What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.
The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a signifcant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yer as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.
Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, wth one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feated at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at his most recent title defense, you knew that Crawford had made it.
I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjpy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.
I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for two years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film Nebraska, one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world lightweight boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the second time in five months. The 11,000-plus fans on hand Saturday night at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating a very tough challenger in Ray Beltran. Every time the pressing Beltran tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, the champ used his superior quikness and agility to turn the tables on Beltran with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing the attacking, thwarting the few rallies Beltran mounted and frustrating his foe at every turn. It was an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about Bud being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.
The main event turned into a love-in and as much love as the crowd gave to one of their own Bud gave it right back. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game.
Look for my new story about Bud in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. I’ll have something in a upcoming issue of The Reader as well. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at these links:
You can find excerpts of my many stories about Alexander Payne on my blog. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. You can preview the book at, www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga,
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Organizations serving at-risk kids come and go but few stay the course the way the CW Youth Resource Center, 1510 Cass Street, has since opening in 1978.
Founder-director Carl Washington hosts a Nov. 29 open house at CW from 4 to 8 p.m. to celebrate 35 years of structured youth activities.
His experience mentoring youth began a decade earlier, when he was like a big brother to his nephew Howard Stevenson. After Stevenson was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer in the wake of a 1968 civil disturbance in North Omaha, Washington was angry. A bully and street fighter at the time, he went to the old Swedish Auditorium boxing gym looking to release his rage.
“I went down there and picked on the first guy I thought maybe I should be able to beat up, a chubby kid by the name of Ron Stander.”
That’s Ron Stander, aka the Bluffs Butcher, who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in a 1972 title bout. But when Washington first laid eyes on him Stander was still a pudgy, no-name amateur.
“Everyone was paying attention to him. My thought was, Knock him off and then you can be the top guy. It didn’t work that way.”
After weeks pestering coaches to let him spar Stander, the exhibition was set. Washington was so confident he brought an entourage. He knew he’d miscalculated when he landed his best blows and Stander didn’t even blink. The first punch Washington absorbed was the hardest he’d even been hit. After a few more punishing shots he feigned injury to end the onslaught.
Washington wanted to quit the sport right then but Stander encouraged him. The two men became friends. While Stander went on to make boxing his career, Washington only fought a year. Well-schooled by the late trainer Leonard “Hawk” Hawkins, Washington saw his true calling not as a fighter but as a coach. He believed boxing could give kids a safe activity in place of running the streets.
He first tried forming the gym in 1971 but it didn’t take. Seven years later he gave it another go, this time with help from two mentors. A lifelong inner city resident, Washington daily saw unsupervised kids getting into mischief and brawls, hungry for structure, and he felt he could give them the healthy alternative they needed.
“A group of kids I ran across were fighting and I broke it up and took them downstairs to my basement and started working with them. We took two of them to a boxing show at the National Guard Armory and they both won trophies. We put the trophies up on the mantel and the other kids wanted to win trophies, too. So, it grew from there.”
He’d have two dozen youths training in his basement at one time with another similar-sized group out on a long run before they took their turn hitting the bags.
CW took the local amateur boxing scene by storm, winning hundreds of individual and team trophies at smokers and the Midwest Golden Gloves.
“A couple years we won every weight division,” he says of the Gloves.
Washington ran a tight ship. “I instilled discipline. Our guys had to walk the line.”
He bemoans the lax standards commonplace today.
“I see a lack of respect for one another from a lot of kids, a lot of people, Respect is not on the table like it used to be. Respect is an art we should be going back to. I think a lot of that is lost. When all those factors are gone that’s why there’s so much chaos.”
He insists boxing’s a useful tool for instilling values.
“Out of a hundred kids probably one of them might box and go all the way to the Gloves and do all he’s supposed to do in boxing. But for the rest of them it might open the door for them to get into wrestling, football, basketball and other sports. We can give them that discipline.”
He says that discipline carries over to school, work and family life.
The kids he started with are now parents and send their kids to him.
Reaching kids takes patience and instinct. “I have a feel for when I meet a kid exactly what the kid really wants – if he wants to box or to get in shape or if he’s down here because his mother needs a baby sitter. Sometimes they may have aspirations of becoming a champion.”
Terence “Bud” Crawford is a once in a lifetime phenom who came up through the CW ranks and now is on the verge of fighting for the world lightweight title. He remains loyal to the CW, where he still trains under the man who got him started there, Midge Minor, and is managed by another CW alum, Brian McIntyre.
In its early years CW was a predominantly African American gym. Its fighters weren’t always well received.
