We're now only one year removed from the Nancy Belck era at UNO. Athletics under Belck seemed to be more of a necessary evil, something to be cut or exploited when it was useful to her administration. Now she's gone, and a new administration has taken hold at UNO. But does this new administration have a vision or a plan for UNO athletics? So far, we really haven't seen much of one.
It has more to do with what I think is a central issue at UNO: what does UNO want to be in athletics? There isn't a commitment or urgency to be a championship program at UNO. Mav Mojo has won national titles in several sports, but much of that has to do great coaches doing their things. I've always felt like UNO just wanted to have sports programs and the championships just happened because their coaches are that good. They don't get a lot of help from the administration.
The question since UNO started hockey in 1997 is what do they want to do with it? I don't think they've ever figured it out. I've always felt that Del Webber, Don Leahy and several boosters started this thing with big dreams, but once Del and Don left, the ones left holding the puck didn't know what to do with it.
Is UNO satisfied with the current state of athletics? Football is pretty good, finishing an undefeated regular season but losing once again at the start of the playoffs. Basketball is occasionally up but mostly down. Wrestling and baseball do very well nationally. And the flagship hockey program is usually in the upper half of the CCHA.
Is that all there is? Is that the best that UNO can do?
With the status quo, probably yes. The glass is certainly not empty, and from my perspective, UNO has filled it's cup. But after seeing a glimpse of what can happen when that cup gets filled (undefeated football season, hockey in the big skate), fans naturally want more. And that's going to require a bigger cup. Does UNO want a bigger cup?
But when you look around, there are signs that other programs don't have this same ceiling. Many of UNO's compatriots in the North Central Conference are going division 1. Fellow CCHA school Miami is #1 in college hockey. Why is it that UNO seems to be stuck somewhere that can be best described as mediocrity?
I'm not going to pretend that I know the answer. I don't think it's an easy question with a simple answer; it's probably an essay or at least multiple-choice answer. Let's look at the hockey program. What does UNO hockey have going for it? Very good attendance for college hockey, playing in one of the top conferences. An NHL caliber arena. They got off to good start, making it to the CCHA championship game in just the program's third year. Even made the NCAA tournament once.
UNO rode a rocket ship through their first ten years, but seems to have plateaued. This weekend, they got beaten at home by two bottom-feeding Ivy League schools. Some want to point the finger at head coach Mike Kemp, but there are numerous other issues that need to be addressed. UNO doesn't have a dedicated practice facility, and once again, they are being bumped from their home ice to accomodate the state wrestling tournament.
It's starting to become time for athletic director David Miller and chancellor John Christensen to come out and either accept or reject the current state of UNO athletics. Do they say, "we're happy to be in the middle of the pack", and be happy with what successes happen to occur? Or does UNO identify a plan to take the program to the next level?
UNO has serious facility issues. Half of the Sapp Fieldhouse's bleachers are out of commission, reducing capacity for basketball and wrestling. No practice ice. Baseball plays at high school fields all across the city. This is not a problem that can be piecemealed together and fixed as you go along. Fix one thing, and suddenly something else goes.
If UNO wants to go to the next level, they need to take a comprehensive look at everything and look at what needs to be done for the future. Facilities. Coaching. Fund raising. Everything. Supposedly the Karnes Comission did this last year, but nothing seems to have emerged from that other than jumping to the MIAA for most sports. Last year, the excuse was that there were interim people in charge, but now there are permanent leaders in place. That excuse doesn't fly.
So the question remains: What does UNO want from it's athletic department? Is it just whatever the current budget can afford? Or is there something more?