Emotions run high at Regents hearing
March 25th, 2011
Omaha, NE – After emotional testimony from those on both sides of the debate, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents has approved UNO’s move to Division I.
Student-athletes, coaches and alumni packed Varner Hall in Lincoln Friday, for a public hearing before the Regents. Most spoke in opposition to the move, which includes the elimination of two tradition-rich programs at UNO: football and wrestling. Wrestling Coach Mike Denney, with a seated row of his team behind him, stood at the podium and told them how proud he was.
“We’re so proud of how you have handled the adversity of the past few weeks, with dignity and class,” he said. “You have represented the core of our team: team power. You have modeled and displayed character under adversity, and you have fought the good fight. You deserve better than this.”
Denney also spoke directly to Athletics Director Trev Alberts, and his long-time personal friend and fellow wrestler, Chancellor John Christensen.
“Is this the best that our Athletic Director can do? Is this the best that you can do, John?”
“Have you inspired a “culture of excellence” by what you’ve done?” Denney asked. “The answer is no.”
There was a common theme among those who spoke against the move: primarily, that the UNO administration had conducted insufficient research, and that the numbers behind their argument that football and wrestling are too costly to maintain, don’t add up.
Particularly, they argued coaches and athletes were left out of the conversation, and not consulted before the recommendation was made. Football player David Gary said UNO’s feasibility report for the move was less comprehensive than his own graduate thesis the University expected of him.
“These few sheets of paper that make up the Feasibility Report are a slap in the face to students and student-athletes that are held to this standard,” Gary said. “All we want is honest and sincere intention, a fair shake and good faith.”
Trev Alberts, who has taken significant heat for the decision, defended the proposal in a presentation. He said he was charged with bringing financial stability to UNO Athletics, and that the harsh reality is: “athletics is a business.”
“There’s nothing more uncomfortable for me than to stand here and tell you that athletics have become a business,” he said, “because I assure you that it’s the last thing that I’d want to be a part of.”
“I didn’t take the job at UNO thinking we were running a business; we thought we were running an athletic department.”
Alberts said as he weighed the options, the choice became clear. Athletics could either take a step backwards and become non-scholarship Division III and further dependent on subsidies, or step forward and reflect the “level of excellence” at UNO. He also defended the apparent “secrecy” surrounding the decision, saying because the move depended on a conference invitation, he couldn’t have made the plans public.
“In a perfect world, in November or way back, you could go to all your constituents in your community, go to your coaches, go to your programs and tell them we’re going to go to Division I if we get an opportunity, and here’s what’s going to happen with our realignment, in terms of what sports we’re going to carry,” Alberts said.
“Let’s say we make that announcement. Every football player leaves, every wrestler leaves, every coach leaves, and we don’t get an official invitation.”
Chancellor Christensen defended Alberts, saying he did the job he hired him for, and that financial stability had to trump emotion and disappointment.
“I clearly understand the passion, I understand the disappointment of some. At the same time, it’s my responsibility to advance the institution for the greater good of the entire department.”
There were other supporters of the move, many of whom were also emotional as they spoke. UNO Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rita Henry choked up as she spoke of her 30 years at the University.
“I’ve seen many changes, almost all leading to positive, growth-producing changes at our campus,” she said. “And while I’m saddened by the loss of the football players, wrestlers and coaches who have to leave UNO, I’m only excited by this move into Division I knowing what a tremendous impact this move will have to UNO in the long-term.”
Connie Claussen, a long-time supporter of women’s athletics, and current Associate Athletic Director of Special Projects, said not long ago, she thought it was the end of UNO Athletics. But under Alberts’ leadership, she said it has strengthened, and he doesn’t deserve the flack he’s received.
“When Trev Alberts became our Athletic Director, I thought I can’t believe that he applied for this job,” she said. “I didn’t know one person who would be interested. And what a job he has done… has a wonderful staff that helps him, he thinks things through, very honest and has lots of integrity.”
Though the two sides didn’t agree on how to move forward, there was some agreement on the handling of the decision. The wrestling team was told of the cuts hours after they won their third-straight national championship. Senior wrestler Mario Morgan said his team’s accomplishments were not recognized.
“It could’ve been done a better way,” Morgan said. “We haven’t got a congratulations from anyone, except ourselves, and our family and our team members.” Pointedly looking at the Regents and Alberts, Morgan said ironically, “This is a ‘culture of excellence.’ Thanks for supporting our team, thanks for congratulating our team on a national championship, guys. We really appreciate it.”
That prompted this response from Chairman Bob Whitehouse: “Your championship is duly noted,” Whitehouse said. “And it seems senseless to say congratulations now since you just ended with that, but I did intend to congratulate you.”
But after three hours of public comments, presentations and questioning, the Regents took their vote. It was unanimous, but visibly not easy.
Whitehouse said the process had been “the most gut-wrenching and most difficult thing I’ve had to endure.”
“I thought [the debate over] stem cells was bad, as tough as that was, this has been worse for me personally.”
UNO’s move to Division I as a member of the Summit League Conference takes effect July 1st. The wrestling and football cuts are immediate, although they are not mandated by the Regents’ approval of the recommendation. Two of the Regents called on the UNO administration to take a step back and “a long look” before they make the final decision to eliminate wrestling and football.