“We ran into a lot of negativity in the beginning. Some cities we boxed in weren’t too friendly. It seemed like the ones closest to Omaha were the unfriendliest,” says Washington. He recalls that before a Wahoo, Neb. boxing show his fighters got debris and racial slurs hurled at them. They silenced the crowd with excellence.
“A lot of parents with me wanted us to leave and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to leave.’ We parked the cars going toward the street just in case we had to get out of there in a hurry. I said, ‘We’re going to go back in there, box, and act like gentlemen and we’re not going to respond to the crowd. We had 16 bouts that day and we won all 16.”
Boxing hasn’t been the only avenue for youth to explore at CW, which moved from his basement to the Fontenelle Park pavilion to south downtown to its current spot in the early 1990s. CW once featured recording studios and a dance floor to feed the rap and breakdance demand. Washington organized talent showcases and concerts highlighting the club’s many homegrown performing artists
“We were involved in a little bit of everything. We were doing anything we thought could reach kids.”
He says he put on the first gang reconciliation concert back in the mid-1980s when he was doing gang prevention-intervention work before it had a name.
He cobbled together support from grants, donations, fundraisers and raffle sales.
“We had to jump over a lot of hurdles in the beginning. What really built the club was raffle tickets. We were out on the corners and kids sold raffle tickets. I was able to do the (initial) restoration here through the raffle sales.”
At the boxing gym’s peak, he says, “We were going all over the country with kids in the car to boxing shows and coming back with a lot of trophies.” But he feels CW was never fully embraced by its hometown, where fans booed the club’s fighters when the national Golden Gloves were fought here. Boxing’s also lost kids to martial arts and other activities.
Looking back, he says he’s proudest of just “being able to survive,” adding, “We’ve been pretty blessed.”
Though CW doesn’t have as many competitive boxers as it once did, he’s seeing more kids come as a result of Bud Crawford’s success. He scaled down the club’s entertainment facets after frictions surfaced between performers. He stopped holding concerts after a drive-by shooting outside the club. He recently formed a hoops program as a new outlet .
One thing that hasn’t changed, he says, is “I open my doors to everybody and I never charge a membership fee.”
For more information about the CW’s programs, call 402-671-8477.
- The kid with the Golden Gloves (wafb.com)
This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.
Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith
Requiem for a Dynasty:
Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in the New Horizons
The For Sale sign spoke volumes.
Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.
The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.
On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.
But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.
Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.
“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”
UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship
A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.
Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”
Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.
Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.
The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”
Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”
Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.
Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.
An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.
Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.
Denney and Dustin Tovar
USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”
“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.
“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”
The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.
“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”
Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.
Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.
“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”
Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.
“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”
Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.
For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.
“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”
A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.
He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.
With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.
Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.
He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.
“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”
“We were a positive force…”
With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.
“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”
Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.
Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.
“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”
In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.
“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.
Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”
“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.
Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.
“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”
Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him — wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”
There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.
Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.
“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”
That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.
Denney keeping things positive
What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.
“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”
Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.
Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.
“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”
Just like he taught them.
“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.
“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”
On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.
“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”
“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”
His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.'” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.
“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”
In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.
“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”
Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.
“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”
But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.
Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.
Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star
Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.
“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”
Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.
Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.
It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.
One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.'” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.
Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?'”
The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.
“I was like, ‘Really?'”
The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.
“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”
“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”
The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.
It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.
“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”
After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.
“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”
In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.
Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.
“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”
Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.
“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.
For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.
Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.
“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”
Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.
“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”
Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way
Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.
“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”
Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.
“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”
And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”
“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.'”
Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.
“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.
“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”
His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.
“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.
The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.
“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.
“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”
After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads the Maryville Saints wrestling program
Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.
Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.
Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.
“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”
While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.
Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.
In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”
Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.
Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.
He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.
“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”
Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”
Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.
“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”
- Former UNI wrestler has Olympic goals after prison (thegazette.com)
- Two high school wrestlers post bond, released in sex assault (ajc.com)
- World medalist wrestler dies at age 36 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Wrestling Futures (deegeesbb.wordpress.com)
- Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness) (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero
I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.
It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.
When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.
The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.
He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.
In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.
His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.
With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.
Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.
“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”
Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”
Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.
Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.
“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”
She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”
Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.
Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”
Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.
El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Review: “21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
- Graphic biography of Puerto Rican Baseball great Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
Filmmaker Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, Makes Lucha Libre a Way of Life and a Favorite Film Subject
When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films. Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him. The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it. I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.
Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.
“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”
His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.
Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.
He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.
“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.
Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.
“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.
“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”
Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.
“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”
Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.
“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”
Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.
“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.
