport – basketball, football and baseball – is in a down cycle. Indeed, among revenue generating sports in Lincoln, only volleyball is a year-in and year-out winner with the national prestige and conference-NCAA titles to show for it.

NU softball is still competitive but it’s been a long time since one of its teams has made a real run in the NCAA Tournament.

On the men’s side, NU used to be able to point to nationally relevant programs across the board as a selling tool to recruits. That just isn’t the case anymore. Baseball has been adrift for a while now and it doesn’t look like Darin Erstad has what it takes to make it a College World Series contender again.

 

Although it likely was in use long before, I first found the block N as it appears here in the 1970 media guide. If anyone can find it much earlier, please let me know. Huskers_script_2016.gif (9489 bytes)

 

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Men’s hoops in Lincoln has been a joke for a long time now and it’s no longer funny. The succession of coaches from the early 1980s on has bred instability and NU just can’t seem to get it right in terms of hiring the right person for the job. Many of us suspect the real problem is a lack of institutional will and support to make basketball a priority of excellence. While the men have not been able to get their act together, we could usually count on the women to get things right. Yes, the program did go through some bumps with its own succession of coaches before reaching new heights under Connie Yori but then it all unraveled in seemingly the space of one chaotic season that saw Yori forced out amidst a scandal and player revolt. Where it goes from here under Amy Williams is anybody’s guess but a 7-22 record was not exactly a promising start, though she admittedly stepped into a program riddled with personnel holes and damaged psyches. Williams has the pedigree and track record to resurrect the program but how it collapsed so suddenly is still a shock.

Even the volleyball program. though still a perennial national contender, has lost ground to Creighton’s program. That’s actually a good thing for not only CU but the entire state and for the sport of volleyball in Nebraska. It’s another indicator of just how strong the volleyball culture is here. But I’m not sure NU ever thought CU would catch up in volleyball. The Bluejays have. The two programs are very close talent-wise and coaching-wise. In fact it’s become readily evident the Bluejays possess the potential to overtake the Huskers in the near future, many as soon as this coming season.

Then there’s the Omaha Mavericks. Its linchpin hockey program just lost its most important tie to national credibility with coach Dean Blais retiring. He got the Mavs to the promised land of the Frozen Four. Will whoever his successor ends up being be able to get Omaha back there and make the program the consistent Top 20 contender the university expects? Only time will tell. Since that run to the Frozen Four in 2015, hockey’s taken a decided step back, but the Omaha men’s basketball program has shown serious signs that it could be the real bell-weather program before all is said and done. Omaha came up just short in securing an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but still had post-season options available to it only to say no to them, which is strange given the university is desperate for a nationally relevant athletics program.

Ever since Omaha made the near-sighted decision to drop both football and wrestling, which were its two most successful men’s sports, the university has hung all its athletics fortunes on hockey. Now that hockey has seemingly plateaued and lost its legendary leader, basketball becomes the new hope. But basketball is a crowded field nationally speaking and no Maverick sport other than hockey has ever really caught on with Omahans. I would like to think that Omaha Maverick hoops could but I won’t believe it until I see it.

With basketball still struggling to find a following despite its recent rise, I bet university officials are wishing they still had wrestling and football around to balance the scales and give Omaha athletics more opportunities for fan support and national prestige. The way the NU football program has continued to struggle, a kick-ass Omaha gridiron program at the Football Championship Subdivision level would sure be welcome right about now. Omaha could have kept football and potentially thrived as a FCS powerhouse. But NU regents, administrators and boosters didn’t want Omaha to potentially sap Big Red’s fan and recruiting base. Too bad, because the two programs could have found a way to co-exist and even benefit each other.

 

 

Steven M. Sipple: Different boss, same message: Win and win big

Shawn Eichorst

 

Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton athletic director

Bruce Rasmussen

 

Trev Alberts said as UNO inches closer to the end of the transition to D-I, the Mavericks are ready. (Courtesy Photo UNO Athletics)

Trev Alberts

 

All of which takes us back to Creighton. Of the three in-state DI universities, CU’s proven to have the best contemporary model for successful, competitive and stable athletics. The Bluejays have built sustainable, winning men’s and women’s programs and they’ve found the right coaches time after time. Other than two major misses in Willis Reed and Rick Johnson, CU men’s basketball has been remarkably well led for more than 50 years. Women’s hoops has enjoyed the same kind of continuity and leadership over the last 35 years. And so on with the school’s other athletic programs. Over a long period of time the one constant has been Bruce Rasmussen, a former very successful coach there whose performance as athletic director has been nothing short of brilliant.

Culture is everything in today’s thinking and CU’s culture borne of its values-based Jesuit legacy and direction is rock solid and unchanging. This small private school has turned out to be the strongest in-state DI athletic department in the 2000s. Rasmussen’s excellent hires and big picture vision, plus the support of university presidents, have given the Bluejays a foundation that NU must envy. Even CU’s drastically upgraded facilities now favorably compare to or exceed NU’s.

