After last season's run to the NCAA tournament with a roster loaded with underclassmen, the UNO hockey program and the rest of the athletic department should be looking forward to 2006-07. Instead a double shot of bad news emerged this week from the UNO athletic department. Tuesday, UNO laid off two administrators, two basketball coaches, and a staff member due to a $440,000 budget shortfall. Wednesday, UNO Chancellor Nancy Belck refused to consider upgrading the rest of the Maverick athletic program to Division 1.
When the budget cut story emerged, fingers immediately pointed towards UNO's Qwest Center lease in a knee-jerk reaction. In moving to the Qwest Center, UNO's rental expenses doubled which certainly added to the Mavs budget woes. However, even if UNO was paying the same rent they paid at the Civic, UNO would have still run a significant deficit. That hasn't stopped many people from insisting that moving to the Qwest Center was a huge mistake. Unfortunately, this argument has been repeated over and over again. The "mistake" side makes a valid observation that when you have 6,000 fans in attendance, the environment at the Civic is better than at the Qwest Center. However, assuming that UNO is limited to only drawing 6,000 fans to hockey is not exploiting the potential of UNO hockey.
When the Qwest Center was being designed, UNO was in the midst of a sellout streak with over 8,000 tickets sold every night, and 6 or 7 thousand fans in attendance each night. Meanwhile, Creighton basketball was averaging a paid attendance of 5,183 a night (1999). Both schools made the jump to the Qwest Center. If the Qwest Center was the problem, Creighton must have even bigger problems, correct? Poor environment and an oversupply of tickets must be an even bigger problem for the Jays? Uh no... Creighton last year averaged 13,900 fans a game to the Qwest Center.
Why the disparity? Simply put, Creighton did nearly everything right in moving to the Qwest Center...and UNO did a whole lot of things wrong. First of all, Creighton's basketball program was on the verge of exploding under Dana Altman who has done wonders for their program. They hired the marketing whiz (Mike West) who turned Omaha's Nationwide Golf Tour stop into one of the city's biggest event. Conversely, UNO suffered a couple of down year (finishing in last place in their first year at the Qwest Center) and turned over marketing to those geniuses of promoting sports in Omaha: the Royals. Then, just as UNO's program starts making strides on the ice, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights come to town and glut the hockey market, leading to another attendance slide.
In any event, UNO's hockey future looks pretty good for 2006-07. Hobey Baker candidate Scott Parse is still on track to return as will the vast majority of contributors from last year's NCAA qualifiers, the initial fascination with the OAKs is fading, and UNO is putting more effort into marketing the team.
The second shot to Mav fans was the announcement that UNO would not consider upgrading the rest of the athletic department to division1 (1-AA in football). In interviews today, athletic director Dave Herbster stated that decision to not investigate division 1 was made for him, though he gave the impression that most of the department favored the upgrade. I'm sure the recent budget concerns may have played a issue, especially since upgrading the department would have required upgrades to many facilities. A new arena to replace the aging Sapp Fieldhouse would have been a requirement...and built properly, could be a home to UNO volleyball, basketball, and hockey, providing a state-of-the-art environment like the Qwest Center without the scheduling hassles that cause chaos in the schedule.
Where would the money for upgrading the Mavs to Division 1 come from? One revenue source immediately comes to mind: the Huskers have scheduled many 1-AA teams in recent years in football. A UNO-UNL football game could send $500,000 that would otherwise go out-of-state up I-80, with the only travel costs being a few busses. (Contrast that with UNO's road trips to Washington!) Basketball games against Creighton and the Huskers would also provide a cash infusion to the UNO athletic department. Let's face it, if we're going to play games simply to fire up the band and jumbotron without any concern for having an interesting matchup, we might as well keep the money in-state and keep the benefits in the University system.
So why not even investigate this option? It sounds like it was decided on high not to try and elevate UNO to a similar level as UNL. One can certainly see the perspective of Harvey Perlman and Steve Pederson: a Division 1 UNO is competition for fan interest and donations. And on the football field, it's a no-win situation. Beating Nicholls State 73-6 is just a mismatch played for money, but beating UNO 73-6 is like abusing your little brother. Conversley, only leading Maine 15-7 late in the 4th quarter can be dismissed as a bad game, but if UNO were to pull within 1 score against a Husker program many of them dreamed of playing on while growing up, all bets are off as to what could happen next when emotion and momentum get kicked up a notch. And nobody said that this idea even made it as far as Perlman and Pederson; UNO or University administration may have scuttled the idea without their knowledge.
So now, UNO looks to continue with an uncertain future in division 2. And fans are left to wonder "what if"...