“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”
The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”
Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.
“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”
In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider. “It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.
“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.
He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.
Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.
“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”
Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.
Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”
Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.
“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”
Authenticity is his goal.
“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”
As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”
Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.
- WWE News: Has Mexican Lucha Libre Star Averno Signed with the WWE? (bleacherreport.com)
- Lucha Future Mexican wrestlers storm The Roundhouse (vidalondon.net)
- Behind the mask – lucha libre wrestlers tap into Kitsap (pnwlocalnews.com)
- Offbeat Wrestlers Celebrate Cinco De Mayo ‘Lucha Libre’ Style (weirdnews.aol.com)
My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is not known for making waves in college athletics. The school competes at the Division II level in all its athletic programs, except one — ice hockey. UNO’s D-I hockey program is about 15 years young now and while it’s enjoyed a smattering of success it’s been a long way from being a championship threat. Perception and reality changed in 2009 with the hiring of Dean Blais as head coach. He’s a living legend in the game and his team has already done enough a little more than half way through his second year on the job to have fans and alums like me thinking this could be the start of something big that puts UNO on the map. I recently interviewed Blais for the New Horizons story that follows. While UNO may still be a year or two or more away from competing for a WCHA or national title, UNO hockey is increasingly in the conversation as a tough draw and potential contender. If UNO can keep Blais through the run of his contract in 2014-15, then my old school might finally have the breakthrough success in a major team spectator sport that it’s always dreamed of having. Yes, UNO has a powerhouse wrestling program, but it’s a D-II program and decidedly off the general public’s and national media’s radar. Hockey doesn’t have the broad appeal of football, basketball, or baseball, but when UNO can beat the best of the best in college hockey, as it’s already done this season in defeating Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, then you’ve done something.
UPDATE: After a mid-season slump the UNO hockey team has rebounded with a late season surge that’s included a second series split with North Dakota, this time in Grand Forks, where Dean Blais coached all those years, and more recently a sweep of Top Ten power Wisconsin in Omaha. Along the way Blais earned his 300th career college victory and UNO, which had risen to a Top Ten ranking early in the year before sliding down the polls, saw its stock boosted back to No. 12 in one poll and No. 13 in another. More and more observers are feeling this UNO team has what it takes to be a significant factor in the postseason.
Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in the New Horizons (http://www.enoa.org/)
When UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts named Dean Blais the school’s new hockey coach in 2009, it marked a rededicated commitment to a still young program with big dreams.
It was the kind of marquee hire one doesn’t expect from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. What makes Blais marquee material? As a coach, he’s achieved success at every level of the sport — from high school to college to the junior national ranks to the Olympics — all the way to the National Hockey League.
His longest D-I stint was at the University of North Dakota, an elite hockey school where he was an assistant for nine years and head coach for 10, twice leading the Fighting Sioux to national titles and twice winning national coach of the year honors.
To put it in perspective, his coming to UNO would be akin to Roy Williams taking over an upstart basketball program or Bobby Bowden being tabbed to lead the South Florida football program.
The move suddenly made UNO, whose program only dates back to 1997, something more than a potential contender on the hockey landscape. UNO must now be taken seriously, if for no other reason than it went out and got a coach who’s proven he can deliver the goods by recruiting and developing talent that produces all-conference, all-American performers and championship trophies. Dozens of his players have gone on to play professionally.
Even though UNO’s yet to even sniff a conference title, it’s not like Blais walked into a shambles. After a rough couple years, UNO acquitted itself well from 2000 to 2005 before plateauing in 2007 and 2008. There was grumbling the program had run out of steam even though attendance remained steady and the team managed being competitive most nights.
Still, an impending change was in the wind. Hockey revenue was down and UNO long ago fixed its financial wagon to its lone D-I program. As hockey goes, so does Maverick athletics. Alberts put it succinctly:
“Success in hockey in non-negotiable. Creating and sustaining profitability in hockey is a mandate we will hold ourselves accountable to.”
Not long after Alberts arrived as AD Mike Kemp, who founded the program and served as its only head coach for 12 years, stepped aside to be associate athletic director. He recommended as his successor Blais, an old friend then coaching the Fargo Force, a United States Hockey League team. Kemp and Blais knew each other as assistant coaches with the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Dakota, respectively.
“His ability, background and history made him an incredible fit for our program,” Kemp said. “He brings championship experience, attitude and focus that will help propel and direct our program to the next level.”
Because they go back a ways, there’s been no feeling-out process necessary.