Trev Alberts at UNO has proven a stronger administrator as athletic director than anyone on the outside looking in imagined, but I believe, though he’ll never admit it, that he regrets or will regret giving up the two programs that meant the most to the university. Even with that miscue, he’s built a firm foundation going forward. Baxter Arena is a nice addition but there’s no proof yet that area fans will pack it for UNO athletics other than hockey. If hoops doesn’t fly there, then UNO basketball is never going to capture fans the way it deserves to and that’s a shame.

Nebraska, meanwhile, stands on shaky ground. This is the weakest spot NU’s been in, in terms of overall athletic success, since the late 1960s-early 1970s. When other sports struggled then, the Husker athletic department always had its monolithic football program to fall back on, bail it out and keep it afloat. After nearly a generation of below par results, if things don’t dramatically change for the Big Red on the field and soon then NU’s once automatic crutch is in danger of no longer being there. If there’s no elite basketball program to pick up the football slack, NU athletics has nothing left to hang its hat on. Does anyone really have faith that NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst is making the right moves to return NU to where it once was? A lot of what’s come down is beyond his control, but the hires he makes are very much in his control. The four big questions are whether Mike Riley, Darin Erstad, Amy Williams and Tim Miles are the right coaches leading their respective programs. My opinion is that Riley is not. The sample size at NU is still too small to justify letting him go now but his overall career record indicates he won’t get done here what he couldn’t do elsewhere. Erstad has had enough time on the job and I’m afraid his excellence as a player hasn’t transferred to coaching. He’s got to go. Williams will likely prove to be a very good hire as she rebuilds the women’s hoops program. Miles is, like Riley, a guy who’s shown he has a limited ceiling as a coach and I’m afraid he’s been at NU long enough to show he can’t get the Huskers past a certain threshold. He should not have been retained.

All this uncertainity is weakening the Husker brand. Part of any brand is an identity and in college athletics that identity is often set by the head coach. Right now, it’s hard to get behind any of these coaches because, as an old expression goes, there’s no there-there. Winning sure helps but even when NU wasn’t winning big in basketball and baseball, it had some coaches who stood out. Joe Cipriano brought some verve and passion the way Danny Nee did. Cipriano got sick and had to step down as coach. Nee eventually wore out his welcome but he sure made things interesting. Between them was Moe Iba, whose own dour personality and his team’s deliberate style of play turned off many, but the man could coach. Everyone after Nee has been a let down as a coach and as a brand maker. John Sanders turned NU baseball around but he ended up alienating a lot of people. Dave Van Horn took things to a new level before he was inexplicably fired. Mike Anderson continued the surge until he too was let go after only a couple down seasons.

When NU was dominant in football and nationally competitive in basketball and baseball, tickets were hard to come by. Boy, have times changed. Yes, NU still mostly draws well at home, but not like the old days. A few more losing seasons and it will start to be a sorry sight indeed with all the empty seats.

By contrast, Creighton appears to be in great shape to maintain its success in basketball, both men’s and women’s, as well as soccer, volleyball and softball. CU is among the nation’s kings of college hoops attendance-wise and support for its other programs is very healthy. As NU anxiously faces an uncertain future in terms of success and support and as UNO figures out where it fits into the in-state DI picture, CU boldly adds to its winning ways and is the clear-cut winner in this competition for the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of area sports fans.

Who would have ever thought that?

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  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

TrevAlberts1

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 (http://omahamagazine.com/)

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 baxterarena.com for more information.

TrevAlberts1

 

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.”

 

UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change

March 17, 2011 9 comments

Image result for don benning omaha uno

 

In my view, one of the most underreported stories coming out of Omaha the last 50 years was what Don Benning achieved as a young black man at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  At a time and in a place when blacks were denied opportunity, he was given a chance as an educator and a coach and he made the most of the situation.  The following story, a version of which appeared in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com), charted his accomplishments on the 40th anniversary of making some history that has not gotten the attention it deserves.  He made history at then-Omaha University as the nation’s first black coach of a major team sport at a predominantly white institution of higher education.  I believe he was also the first black coach to lead a team at a predominantly white high education institution to a national championship. He laid the groundwork for the UNO wrestling dynasty that followed some years later under the leadership of Mike Denney, who always credited Don with getting the whole thing started.

In leading his team to the 1970 NAIA national title, when they roundly beat teams from from larger schools, he gathered around him a diverse group of student-athletes at a time when this was not the norm. A team coached by a young black man and comprised of whites, blacks and Latinos traveled to some inhospitable places where race baiting occured but he and his student-athletes never lost their cool. They let their actions speak for them.

One of the pleasures in doing this story was getting to know Don Benning, a man of high character who took me into his confidence.  I shall always be grateful.

 

 

Don Benning
UNO Wrestling Built on a Tide of Social Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the March 12-13 Division II national wrestling championships get underway at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, it’s good to remember wrestling, not hockey, is the school’s true marquee sport

Host UNO has been a dominant fixture on the D-II wrestling scene for decades. Its No. 1-ranked team is the defending national champs and is expected to finish on top again under Mike Denney, the coach for five of UNO’s six national wrestling titles. The first came 40 years ago amid currents of change.

