I spent a lot of my college career on Caniglia Field on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I saw dozens of football games over five years there. I saw Adam Wright break the school single-game rushing record. I saw nearly a half dozen future professionals before they signed contracts. I saw Kenny and Taiwo Onatolu TKO their way through another season. Truly great memories and things I'll never forget.
Now ask me how many wrestling meets I attended. One. A Kaufman-Brand tournament because my staff writer and brother, Parker Adair made me go.
And now our alma mater has decided that they are going to drop these two programs so they can better align with the Division-I conference they are planning to join, and of course to save money. So why am I about to write an article begging the powers that be to keep the latter, and not the former? To stay with a "niche" sport and not a campus stalwart like football?
Allow me to explain. A disclaimer before the meat. I don't know what sports at UNO, if any, make money. I don't know how much, in raw real numbers, each cost. I don't know the details of the deal Athletics Director Trev Alberts made with the Summit League, but the Mavericks future potential situation is not unprecedented by any means. They aren't going to play hockey in the Summit Conference, they certainly wouldn't have to wrestle there or play football there.
Nothing marked the beginning of football season better than the UNO football team playing that opening game on Thursday night against Nebraska-Kearney when nearly 10,000 people would attend. But outside of that game, on that night, UNO football could never and can never get out of the juggernaut shadow that is the Huskers. For the rest of the season they would struggle to get a couple thousand people on a Saturday afternoon to play Pittsburg State or whatever random school that was in the MIAA that we never got to know. The only other rival UNO had was Northwest Missouri State, but the problem with that was that rivalries need to go both ways, and the Bearcats owned the Mavericks. The support just isn't where it needs to be.
Football teams require about 100 players (give or take), dozens of scholarships, a insane travel budget, more intensive equipment needs (outside of maybe hockey) than any other sport, not to mention the Title IX nightmare it presents. And if the product isn't having success, isn't drawing fans, isn't making an impact or a difference, isn't a reason other students choose to attend a university, it becomes merely a drain on the school's finances. Sure everyone wants them to stay, but honestly it's not feasible for UNO, not right now, and especially not if the vision of the school is to go Division-I. Trust me when I say that if nobody cares about UNO playing Eastern Washington in D-II, they aren't going to care about playing Indiana State in I-AA. The only argument is that UNO could possibly profit from taking lashings from the Huskers, Hawkeyes, Jayhawks, whatever, but who wants to be "that guy" in college football. And its true that the new Summit League that UNO is rumored to join doesn't have football, but UNO could easily slide into the Missouri Valley Conference (Two former D-II foes of UNO, South Dakota State and North Dakota State now play football in the Mo Val and most other sports in the Summit). All that aside, I understand dropping football and am not really opposed to that move. Its very costly and likely not sustainable at this time.
Speaking of North Dakota State, they are an interesting case study in moving to D-I. They are what UNO should strive to be in all this. They did it without dropping any sports. The Bison play most of their sports in the Summit, but as mentioned before they play football in the Mo Val and wrestling in the Western Wrestling Conference. South Dakota State did the same. And the neither school has a Division-I hockey program to carry the rest of the department. And oh, by the way, the Bison made the NCAA March Madness Tournament in 2008.
The Western Wrestling Conference features both NDSU, SDSU and another familiar face, Northern Colorado. Point is these "niche" sports don't always align comfortably with the flagship conference and for schools with wrestling and hockey and concessions have been made to accommodate.
Yet somehow Nebraska-Omaha can't figure out how to keep a team that has won six of the last eight national titles, including three in a row ... twice. They can't figure out how to keep a team that is the most prepared of all Maverick programs to make the jump. They can't figure out how to keep a team that hosts the Kaufman-Brand Open, the largest wrestling tournament in the country, which features dozens of teams including Division-I powers, over 700 wrestlers and attracts thousands of fans. They can't figure out a way to keep the kids that have brought UNO national success both on the mat and in the classroom. And they want to replace them with soccer and golf? Who's going to celebrate when UNO wins a Summit League soccer title?
If North Dakota State and South Dakota State can pull this off, why can't UNO? Wouldn't it be cool if UNO replaced Nebraska in the Big XII for wrestling? Think its a pipe dream? Look around the country. Tell me who won the Pac-10 wrestling title this year. I'll give you 10 guesses ...
Unless you said Boise State, you lose! Yes, Boise State wrestles, and apparently wins in the Pac-10. And no, they aren't in the Pac-10 for any other sport. Why not these boys, why not these Mavericks. Why not the Mavericks that have won your more than a handful of national championships. Why soccer? Golf? To align with a league that we aren't even in yet?
What has men's soccer done for you, UNO? What does it do for you as a fan? They will get to play Nebraska and Creighton on an even level. Sure, now tell me the last time those programs turned a profit, were self-sustaining. Neither is wrestling, you say. Great point, so why trade the history of one powerhouse that brings national recognition to your school for the unknown and impending mediocrity of another, if they are both going to operate in the red anyway.