“We know each other, we respect each other, and we’ll do whatever it takes to help each other work toward the same common goal,” said Kemp. “It’s one thing to get a program up and going, it’s another to make the next step to national prominence. I think every year we inch closer. My job is to help give Dean the resources he needs in order to be successful.”
News of the Blais hire reenergized UNO hockey fans.
“I truly believe the hiring of Dean Blais signaled a dramatic shift in our approach to excellence,” said Alberts. “With Dean Blais on board, I believe we sent a very strong message about our commitment to hockey…”
Blais’ first year on the job was UNO’s last in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The team finished in the upper division of a league with perennial powers like Michigan. Under Blais UNO recorded only the third 20-win season in program history at 20-16-6, finishing an impressive 8-3-1 down the stretch.
In the off-season UNO joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, D-I’s premier league and one Blais both played and coached in. UNO’s baptism of fire in the WCHA this season saw its young squad, including a highly touted freshmen class, become the talk of college hockey by sweeping an early road series against heavyweight Minnesota and then taking one of two games at Michigan.
Getting that first WCHA victory at his alma mater, Minnesota, Blais said, was “pretty special,” adding, “It was huge to go in there and win.”
He liked that UNO made an impression on Gopher followers.
“They said our team plays like a bunch of piranhas, can you imagine that? Hungry, fast, tenacious, ferocious. We were proud of them.”
It’s his brand of hockey alright.
“We do everything at top speed, but to do the shooting and the passing and the stick handling at top speed takes a long time to get good at. That’s my thing. Anyone can play hockey at a slow down pace. To play at our level of speed takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of conditioning.”
Then he said something that revealed how he expects, no, demands his team play the fast and furious style he coaches:
“When they don’t play that well then I can get a little nasty.”
He said the relentless, fluid approach is a reflection of how he played the game.
“My feeling is the less restrictions you have the more they improve. The best discipline is self discipline. But I want to give them freedom to improve, and the only way you can improve at times is with your decision making. Do I go in and forecheck or do I just play my position? You can have rules and say you can’t go beyond certain spots on the rink, and that’s coaching, but the more freedom you give the more accountable they are.
“It’s totally against some coaches’ philosophies. Some guys will tell you you’ve got to be this, this and this, like in football. We don’t have that much structure in hockey. We have it during practice. Once they play in games we (coaches) could be drinking coffee and eating popcorn on the bench at times because there’s not a lot we can do. Now, if a player isn’t playing you’ve got to recognize that and warn ‘em or sit ‘em.”
Don’t assume his practices are loose. He and his staff put in many hours preparing and organizing to ensure the team gets the most out of the high energy sessions. From the opening puck drop in November, the Mavs have flown around the ice. An 8-1-1 start this season landed UNO in the Top 5, its highest ranking ever.
‘The guys came in this summer, worked hard, they went to school and they got some of their classes out of the way. They bonded quicker than I thought,” he said.
While the team slowed after that torrid first month, going 4-7-1 in its next 12 games, UNO enters the last third of the season well up in the conference standings and positioned to qualify for the postseason.
The success has only confirmed Blais was no ordinary hire. Indeed, he’s a legend in amateur hockey circles. His pedigree, almost unmatched. From an early age he knew he was destined to play, teach and coach the game he loved.
He grew up with the proverbial stick in his hand in hockey crazy International Falls, Minn. He and his wife frequent a lake cabin there in the summer. He played for top youth coaches and for the iconic Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota, where Blais was a standout. His seasoning continued in the professional ranks with the Chicago Blackhawks developmental team in Dallas, Texas.
Then came his assorted coaching stops and championships. His latest title actually came during his first year at UNO, when as U.S. Junior National coach he took a mid-season break from his Maverick duties to lead the American team to a gold medal-winning upset over host Team Canada in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
That victory was so monumental and Blais is so respected in those hockey-obsessed northern reaches that, he said, “every kid in Canada watched that game when we beat ‘em for only the second gold medal in 35 years for the U.S., and when I walked through the Saskatoon airport at 7 in the morning there were a hundred Canadians there that shook my hand.”
That’s right, Blais is a rock star among hockey coaches, When announced as UNO’s coach some wondered why a man pushing 60 who’s been to the game’s pinnacle would want to try and get a mediocre program to that same mountaintop.
“I believe Dean is a man that enjoys challenges and is willing to invest the time and energy to bring our dream to fruition,” said Alberts. “Dean’s legacy in college hockey is secure, I’ve challenged him to create a new legacy of building a championship caliber program on the national level that is sustainable.”