Every dynasty has a beginning and a narrative. UNO’s is rooted in historic firsts that intersect racial-social-political happenings. The events helped give a school with little going for it much-needed cachet and established a tradition of excellence unbroken now since the mid-1960s.

It all began with then-Omaha University president Milo Bail hiring the school’s first African-American associate professor, Don Benning. The UNO grad had competed in football and wrestling for the OU Indians and was an assistant football coach there when Bail selected him to lead the fledgling wrestling program in 1963. The hire made Benning the first black head coach of a varsity sport (in the modern era) at a predominantly white college or university in America. It was a bold move for a nondescript, white-bread, then-municipal university in a racially divided city not known for progressive stances. It was especially audacious given that Benning was but 26 and had never held a head coaching position before.

Ebony Magazine celebrated the achievement in a March 1964 spread headlined, “Coach Cracks Color Barrier.” Benning had been on the job only a year. By 1970 he led UNO to its first wrestling national title. He developed a powerful program in part by recruiting top black wrestlers. None ever had a black coach before.

Omaha photographer Rudy Smith was a black activist at UNO then. He said what Benning and his wrestlers did “was an extension of the civil rights activity of the ’60s. Don’s team addressed inequality, racism, injustice on the college campus. He recruited people accustomed to challenges and obstacles. They were fearless. Their success was a source of pride because it proved blacks could achieve. It opened the door for other advancements at UNO by blacks. It was a monumental step and milestone in the history of UNO.”

Indeed, a few years after Benning’s arrival, UNO became the site of more black inroads. The first of these sawMarlin Briscoe star at quarterback there, which overturned the myth blacks could not master the cerebral position. Briscoe went on to be the first black starting QB in the NFL. Benning said he played a hand in persuading UNO football coach Al Caniglia to start Briscoe. Benning publicly supported efforts to create a black studies program at UNO at a time when black history and culture were marginalized. The campaign succeeded. UNO established one of the nation’s first departments of Black Studies. It continues today.

Once given his opportunity, Benning capitalized on it. From 1966 to 1971 his racially and ethnically diverse teams went 65-6-4 in duals, developing a reputation for taking on all comers and holding their own. Five of his wrestlers won a combined eight individual national championships. A dozen earned All-America status.

That championship season one of Benning’s two graduate assistant coaches was fellow African-American Curlee Alexander. The Omaha native was a four-time All-American and one-time national champ under Benning. He went on to be one of the winningest wrestling coaches in Nebraska prep history at Tech and North.

Benning’s best wrestlers were working-class kids like he and Alexander had been:

Wendell Hakanson, Omaha Home for Boys graduateRoy and

Mel Washington, black brothers from New York by way of cracker GeorgiaBruce “Mouse” Strauss, a “character” and mensch from back East

Paul and Tony Martinez, Latino south Omaha brothers who saw combat in Vietnam

Louie Rotella Jr., son of a prep wrestling legend and popular Italian bakery family

Gary Kipfmiller, a gentle giant who died young

Bernie Hospokda, Dennis Cozad, Rich Emsick, products of south Omaha’s Eastern European enclaves.

Jordan Smith and Landy Waller, prized black recruits from Iowa

 

photo

Half the starters were recent high school grads and half nontraditional students in their 20s; some, married with kids. Everyone worked a job.

 

Image result for 1970 uno wrestling

 

 

The team’s multicultural makeup was “pretty unique” then, said Benning. In most cases he said his wrestlers had “never had any meaningful relationships” with people of other races before and yet “they bonded tight as family.” He feels the way his diverse team came together in a time of racial tension deserves analysis. “It’s tough enough to develop to such a high skill level that you win a national championship with no other factors in the equation. But if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team. The kids came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a social laboratory for life.”

“We were a mixed bag, and from the outside you would think we would have a lot of issues because of cultural differences, but we really didn’t,” said Hospodka, a Czech- American who never knew a black until UNO.  “We were a real, real tight group. We had a lot of fun, we played hard, we teased each other. Probably some of it today would be considered inappropriate. But we were so close that we treated each other like brothers. We pushed buttons nobody else better push.”

“We didn’t have no problems. It was a big family,” said Mel Washington, who with his late brother Roy, a black Muslim who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, became the most decorated wrestlers in UNO history up to then. “You looked around the wrestling room and you had your Italian, your whites, your blacks, Chicanos, Jew, we all got together. If everybody would have looked at our wrestling team and seen this one big family the world would have been a better place.”

If there was one thing beyond wrestling they shared in common, said Hospodka, it was coming from hardscrabble backgrounds.

“Some of the kids came from situations where you had to be pretty tough to survive,” said Benning, who came up that way himself in a North O neighborhood where his was the only black family.

