UNO athletic director Trev Alberts spoke at the Omaha Press Club over the noon hour today, and I had the opportunity to sit in. As you might expect, Alberts was a polished speaker and gave an impressive speech. That's to be expected after his years on CNN, ESPN, and CBS College Sports. The real question with Alberts is whether he can fundamentally change UNO athletics for the better, or is he all talk.
As moderator Gary Kerr pointed out in his introduction, Alberts silenced much of his critics when he hired Dean Blais to take over as UNO hockey coach, then negotiated a deal to move UNO to the WCHA. Now with those changes in place, what's next for UNO athletics? Trev answered those questions, but with a focus away from the game. To put it concisely, he's bringing "the Nebraska Way" to UNO.
For all of the administrative problems at UNO, UNO's athletic department has been extremely successful both on the field and in the classroom. Alberts noted that UNO won an award from the MIAA conference for the greatest improvement in GPA between athletes and the rest of the student body. It's a story Alberts wants to promote, because he sees a real chance to point out the value of UNO athletics to the community, the university, and to the families of prospective student-athletes.
Alberts sees UNO's athletes in training to become tomorrow's leaders. He points out UNO's successes with the Peter Kiewit Institute, and says that being located in Omaha can be a huge selling point in convincing students to come to UNO. Yes, Omaha is an advantage, if you are looking at positioning yourself for a career in business (five Fortune 500 companies located here) or technology through making connections or internships...and that's an advantage a lot of other schools can't provide. Alberts is making a point that UNO is going to recruit the parents of prospective student-athletes. (Taking a play from the Nebraska playbook.)
So what is Trev Alberts view of the future of UNO athletics? He says he doesn't have the answers yet, but they are starting to come into focus, and if you read between the lines...you can see the future as well. Alberts points out that while Omahans don't expect you to win every game, they want you to show that you are on the path towards improvement. That explains the criticism Mike Kemp has received in recent years; it explains the criticism of Frank Solich in 2002 and 2003. It also explains why Husker fans claimed "Nebraska is coming back" in 2006 and early 2007 before the Bill Callahan/Steve Pederson fraud was exposed. (And why some Husker football fans are making that claim once again after a nice rebound season in 2008.)
Alberts says you are either progressing or regressing, and Omahans want to support a program that is progressing. The problem facing UNO is that division 2 seems to be headed the other direction; sports and scholarships are being cut to help meet increasing budgetary concerns. That situation has led many former NCC conference members to jump to division 1 in recent years, and by reading between the lines, Alberts indicated that's probably the eventual home for UNO.
In recent weeks, talk of a UNO arena had heated up, but Alberts gave no indication that this is still a priority. Alberts seems to be focusing on making the Qwest Center work for two reasons: (1) UNO has mismanaged their agreement with the Qwest Center and (2) with the hiring of Dean Blais, there's no point in downsizing the home for UNO hockey. Both Dean Blais and Alberts talk of drawing 13,000 or more to the Qwest Center for UNO hockey, which likely would make the need for a UNO hockey arena prohibitively expensive to build.
So how does UNO draw 13,000 for hockey? Well, it starts with winning, and the expectation that Dean Blais is going to do that. But that's not sufficient by itself. UNO is launching the "UNO Road Show", where UNO coaches will meet with the public around town, such as at the Cox Classic next weekend, plus stops in Fremont and Columbus. UNO hockey broadcasts are moving to KVNO-90.3 FM to increase the reach of the broadcasts, but will continue to work with the rest of the media outlets in this town. UNO has been featured in recent week's on KMTV's Sports Soundoff, and 1620 the Zone will be broadcasting from a couple of the Omaha "Road Show" events. But that's not it. Alberts indicated that he's talking to KETV-Channel 7 and Fox Sports Kansas City about expanded coverage, pointing to the success KMTV and Creighton have experienced with Bluejay basketball telecasts.
Can Trev Alberts deliver on the vision he's laying out for UNO? While Alberts has delivered some huge early successes, he makes it clear that this is a long term project, and that there is still much for UNO to do. But after listening to Trev Alberts speak for an hour today, my optimism over what Alberts and UNO is doing is even higher.