“Trev (Alberts) was a big reason I came here,” Blais said from behind his desk in the UNO athletic offices. “I think he’s just done an outstanding job. He’s given us all the resources we need to be successful. He gives us a lot of support daily. He makes it fun to come to work every day.
“He’s a big time guy. I just hope they can hold him as long as I’m here.”
Even though UNO’s never come close to the Frozen Four (college hockey’s equivalent of basketball’s Final Four), Blais saw a program with essential pieces already in place: a charismatic and supportive boss in Alberts; strong university backing; a rabid fan base; and the presence of Mike Kemp, who provides institutional history and a rich hockey background in addition to having established a solid foundation for Blais to build on.
Blais said he’s benefiting from the hockey culture Kemp put in place.
“Everything was done the right way with Mike. I didn’t have to change the culture. It was a pretty well run machine when we got here. He’s got a good hockey mind and a good common sense mind.”
Having an athletic administrator in Kemp who’s a hockey guy makes Blais sleep better.
“He’s looking out for hockey. All the detail stuff at the Qwest, the politics of some of that, Mike deals with, all the behind the scenes stuff with scheduling that takes time and effort, Mike takes care of, so he’s meant a lot to me in the transition. I haven’t had to slug it out with all of that. This is the kind of stuff I hate right here,” Blais said, slapping his palm down on a desk full of paperwork.
In assistants Mike Guentzel and Mike Hastings he has experienced help with strong Omaha ties. Guentzel coached the Omaha Lancers to back to back Clark Cup titles and later worked as an assistant at Minnesota. Hastings succeeded Guentzel with the Lancers and became the winningest coach in USHL history.
UNO hockey seemingly has everything in place to be a force to be reckoned with. Except a decided home ice advantage. It’s no secret UNO, whose home matches are at Qwest Center Omaha, is beating the bushes to elicit support for construction of a South Campus arena designed specifically for hockey.
“That’s the only thing we need here — we need an arena on campus,” said Blais.
While he concedes UNO draws exceedingly well — “fourth in the country in attendance tells me we have the hockey fans in Omaha” — the Qwest is a multi-purpose facility shared with Creighton and other users. That means scheduling conflicts sometimes compel UNO to practice at the Civic Auditorium or the Motto McLean Ice Arena. UNO must also share revenues with the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority (MECA), which operates the Qwest.
“You talk about an arena on campus you own and all the marketing and concessions and everything else — people tell you it’s $3 or $4 million a year in revenue. Down at the Qwest we don’t get all that revenue, so it’s hard to treat hockey as number one.”
As nice as the Qwest is, it’s too large for the fan base. Even when the Mavs draw their average turnout of 7,500 or 8,000 the cavernous venue is only half full, thus negating the edge a jam-packed intimate space affords. The goal is to make UNO hockey a hard ticket to get.
Then there’s the fact it’s a 10-15 minute drive from UNO, which requires players travel back and forth.
Blais doesn’t want to come off like sour grapes. He actually appreciates having the Qwest — for the time being anyway.
“Now the Qwest is working, our recruiting is working,” he said.
It’s just that he’s been spoiled by the ultimate hockey palace — the Ralph Engelstad Ice Arena at North Dakota, a luxurious $100 million hockey-only facility. A modest version of it is his dream for UNO.
He feels UNO hockey deserves “its due.” He knows it will always play second or third fiddle to Nebraska football and Creighton hoops. He doesn’t begrudge them their support. But he also sees NU can find donors for a planned $50 million Memorial Stadium expansion without batting an eye. He hopes just as Husker boosters are committed to returning NU to elite football status Mav supporters are prepared to put their resources behind making UNO hockey an elite program.
“If we’re going to have the best hockey program in the country we need the best commitment out of this community of Omaha and the whole university. Now, we don’t have to be the king here. I know Lincoln’s football program is the king, but UNO has to be committed as other WCHA schools, and part of it is an arena.”
So how sure does Blais feel UNO will secure the dollars for its own arena?
“I think it’s going to be pretty much a done deal,” he said. “Timeline, I have no clue, and funding, no clue. When money seems to be no object out of the other bench, they’ve got to find a way, and Trev Alberts will deliver and (UNO chancellor) John Christensen will deliver. But it’s not this year. By the time I leave here hopefully there’s a new arena here on campus.”
Last year Blais signed a contract extension to coach UNO through 2014-15.
Some observers speculate Blais is not long for UNO — that it will be hard-pressed keeping him if a Minnesota or another big-time hockey school offers the moon.
“I certainly hope that Dean concludes his coaching career here in Omaha,” said Alberts. “It’s my job to live up to the promises that I made to him and create and maintain an environment that is comfortable.”