The Washington brothers were among 11 siblings in a sharecropping tribe that moved to Rochester, N.Y. The pair toughened themselves working the fields, doing odd-jobs and “street wrestling.”

Dhafir was the team’s acknowledged leader. Mel also a standout football lineman, wasn’t far behind. Benning said Dhafir’s teammates would “follow him to the end of the Earth.” “If he said we’re all running a mile, we all ran a mile,” said Hospodka.

Having a strong black man as coach meant the world to Mel and Dhafir. “Something I always wanted to do was wrestle for a black coach. It was about time for me to wrestle for my own race,” said Mel. The brothers had seen the Ebony profile on Benning, whom they regarded as “a living legend” before they ever got to UNO. Hospodka said Benning’s race was never an issue with him or other whites on the team.

Mel Washington

Mel and Dhafir set the unrelenting pace in the tiny, cramped wrestling room that Benning sealed to create sauna-like conditions. Practicing in rubber suits disallowed today Hospodka said a thermostat once recorded the temperature inside at 110 degrees and climbing. Guys struggled for air. The intense workouts tested physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Nobody gave an inch. Tempers flared.

 

Gary Kipfmiller staked out a corner no one dared invade. Except for Benning, then a rock solid 205 pounds, who made the passive Kipfmiller, tipping the scales at 350-plus, a special project.  “I rode him unmercifully,” said Benning. “He’d whine like a baby and I’d go, ‘Then do something about i!.” Benning said he sometimes feared that in a fit of anger Kipfmiller would drop all his weight on him and crush him.

Washington and Hospodka went at it with ferocity. Any bad blood was left in the room.

“As we were a team on the mat, off the mat we watched out for each other. Even though we were at each other’s throats on the wrestling mat, whatever happened on the outside, we were there. If somebody needed something, we were there,” said Paul Martinez, who grew up with his brother Tony, the team’s student trainer-manager, in the South O projects. The competition and camaraderie helped heal psychological wounds Paul carried from Vietnam, where he was an Army infantry platoon leader.

An emotional Martinez told Benning at a mini-reunion in January, “You were like a platoon leader for us — you guided us and protected us. Coming from a broken family, I not only looked at you as a coach but as a father.” Benning’s eyes moistened.

Dhafir Muhammad (Roy Washington)

Joining them there were other integral members of UNO’s 1970 NAIA championship team, including Washington and Hospodka. The squad capped a perfect 14-0 dual season by winning the tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament in Gunnison, Colo. and the nationals in Superior, Wis. It was the first national championship won by a scholarship team at the school and the first in any major sport by a Nebraska college or university.

Another milestone was that Benning became the first black coach to win an integrated national championship in wrestling and one of the first to do so in any sport at any level. He earned NAIA national coach of the year honors in 1969.

University of Washington scholar John C. Walter devotes a chapter to Benning’s historymaker legacy in a soon-to-be-published book, Better Than the Best. Walter said Benning’s “career and situation was a unique one” The mere fact Benning got the opportunity he did, said Walter, “was extraordinary,” not to mention that the mostly white student-athletes he taught and coached accepted him without incident. Somewhere else, he said, things might have been different.

“He was working in a state not known for civil rights, that’s for sure,” said Walter. “But Don was fortunate he was at a place that had a president who acted as a catalyst. It was a most unusual confluence. I think the reason why it happened is the president realized here’s a man with great abilities regardless of the color of his skin, and for me that is profound. UNO was willing to recognize and assist a young black man trying hard to distinguish himself and make a name for his university. That’s very important.”

Walter said it was the coach’s discipline and determination to achieve against all odds that prepared him to succeed.

Benning’s legacy can only be fully appreciated in the context of the time and place in which he and his student-athletes competed. For example, he was set to leave his hometown after being denied a teaching post with the Omaha Public Schools, part of endemic exclusionary practices here that restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs and living in many neighborhoods. He only stayed when Bail chose him to break the color line, though they never talked about it in those terms.

“It always puzzled me why he did that knowing the climate at the university and in K-12 education and in the community pointed in a different direction. Segregation was a way of life here in Omaha. It took a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude of doing what’s right, of being ready to step out on that limb when no other schools or institutions would touch African-Americans,” said Benning. He can only surmise Bail “thought that was the right thing to do and that I was the right person to do it.”

In assuming the burden of being the first, Benning took the flak that came with it.

“I flat out couldn’t fail because I would be failing my people. African-American history would show that had I failed it would have set things back. I was very aware of Jackie Robinson and what he endured. That was in my mind a lot. He had to take a lot and not say anything about it. It was no different for me.  I had tremendous pressure on me because of being African-American. A lot of things I held to myself.”

Washington said though Benning hid what he had to contend with, some of it was blatant, such as snubs or slights on and off the mat. His white wrestlers recall many instances on the road when they or the team’s white trainer or equipment manager would be addressed as “coach” or be given the bill at a restaurant when it should have been obvious the well-dressed, no-nonsense Benning was in charge.

