Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Future of UNO Athletics

The fallout over UNO's decision to cut positions and reject division 1 only got worse as time went on. Thursday, many booster clubs issued a vote of "no confidence" in UNO administration and were threatening to withdraw funding new projects (such as new facilities such as baseball fields and ice rinks). Armageddon seemed imminent.

Friday afternoon, the situation seemed to cool with nearly simultaneous announcements by NU Regent Howard Hawks and Chancellor Nancy Belck that the question about moving UNO to division 1 was going to be reopened. Two things drove this decision: the outrage shown by fans and boosters, plus the decision by South Dakota to explore division 1. With the departure of North Dakota, UNO's current conference affiliation, the North Central Conference, is on the verge of losing it's certification as their membership declines to the NCAA minimum of 6 teams.

What does this mean? I'd have to think that the odds are that UNO will start leaning towards division 1. Belck even admits that the North Central Conference is on the verge of extinction, and the division 2 alternatives (Northern Sun and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) would likely result in either downsizing or elimination of some programs, such as wrestling, which has won three straight national titles in division 2.

I also think this discussion and debate will move away from public eye and the media spotlight, which is also a good thing. Casual sports fans may confuse the outrage over the decision with disinterest in Mav athletics. If anything is the case, just the opposite is the case. This decision really highlights the interest level in UNO athletics around town.

Boosters will still play a key role in this decision, as they will be expected to help fund new facilities. The Sapp Fieldhouse will likely be insufficient for UNO's basketball and volleyball programs. The baseball team continues to be a vagabond without a true home field. So a new arena would almost seem to be a requirement to be part of a UNO move to division 1.

Would this new arena also be the home for UNO hockey? Even Belck suggests that hockey could also find a new home, probably on the old Chili Greens property. I'm still not convinced that the Qwest Center is a bad fit for UNO hockey, though it is a little oversized for UNO's needs at this time. And even if UNO decides to build a new arena, it will likely take 4-5 years to design, raise funds, and build a new place.

In the meantime, one announcement Belck made Friday that hasn't gotten enough attention was the news that UNO was hiring someone to promote and market Mav hockey. Not that marketing is the whole answer (if that was the case, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights would be leading the AHL in attendance instead of leading the league in empty seats), but it will work to remind the average sports fan that UNO plays an exciting brand of hockey against some of the biggest names in college sports (Michigoon, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame). UNO may be returning a Hobey Baker candidate in Scott Parse, and is coming off an NCAA tournament appearance. If Creighton can build a buzz around their basketball program despite their smaller student and alumni base (not to mention developing fewer pro players than UNO), UNO can certainly build a buzz around their hockey program.

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