For his part Blais betrays no hint he’s itching to leave. Rather he sounds like a man wanting to take UNO to the summit and feeling he has the goods to get there.
“We’ve got I think the most outstanding recruiting class in NCAA hockey this year,” he said.
He’s confident UNO can compete with Michigan and Minnesota for the best talent.
“We’re getting our kids. Are we there yet? Not yet, but I would say the freshmen this year feel they have a better chance of getting into the NHL right here than anywhere else.”
He likes the character of his kids too, saying that flight attendants, bus drivers, waitresses and event staff remark how well his players conduct themselves.
“Everything is please and thank you. Their average grade point average is over 3.0. These student-athletes are going on to be big-time something. It’s about more than wins and losses. Now believe me, they’ll compete, and we’ll train ‘em to win, but they’re being trained for the future.”
More than half his freshmen were captains last year on their high school teams.
“Leadership is huge. Leadership starts at the top. As coaches, we’ve got to conduct ourselves right. You wont hear us swearing.”
Speaking of leadership, there is a bit of every coach he’s worked under in him. He’s grateful to have been influenced by some of the game’s greats.
“Well, I’ve been blessed,” he said.
His first mentor was legendary International Falls High School coach Larry Ross. Then Blais came under the wing of Glenn Sonmor and Herb Brooks at Minnesota. He said Sonmor “taught me to have fun every day coming to the rink.”
Brooks, the enigmatic coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle On Ice team was hard to know but he produced unquestioned results.
“He’d love you to death when you moved on, but to play for him he was tough. Herbie did not have any friends in hockey. But as far as a coach there’s none better.”
Blais played for college and pro coaching guru Bob Johnson on the U.S. national team and for the respected Bobby Kromm, a one-time NHL coach of the year.
Then there was UND’s Gino Gasparini, whom he said “taught me how to coach up at North Dakota,” where he was Gasparini’s assistant before succeeding him.
All these coaches are inducted in various halls of fame. Blais is right there with them. Only he’s still coaching. At 60, his players are young enough to be his grandchildren. Does he have trouble relating to this generation?
“They probably think I’m nuts anyway,” he quipped. “I don’t treat my players any different now than I did 20 years ago. The bottom line for them is they want to win. They’ll do anything within reason to win, just like kids 20 years ago. I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”
Blais appears satisfied. But things can change. They did at North Dakota. He seemed content there but when the program’s biggest booster, Ralph Engelstad, passed, “things weren’t the same there,” said Blais. Rather than be unhappy, he moved on.
He left to pursue a long-held dream — the NHL, serving as associate head coach and director of player development with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s glad he tried it, but it didn’t fulfill him the way working with high school and college kids does. It’s why he returned to the junior ranks before UNO came calling. It’s why he feels at home at UNO.
“Here practices are for preparing kids to get better and get to the next level. In these kids you can see dramatic improvement, you can see their skills develop. That’s what I like. I like going on the ice every day. They know they’re going to develop. It’s a given.”
When UNO broke out of the gate with its dynamic start this season fans and media wondered if this was the year the program would truly break out and claim its place among the juggernauts. Not so fast, said Blais, who better than anyone else knows just how steep a climb it is to college hockey nirvana. He’s been there and back, but with programs much older and steeped in tradition than UNO. It takes time to build a championship club and UNO is still in the growing pains stage.
Jumping to conclusions that this UNO team is Frozen Four worthy right now, he warns, is premature. He sounds every bit the wizened hockey sage when he lays out just how daunting the task is:
“Well, to say we’re competing for a national title, we’re absolutely not, get real.
Michigan Tech hasn’t won a WCHA or national title in 30 years. St. Cloud’s never won the WCHA. Duluth has never won a national title. Colorado College, it’s been 40-50 years. Alaska has never won a WCHA title. Mankato’s never won the WCHA.
“Right away there’s six teams that have never won a WCHA title. Could Omaha? Yep. Is it this year? We’ll see.”
As far as being an elite program, he said, “we’re not there yet. The other thing is, we’ve got to be patient — we’ve only had hockey for 14 years.”
Then again, he saw something in that great start that told him UNO’s ahead of schedule. He knows people are watching now to see if they’re just a one-month wonder or a team to be reckoned with.
Assistant Mike Guentzel echoes Blais by saying the program is moving in the right direction. They remind observers UNO is competing in the toughest conference in the country and more than holding its own.
Dean Blais won’t accept anything less.
- Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- DU hockey freshman Zucker more than lives up to billing (denverpost.com)
- Cox: Mediocre won’t cut it for Team Canada against U.S. (thestar.com)
- NU regents OK UNO’s move to NCAA Division I (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Big 10 ADs propose men’s hockey for 2013-14 season (sfgate.com)
- National Collegiate Hockey Conference is new home for DU, Colorado College (denverpost.com)
Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality
THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program. As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs. It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the character built, the incredibly strong and tight family bonds built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country. Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents? My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved. Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public. It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty. That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.
Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract. By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory. It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.
NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process. As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t. Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football. I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years. Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard . UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city. But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level. UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages. UNO wrestling is a whole different story. It has been an elite program for more than 40 years. It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years. No, it’snot a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period. The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it: UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents. It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.
Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and in the city’s and in the nation’s history. The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves. Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out. So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year. It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.
UPDATE: Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements. And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling. Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates. Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red. But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities. But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved? I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program. For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my stories on this blog about Don Benning and about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of the update I misidentified the new conference UNO is looking to join as the Horizon League, when it is in fact the Summit League. My bad. I was in too much of a hurry posting the update and failed to check the league name.
ANOTHER UPDATE: It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded. Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs. Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it? UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders. The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.
Like most Nebraska football fans I watched Trev Alberts play on some very good Husker teams in the early 1990s without ever seeing him in person, by seeing him play on television. I’ve been a Big Red fan since just before the dawn of my teens but I’ve only attended a couple games at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in all that time. So, my relationship with Alberts remained a virtual one until I interviewed him for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader,com). Alberts was a high draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts but repeated injuries cut short his NFL career before he could ever really establish himself. Then, the telegenic Alberts embarked on a successful career as an on-air college football analyst with ESPN. He left the network in a dispute that received a fair amount of attention. The, totally unexpected, he wound up as athletic director at Division II University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he’s in his second year on the job trying to right what had becomes a wayward department. Although some have speculated he took the post as a way to season and position himself for eventually replacing his old coach, Tom Osborne, as NU athletic director, an assertion by the way that both Alberts and Osborne deny, he seems genuinely satisfied to be doing a very unglamorous job at a very unglamorous institution. But as he reveals in my story, he is all about work ethic, seeing a job through, and teamwork, which I believe will keep him at UNO for the foreseeable future, not that I would rule out him one day moving over to NU.
Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
UNO athletics has always been the overlooked step-child on the area sports scene.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha is still primarily a commuter school, making athletics a hard sell to students and alums. Most have a distant relationship with UNO, whose athletic success rarely translates into fans in the stands save for Maverick hockey, a few football games and a couple wrestling meets.
Things got tenuous four years ago amid revelations the school hushed up athletic budget shortfalls and secretly funneled general university funds to make up the difference. Then-chancellor Nancy Belck came under fire for loose department oversight. The cash cow UNO’s tied its wagon to, Division I hockey, sputtered.
UNO quickly went through three athletic directors. The budget and staff absorbed cuts. Some major boosters criticized school leaders and pulled support. Things stabilized when John Christensen became chancellor in 2007. His April 2009 hiring of Trev Alberts, the former University of Nebraska football All-American (1990-93), Indianapolis Colt and ESPN analyst, turned heads. Getting the chiseled, charismatic Alberts was a bold, outside-the-box move to pump life, credibility and pizazz into a floundering, faceless enterprise.
Some questioned Alberts’ lack of sports administration experience. Not Christensen.
“I wasn’t looking for an administrator, I was looking for a leader, and those are very different things,” said Christensen.
The two have big plans for UNO, including new campus facilities for baseball, softball, soccer and hockey. There’s talk of one day going D-I across the board. UNO is being touted as “Omaha’s Team.” By all accounts, confidence is restored in the department. Alberts’ hiring last year of iconic Dean Blais as hockey coach signaled a sea change in how UNO brands itself. The pretender’s now the contender.
Alberts set the tone at the press conference introducing him as AD, saying, “I believe the potential for UNO’s athletic programs is unlimited.” He hasn’t backed off on that. He sent a message with the Blais hire.
“We wanted to make a statement we weren’t going to mess around anymore, we were going to get into the arena competition and we were going to win and we were going to win the right way. I have never been a part of anything that didn’t attempt to do excellence.”
The rub is that while UNO’s located in a much larger metro than most D-II competitors, it must contend with many more divided loyalties and attractions than, say, a Northwest Missouri State, which is the only game in town in Maryville, Mo.