Hospodka said at restaurants “they just assumed the black guy couldn’t pay. They hesitated to serve us or they ignored us or they hoped we would go away.”

Washington could relate, saying, “I had a feeling what he was going through — the prejudice. They looked down on him. That’s why I put out even more for him because I wanted to see him on top. A lot of people would have said the heck with this, but he’s a man who stood there and took the heat and took it in stride.”

“He did it in a quiet way. He always thought his character and actions would speak for him. He went about his business in a dignified way,” said Hospodka.

UNO wrestlers didn’t escape ugliness. At the 1971 nationals in Boone, N.C., Washington was the object of a hate crime — an effigy hung in the stands. Its intended effect backfired. Said Washington, “That didn’t bother me. You know why? I was used to it. That just made me want to go out there more and really show ’em up.” He did, too.

“We were booed a lot when we were on the road,” Hospodka said. “Don always said that was the highest form of flattery. We thrived on it, it didn’t bother us, we never took it personal, we just went out and did our thing. You might say it (the booing) was because we were beating the snot out of them. I couldn’t help think having a black coach and four or five black wrestlers had something to do with it.”

Hospodka said wherever UNO went the team was a walking social statement.  “When you went into a lot of small towns in the ’60s with four or five black wrestlers and a black coach you stuck out. It’s like, Why are these people together?” “There were some places that were awfully uncomfortable, like in the Carolinas,” said Benning. “You know there were places where they’d never seen an African-American.”

At least not a black authority figure with a group of white men answering to him.

The worst scene came at the Naval Academy, where the cold reception UNO got while holed up three days there was nothing compared to the boos, hisses, catcalls and pennies hurled at them during the dual. In a wild display of unsportsmanlike conduct Benning said thousands of Midshipmen left the stands to surround the mat for the crucial final match, which Kipfmiller won by decision to give UNO a tie.

The white wrestling infrastructure also went out of its way to make Benning and his team unwelcome.

“I think there were times when they seeded other wrestlers ahead of our wrestlers, one, because we were good and, two, because they didn’t look at it strictly from a wrestling standpoint, I think there was a little of the good old boy network there to try and make our road as tough as possible,” said Hospodka. “I think race played into that. It was a lot of subtle things. Maybe it wasn’t so subtle. Don probably saw it more because of the bureaucracy he had to deal with.”

“Some individuals weren’t too happy with me being an African-American,” said Benning. “I served on a selection committee that looked at different places to host the national tournament,. UNO hosted it in ’69, which was really very unusual, it broke a barrier, they’d never had a national championship where the host school had an African-American coach. That was pretty strange for them.”

He said the committee chairman exhibited outright disdain for him. Benning believes the ’71 championship site was awarded to Boone rather than Omaha, where the nationals were a big success, as a way to put him in his place. “The committee came up with Appalachian State, which just started wrestling. I swear to this day the only reason that happened was because of me and my team,” he said.

He and his wrestlers believe officials had it in for them. “There was one national tournament where there’s no question we just flat out got cheated,” said Benning. “It was criminal. I’m talking about the difference between winning the whole thing and second.” Refs’ judgements at the ’69 tourney in Omaha cost UNO vital points. “It was really hard to take,” said Benning. UNO had three individual champs to zero for Adams State, but came up short, 98-84. One or two disputed calls swung the balance.

 

 

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Despite all the obstacles, Benning and his “kids” succeeded in putting UNO on the map. The small, white institution best known for its Bootstrapper program went from obscurity to prominence by making athletics the vehicle for social action. In a decade defined by what Benning termed “a social revolution,” the placid campus was the last place to expect a historic color line being broken.

The UNO program came of age with its dynamic black coach and mixed team when African-American unrest flared into riots across the country, including Omaha. A north side riot occurred that championship season. UNO’s black wrestlers, who could not find accommodations near the UNO campus, lived in the epicenter of the storm. Black Panthers were neighbors. Mel Washington, his brother Dhafir and other teammates watched North 24th St. burn. Though sympathetic to the outrage, they navigated a delicate line to steer clear of trouble but still prove their blackness.

A uniformed police cadet then, Washington said he was threatened once by the Panthers, who called him “a pig” and set off a cherry bomb outside the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.

“I found those guys and said, ‘Anybody ever do that to my family again, and you or I won’t be living,’ and from then on I didn’t have no more problems. See, not only was I getting it from whites, but from blacks, too.”

Benning, too, found himself walking a tightrope of “too black or not black enough.”   After black U.S. Olympians raised gloved fists in protest of the national anthem, UNO’s black wrestlers wanted to follow suit. Benning considered it, but balked. In ’69 Roy Washington converted to Islam. He told Benning his allegiance to Black Muslim leader Honorable Elijah Muhammad superseded any team allegiance. Benning released him from the squad. Roy’s brother Mel earlier rejected the separatist dogma the Black Muslims preached. Their differences caused no riff.

