Some wounds simply never heal.
In the case of the story of Nebraska-Omaha wrestling and Trev Alberts, the scar left behind from ten year ago was reopened when Alberts was named athletic director at Nebraska, his alma mater. It likely was the only school Alberts would have left UNO for. But back in Omaha, Alberts leaves behind two diametrically opposed legacies. One is a revitalized athletic department that no longer in danger of being eliminated, with hockey, basketball, baseball and soccer reaching unprecedented heights. To supporters of those programs, there’s a cute little catch phrase (“Trev is dreamy”) that highlights how UNO fans couldn’t have even dreamed 12 years ago where the Mavericks are today.
The other is pure hatred and disgust at the demise of the school’s football and wrestling programs. The announcement in Lincoln ripped open the wounds from ten years ago. For supporters of UNO wrestling, those wounds will never, ever heal.
I understand that. The loss of UNO’s wrestling program, coming just hours after the program clinched their straight national championship, was a gut punch to the area’s wrestling community. The coaches and players on that program had success no other athletic program at the school had ever accomplished. They had done absolutely nothing wrong to deserved this fate.
But that being said, Alberts’ decision to drop wrestling and football and to upgrade the entire athletic department was absolutely the correct decision, and one that has undoubtedly proven itself as the correct one for Nebraska-Omaha.
Before Trev Alberts arrived at UNO, the athletic department had suffered through years of mismanagement. Budgets were out of whack, and a parade of athletic directors bailed on UNO to take lesser jobs at smaller schools. When it came to hire Trev, there were three other finalists which featured the athletic directors at now-defunct Dana College in Blair and Millard South High School. Regents were calling for programs to be eliminated. So when it came time to pick a candidate, I went with Trev because, quite frankly, UNO didn’t have anything to lose at that point. Things were bad at 60th and Dodge Street.
So two years later, Alberts and UNO’s administration had identified a bold new plan: move to division 1 and the Summit League. There were two problems with that: the Summit League didn’t sponsor football, hockey or wrestling, and UNO only fielded teams in three of the eight men’s Summit League sports. While the Summit League offered UNO a stable path to ensure viability of the rest of the program, UNO had to make tough decisions on those three non-Summit programs as well as find a way to add men’s golf and soccer, so that the new school would compete in a majority of the new league’s sports.
Hockey was UNO’s first Division 1 sport, and had emerged as the school’s most visible athletic program. Financially, it was the most economically successful program, turning a profit at the time as one of the nation’s leading schools in hockey attendance. It was a safe choice to remain.
Football was another matter entirely; it was a money loser that was going to require even more resources to upgrade to division 1-AA. In 2010, UNO had only made just over $100,000 in football ticket revenue contributing to a $1.4 million budget for the sport according to the World-Herald. Sadly, Alberts knew the football program just couldn’t continue.
Wrestling was a tougher decision. The coaches had done an admirable job in fundraising to elevate UNO’s budget to support a division II championship program. But now UNO needed to find the resources for those new sports, and the only way that worked was to eliminate wrestling to free up the budget room.
So UNO had a plan for the future that depended on approval from the Summit League, who were meeting around their annual basketball tournament in March, a few days before the NCAA’s Division II wrestling championships. Nothing was finalized yet, which meant that Trev and UNO’s administration had to maintain the status quo that week. Which is where everything went south for Trev Alberts.
There’s never a good way to eliminate a program, especially one that was as successful on the mats as UNO’s wrestling program. But fate found a way to find the worst way to do it. The Omaha World-Herald found out about the Summit League’s approval of UNO’s membership, and planned to make it the top headline in the Sunday paper. The one that would show up on doorsteps just hours after the UNO wrestlers raised their trophy.
I don’t know how Trev Alberts planned to let the wrestlers know what was going to happen to their program, but I suspect he wanted them to celebrate their championship a little longer than an hour. It doesn’t matter, because the word of UNO’s move was already leaking out on Saturday night. So the fateful notification became a painful phone call to the team. The only thing worse, I suppose, was not telling the wrestlers and letting them read about it in the paper or online after being notified by text messages.
As a long-time UNO hockey supporter since the first tickets went on sale in 1996, I’ve worried about tales of UNO’s financial woes in athletics through the years. Trev addressed all of that. In March of 2011, I put my faith behind Trev, and it turned out Trev was right. Since then, the remaining and new UNO sports have thrived. Over the last decade, UNO hockey has made it to three NCAA tournaments (including one Frozen Four) while soccer has made it twice. So it was the right decision for UNO, who rewarded Alberts by promoting him in 2014 to “Vice chancellor of athletics”...a job title I don’t think I’ve ever heard of before.
I don’t expect wrestling fans to ever agree with that. Some may eventually accept what happened, but for most, the personal pain they experienced is something they’ll never be able to get over. Players lives were forever altered by having to choose between being a student only at UNO or having to transfer to another school. I get that.
But what does all this mean for Trev Alberts at Nebraska? Well, for starters, he’s not going to eliminate football. That’s just a ridiculous argument. But wrestling? I think the one thing you need to remember is that Trev Alberts isn’t afraid of making a big decision, even if it’s unpopular to some people. The trick is whether you can trust him to make the right decision for the school, and you can’t help but look at UNO athletics today and admit that it’s in a much better place now than how Alberts found it in 2009. I’m going to presume that Nebraska’s budget in 2021 isn’t near the mess UNO’s was in 2009, and I would consider it unlikely that Nebraska would need to drop a sport.
And after reading Henry Cordes’ feature in Sunday’s World-Herald, I get the feeling that Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning, a UNO alum, might agree with all that. Says Cordes:
When Alberts got off the elevator at his announcement press conference, one of the first to shake his hand was Mark Manning, the Husker wrestling coach who was a Hall-of-Fame wrestler at UNO under Denney. Alberts told Manning he’s looking forward to working with him.
Different situations will result in different decisions. UNO is not NU. I did not agree with every decision Trev Alberts made while at UNO, and so I don’t expect to agree with every decision he’ll make in Lincoln. But I do believe that we can, and should, trust Trev to do his homework and make good decisions for Husker athletics. He did so at UNO; there’s no reason to think otherwise now at Nebraska.