Husker mania looms large here. Creighton athletic programs are fan favorites. The College of St. Mary, Bellevue College and Iowa Western Community College have their followings. High school athletic contests regularly outdraw UNO’s. The Royals, the Beef, the Lancers, and now the Nighthawks, have committed fan bases, too.
Still, UNO is convinced it can capture more fans and revenue through upgrades, a must anyway if the school’s to ever seriously entertain going D-I, said Christensen.
“Right now, are we Omaha’s team? No, not the way we’re currently structured,” said Alberts. “No, not when you ask your baseball fans to drive to Boys Town to watch a game, you drive your softball fans to Westgate, you drive your hockey fans to the Qwest (Center). Think about it, we’ve been doing everything we could to make it extraordinarily difficult and inconvenient to support UNO athletics. You’re supposed to bring people to your campus.
“Imagine if we had facilities that were convenient, that met market expectations and were on or near the UNO campus.”
Alberts can sound like a pitchman, and that ability to spin things, to charm, to energize, to win hearts and minds, is why supporters like David Sokol are back in the fold. For Alberts, though, the heavy lifting’s just begun.
“We’re still a burden on campus until we’re able to realize that revenue from hockey. Do we have the kind of players, coaches, teams representative of what the market demands? We’re getting closer. I mean, it’s about winning. You gotta win, you gotta win consistently. The moniker ‘Omaha’s Team’ is really a reminder to our staff and coaches of what we aspire to become.”
Alberts said UNO must meet “market expectations of excellence of Lincoln and Creighton and the College World Series.” In some respects, he said, UNO’s done so by winning 11 national championships, adding that feedback from the community, however, indicates UNO’s fallen short in most ways.
Then there’s the awkwardness of dual NCAA membership. Yes, UNO has a D-I hockey program, but it’s a D-II, school, making for a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario.
“At strictly Division II schools, their (athletic) budgets are about three-and-a half to four million. Our budget’s approaching nine million with one Division I sport. When you have dual membership one of two things happens: you either treat all of your programs like their Division II, which is problematic to NCAA compliance. or you end up running your whole department like you’re Division I. That’s equally dangerous, because now in our budget we have all the support units of a Division I department and our Division II programs are benefitting from it.
“We’ve got strength and conditioning staff, compliance staff, three full time sports information staffers, a marketing department — you don’t need a marketing department when you’re Division II. We have a ticketing office. A five-person athletic medicine staff I’ll put up against anybody. The point is, we’re a Division I athletic department whether we like it or not, but we compete at the Division II level. It’s naturally divisive. That’s why the NCAA views dual memberships as problematic.
“That’s why Dean Blais was so important. His personality, his humility — he doesn’t walk around here like…He’s just a Midwestern guy, he’s one of us. Now, he has expectations, don’t get me wrong.”
If other UNO coaches are upset by hockey’s anointed status, Alberts said they haven’t said so. Regardless, there’s no turning back.
“We’ve tried hard to communicate from the day I took the job that that’s the way it’s going to be. You can be frustrated, but if hockey is not successful, we are not successful.”
For now, he said UNO must balance the trappings of its lone D-I sport with the low corporate sponsorships and game guarantees of a D-II school.
“We simply didn’t have the ability and maybe still don’t to deliver the product this market demands, and that’s why this job’s so hard,” he said.
Much of his job is creating a culture of integrity that’s about “making the right decision, not the convenient one.” It’s why he and Christensen talk regularly and why Alberts seeks counsel from his old coach/mentor, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. He also keeps former UNO athletic director Don Leahy close by as advisor and watchdog.
“It’s transparency,” Alberts said. “You know, Nebraskans are a common sense group. Trying to fool people is simply not going to work. First of all you have to be honest with yourself, understand your limitations, your strengths, and show enough humility to welcome the input of others. The first thing we had to do was create a belief. A lot of our coaches have been promised things for years. I would never promise somebody something I couldn’t actually keep.”
He’s impressed by “the passion for this place” that’s kept several veteran coaches and staff members at UNO when they could have bolted for other opportunities. He feels UNO athletics is poised for growth despite a tough economy and NU system-wide cuts.
“We’ve never been in a more difficult position than we’re currently in. What’s encouraging to me is a lot of our problems are self-inflicted and they’re solvable, and we’re committed to finding solutions.”
- A Former Division II Doormat Has Taken Some Big Steps Up (nytimes.com)
- Penn State Starting A Division I Hockey Program (huffingtonpost.com)
- Howard, Morehouse may renew football rivalry (washingtonpost.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- College Hockey’s Seismic Shift Begins Today in Colorado Springs (pikespeaklife.wordpress.com)