Dhafir (Roy) rejoined the team in December after agreeing to abide by the rules. He won the 150-pound title en route to UNO capturing the team title over Adams, 86-58. Hospodka said Dharfir still expressed his beliefs, but with “no animosity, just pride that black-is-beautiful. Dharfir’s finals opponent, James Tannehill, was a black man married to a white woman. Hospodka said it was all the reason Dharfir needed to tell Tannehill, “God told me to punish you.” He delivered good on his vow.

It was also an era when UNO carried the “West Dodge High” label. Its academic and athletic facilities left much to be desired. “The university didn’t have that many things to feel proud of,” said Benning. Wrestling’s success lifted a campus suffering an inferiority complex to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wrestling was one area where UNO could best NU, whose NCAA wrestling program paled by comparison.

“Coach Benning and his wrestling teams elevated UNO right to the top, shoulder-to-shoulder with its big brother’s football team down the road,” said UNO grad Mary Jochim, part of a wrestling spirit club in 69-’70. “They gave everyone at the school a big boost of pride. The rafters would shake at those matches.”

“You’d have to say it was the coming-together of several factors that brought about a genuine excitement about wrestling at UNO in the late 1960s,” said former UNO Sports Information Director Gary Anderson. He was sports editor of the school paper, The Gateway, that championship season. “There were some outstanding athletes who were enthusiastic and colorful to watch, a very good coach, and UNO won a lot of matches. UNO had the market cornered. Creighton had no team and Nebraska’s team wasn’t as dominant as UNO. It created a perfect storm.”

Benning said, “It was more important we had the best wrestling team in the state than winning the national championship. Everybody took pride in being No. 1.” Anderson said small schools like UNO “could compete more evenly” then with big schools in non-revenue producing sports like wrestling, which weren’t fully funded. He said as UNO “wrestled and defeated ‘name’ schools it added luster to the team’s mystique.

NU was among the NCAA schools UNO beat during Benning’s tenure, along with Wyoming, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and Cornell. UNO tied a strong Navy team at the Naval Academy in what Hospodka called “the most hostile environment I ever wrestled in.” UNO crowned the most champions at the Iowa Invitational, where if team points had been kept UNO would have outdistanced the big school field.

“We didn’t care who you were — if you were Division I or NAIA or NCAA, it just didn’t matter to us,” said Hospodka, who pinned his way to the 190-pound title in 1970. The confidence to go head-to-head with anybody was something Benning looked for in his wrestlers and constantly reinforced.

Said Hospodka,”Don always felt like we could compete against anybody. He knew he had talent in the room. He didn’t think we had to take a back seat to anybody when it came to our abilities. He had a confidence about him that was contagious.”

The sport’s bible, Amateur Wrestling News, proclaimed UNO one of the best teams in the nation, regardless of division. UNO’s five-years of dominance, resulting in one national championship, two runner-up finishes, a third-place finish and an eighth place showing, regularly made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald sports section.

The grapplers also wrestled with an aggression and a flair that made for crowd-pleasing action. Benning said his guys were “exceptional on their feet and exceptional pinners.” It wasn’t unusual for UNO to record four or five falls per dual. Washington said it was UNO’s version of “showtime.” He and his teammates competed against each other for the most stylish or quickest pin.

Hospodka said “the bitter disappointment” of the team title being snatched away in ’69 fueled UNO’s championship run the next season, when UNO won its 14 duals by an average score of 32-6. It works out to taking 8 of every 10 matches. UNO posted three shut outs and allowed single digits in seven other duals. No one scored more than 14 points on them all year. The team won every tournament it competed in.

 

 

 

 

Everything fell into place. “Nobody at our level came even close to competing with us,” said Hospodka. “The only close match we had was Athletes in Action, and those were all ex-Big 8 wrestlers training for the World Games or the Olympics. They were loaded and we still managed to pull out a victory (19-14).” At nationals, he said, “we never had a doubt. We had a very solid lineup the whole way, everybody was at the top of their game. We wrapped up the title before the finals even started.” Afterwards, Benning told the Gateway, “It was the greatest team effort I have ever been acquainted with and certainly the greatest I’ve ever seen.”

Muhammad won his third individual national title and Hospodka his only one. Five Mavs earned All-America status.

The foundation for it all, Hospodka said, was laid in a wrestling room a fraction the size of today’s UNO practice facility. “I’ve been in bigger living rooms,” he said. But it was the work the team put in there that made the difference. “It was a tough room, and if you could handle the room then matches were a breeze. The easy part of your week was when you got to wrestle somebody else. There were very few people I wrestled that I felt would survive our wrestling room.”

“It was great competition,” said Jordan Smith. “One thing I learned after my first practice was that I was no longer the toughest guy in the room. There were some recruits who came into that room and practiced with us for a few days and we never saw them again. I was part of something that really was special. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

This band of brothers is well represented in the Maverick Wrestling and UNO Halls of Fame. The championship team was inducted by UNO and by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Benning, Mel Washington, Dhafir Muhammad and Curlee Alexander are in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. But when UNO went from NAIA to NCAA Division II in ’73 it seemed the athletic department didn’t value the past. Tony Martinez said he rescued the team’s numerous plaques and trophies from a campus dumpster. Years later he reluctantly returned them to the school, where some can be viewed in the Sapp Fieldhouse lobby.

UNO’s current Hall of Fame coach, Mike Denney, knows the program owes much to what Benning and his wrestlers did. The two go way back.

Benning left coaching in ’71 for an educational administration career with OPS. Mike Palmisano inherited the program for eight years, but it regressed.

When Denney took over in ’79 he said “my thing was to try to find a way to get back to the level Don had them at and carry on the tradition he built.” Denney plans having Benning back as grand marshall for the March of All-Americans at this weekend’s finals. “I have great respect for him.” Benning admires what Denney’s done with the program, which has risen to even greater heights. “He’s done an outstanding job”

As for the old coach, he feels the real testament to what he achieved is how close his diverse team remains. They don’t get together like they once did. When they do, the bonds forged in sweat and blood reduce them to tears. Their ranks are thinned due to death and relocation. They’re fathers and grandfathers now, yet they still have each other’s backs. Benning’s boys still follow his lead. Hospokda said he often asks himself, “What would Don want me to do?”

At a recent reunion Washington told Benning, “I’m telling you now in front of everyone — thank you for bringing the family together.”

 
 
 
 

Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality

October 15, 2010 1 comment

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THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program.  As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs.  It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the character built, the incredibly strong and tight family bonds built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country. Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents?  My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved.  Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public.  It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty.  That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.

Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract.  By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory.  It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.

 

 

 

 

NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process.  As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t.  Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison.  Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football.  I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years.  Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard .  UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city.  But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level.  UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages.  UNO wrestling is a whole different story.  It has been an elite program for more than 40 years.  It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years.  No, it’snot  a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period.  The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it:  UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents.  It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.

 

 

 

 

Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and  in the city’s and in the nation’s history.  The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves.  Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out.  So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year.   It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.

UPDATE:  Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements.  And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling.  Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates.  Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red.  But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities.  But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved?   I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program.  For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my stories on this blog about Don Benning and about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of the update I misidentified the new conference UNO is looking to join as the Horizon League, when it is in fact the Summit League.  My bad.  I was in too much of a hurry posting the update and failed to check the league name.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded.  Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs.  Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it?  UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders.  The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.

 

 

 

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Like most Nebraska football fans I watched Trev Alberts play on some very good Husker teams in the early 1990s without ever seeing him in person, by seeing him play on television. I’ve been a Big Red fan since just before the dawn of my teens but I’ve only attended a couple games at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in all that time.  So, my relationship with Alberts remained a virtual one until I interviewed him for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader,com). Alberts was a high draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts but repeated injuries cut short his NFL career before he could ever really establish himself.  Then, the telegenic Alberts embarked on a successful career as an on-air college football analyst with ESPN.  He left the network in a dispute that received a fair amount of attention.  The, totally unexpected, he wound up as athletic director at Division II University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he’s in his second year on the job trying to right what had becomes a wayward department. Although some have speculated he took the post as a way to season and position himself for eventually replacing his old coach, Tom Osborne, as NU athletic director, an assertion by the way that both Alberts and Osborne deny, he seems genuinely satisfied to be doing a very unglamorous job at a very unglamorous institution.  But as he reveals in my story, he is all about work ethic, seeing a job through, and teamwork, which I believe will keep him at UNO for the foreseeable future, not that I would rule out him one day moving over to NU.

 

 

 

 

Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’  Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

UNO athletics has always been the overlooked step-child on the area sports scene.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha is still primarily a commuter school, making athletics a hard sell to students and alums. Most have a distant relationship with UNO, whose athletic success rarely translates into fans in the stands save for Maverick hockey, a few football games and a couple wrestling meets.

Things got tenuous four years ago amid revelations the school hushed up athletic budget shortfalls and secretly funneled general university funds to make up the difference. Then-chancellor Nancy Belck came under fire for loose department oversight. The cash cow UNO’s tied its wagon to, Division I hockey, sputtered.

UNO quickly went through three athletic directors. The budget and staff absorbed cuts. Some major boosters criticized school leaders and pulled support. Things stabilized when John Christensen became chancellor in 2007. His April 2009 hiring of Trev Alberts, the former University of Nebraska football All-American (1990-93), Indianapolis Colt and ESPN analyst, turned heads. Getting the chiseled, charismatic Alberts was a bold, outside-the-box move to pump life, credibility and pizazz into a floundering, faceless enterprise.

Some questioned Alberts’ lack of sports administration experience. Not Christensen.

“I wasn’t looking for an administrator, I was looking for a leader, and those are very different things,” said Christensen.

The two have big plans for UNO, including new campus facilities for baseball, softball, soccer and hockey. There’s talk of one day going D-I across the board. UNO is being touted as “Omaha’s Team.” By all accounts, confidence is restored in the department. Alberts’ hiring last year of iconic Dean Blais as hockey coach signaled a sea change in how UNO brands itself. The pretender’s now the contender.

Alberts set the tone at the press conference introducing him as AD, saying, “I believe the potential for UNO’s athletic programs is unlimited.” He hasn’t backed off on that. He sent a message with the Blais hire.

“We wanted to make a statement we weren’t going to mess around anymore, we were going to get into the arena competition and we were going to win and we were going to win the right way. I have never been a part of anything that didn’t attempt to do excellence.”

The rub is that while UNO’s located in a much larger metro than most D-II competitors, it must contend with many more divided loyalties and attractions than, say, a Northwest Missouri State, which is the only game in town in Maryville, Mo.

Husker mania looms large here. Creighton athletic programs are fan favorites. The College of St. Mary, Bellevue College and Iowa Western Community College have their followings. High school athletic contests regularly outdraw UNO’s. The Royals, the Beef, the Lancers, and now the Nighthawks, have committed fan bases, too.

Still, UNO is convinced it can capture more fans and revenue through upgrades, a must anyway if the school’s to ever seriously entertain going D-I, said Christensen.

“Right now, are we Omaha’s team? No, not the way we’re currently structured,” said Alberts. “No, not when you ask your baseball fans to drive to Boys Town to watch a game, you drive your softball fans to Westgate, you drive your hockey fans to the Qwest (Center). Think about it, we’ve been doing everything we could to make it extraordinarily difficult and inconvenient to support UNO athletics. You’re supposed to bring people to your campus.

“Imagine if we had facilities that were convenient, that met market expectations and were on or near the UNO campus.”

 

 

 

 

Alberts can sound like a pitchman, and that ability to spin things, to charm, to energize, to win hearts and minds, is why supporters like David Sokol are back in the fold. For Alberts, though, the heavy lifting’s just begun.

“We’re still a burden on campus until we’re able to realize that revenue from hockey. Do we have the kind of players, coaches, teams representative of what the market demands? We’re getting closer. I mean, it’s about winning. You gotta win, you gotta win consistently. The moniker ‘Omaha’s Team’ is really a reminder to our staff and coaches of what we aspire to become.”

Alberts said UNO must meet “market expectations of excellence of Lincoln and Creighton and the College World Series.” In some respects, he said, UNO’s done so by winning 11 national championships, adding that feedback from the community, however, indicates UNO’s fallen short in most ways.

Then there’s the awkwardness of dual NCAA membership. Yes, UNO has a D-I hockey program, but it’s a D-II, school, making for a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario.

“At strictly Division II schools, their (athletic) budgets are about three-and-a half to four million. Our budget’s approaching nine million with one Division I sport. When you have dual membership one of two things happens: you either treat all of your programs like their Division II, which is problematic to NCAA compliance. or you end up running your whole department like you’re Division I. That’s equally dangerous, because now in our budget we have all the support units of a Division I department and our Division II programs are benefitting from it.

“We’ve got strength and conditioning staff, compliance staff, three full time sports information staffers, a marketing department —  you don’t need a marketing department when you’re Division II. We have a ticketing office.  A five-person athletic medicine staff I’ll put up against anybody. The point is, we’re a Division I athletic department whether we like it or not, but we compete at the Division II level. It’s naturally divisive. That’s why the NCAA views dual memberships as problematic.

“That’s why Dean Blais was so important. His personality, his humility — he doesn’t walk around here like…He’s just a Midwestern guy, he’s one of us. Now, he has expectations, don’t get me wrong.”

If other UNO coaches are upset by hockey’s anointed status, Alberts said they haven’t said so. Regardless, there’s no turning back.

“We’ve tried hard to communicate from the day I took the job that that’s the way it’s going to be. You can be frustrated, but if hockey is not successful, we are not successful.”

For now, he said UNO must balance the trappings of its lone D-I sport with the low corporate sponsorships and game guarantees of a D-II school.

“We simply didn’t have the ability and maybe still don’t to deliver the product this market demands, and that’s why this job’s so hard,” he said.

Much of his job is creating a culture of integrity that’s about “making the right decision, not the convenient one.” It’s why he and Christensen talk regularly and why Alberts seeks counsel from his old coach/mentor, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. He also keeps former UNO athletic director Don Leahy close by as advisor and watchdog.

“It’s transparency,” Alberts said. “You know, Nebraskans are a common sense group. Trying to fool people is simply not going to work. First of all you have to be honest with yourself, understand your limitations, your strengths, and show enough humility to welcome the input of others. The first thing we had to do was create a belief. A lot of our coaches have been promised things for years. I would never promise somebody something I couldn’t actually keep.”

He’s impressed by “the passion for this place” that’s kept several veteran coaches and staff members at UNO when they could have bolted for other opportunities. He feels UNO athletics is poised for growth despite a tough economy and NU system-wide cuts.

“We’ve never been in a more difficult position than we’re currently in. What’s encouraging to me is a lot of our problems are self-inflicted and they’re solvable, and we’re committed to finding solutions.”

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