On Sunday, the University of Nebraska at Omaha decided to move to NCAA Division I and change conferences from the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association to the Summit League.
The decision would include eliminating its football and wrestling programs. Men’s soccer and golf teams would be added in their place to make Nebraska-Omaha’s athletic programs match up better with the Summit League.
According to the Associated Press, Nebraska-Omaha received the offer to join the Summit League on Friday.
The decision drew a lot of attention since Nebraska-Omaha’s wrestling program had won three consecutive and six of the last eight NCAA Division II national championships.
“It just shows you that no one is safe,” Fort Hays head wrestling coach Chas Thompson said. “No one is safe. It definitely makes you feel a little unsafe about your program — not necessarily my job — but just like the program being here.”
Money, Title IX compliance issues and the want to resemble the other Summit League schools were cited as reasons for the elimination of the programs.
This change has had a ripple effect across the conference, affecting every school.
If the MIAA doesn’t find a school to replace Nebraska-Omaha, there will be serious scheduling implications.
Starting in 2012, Lindenwood University, University of Central Oklahoma, Northeastern State University and University of Nebraska at Kearney were scheduled to join the conference to make the league 16 teams.
With Nebraska-Omaha leaving, the MIAA will be down to 15 schools in 2012, which is problematic for the league’s scheduling. The fall sports are particularly affected since their conference schedules were already finalized.
It was especially a problem in football since the season is only 11 games.
Nebraska-Omaha participated in the brainstorming process that resulted in a complicated, rotating pod schedule that involved the use of a rivalry team that a football team would face every year. With the league down to 15 teams, that scheduling is now impossible.
“You don’t want (a 15-team conference),” Fort Hays athletic director Curtis Hammeke said. “It is too problematic in too many sports.”
The MIAA can try to find a school to replace Nebraska-Omaha, but if the conference is unable to do that, Hammeke said the conference would have “to go back to the drawing board.”
Hammeke said the MIAA had a teleconference on Monday to discuss what happened, and the administrators and athletic directors would have another teleconference on Friday to discuss possible options.
“This is going to take some time,” Hammeke said.
Hammeke said he was both shocked and disappointed in the decision.
Hammeke said there was always talk of Nebraska-Omaha considering the move to Division I, but he said when Nebraska-Omaha’s representatives were approached about it, they would always say that the possible move was “‘off in the distance. That is part of our strategic plan down the road,’” Hammeke said they said.
Hammeke said he was dismayed that during the reformation of the schedules, Nebraska-Omaha never mentioned the possibility of a need for a contingency plan in case Nebraska-Omaha moved to Division I.
“I would feel the need to disclose more information to people if I was sitting around a table working on 16-team schedules for the next five or six years to remind people,” Hammeke said. “If I knew more than that, I would have a hard time not saying something.
“I would at least say, ‘Hey, you know for now we plan to be here for the foreseeable future, but maybe, we should work on some provisional scheduling just in case something would come up with us. I would hate to have all of us go through this and have us to be the one to pull the plug.’ They didn’t do anything like that.”
In football, Fort Hays was slated to play at Nebraska-Omaha on Oct. 22. However, Fort Hays was fortunate and found someone to fill it as long as the Kansas Board of Regents agrees to change.
While Hammeke was at the University of Central Oklahoma to support Fort Hays’ men’s basketball team at the NCAA Division II South Central regional tournament, Hammeke sat down with Central Oklahoma’s athletic director and spoke with him about the Nebraska-Omaha situation.
By sheer coincidence, Central Oklahoma also had an open date on Oct. 22, so at the moment, Hammeke said he plans to play Central Oklahoma on that date.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have that opportunity, because if it weren’t for that, it would have been nearly impossible,” Hammeke said.
Hammeke said Nebraska-Omaha has expressed an interest to still play some of its games in other sports, but he is unsure if that will actually happen or not.
“Your initial reaction is shock and maybe disappointment, and now, it is reality and now you immediately turn to what you can do about it,” Hammeke said.
Death of tradition
With Nebraska-Omaha’s football and wrestling programs ceasing, releases are being requested so other colleges can speak to members of the Mavericks’ rosters.
Thompson said Fort Hays wrestling is going to start looking into that until it is certain wrestling would no longer exist.
Right now, there is a movement on Nebraska-Omaha’s campus to save the programs, but the likelihood of success is slim, considering Nebraska-Omaha athletic director Trev Alberts said there weren’t any other options.
“It is like when there is a death in the family, and you are sitting there asking if you can get that TV,” Thompson said. “Everybody is trying to scramble to get what is left over. That is kind of the way it is. … I want to save that program first and foremost.”
When it becomes clear to Thompson that saving Nebraska-Omaha is impossible, then he said he would start talking to Maverick athletes.
“Right now, I’m doing my best to help Omaha get their program back, but from what I’ve been hearing, there is a very slim chance,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to be left out in the cold when all these other teams are probably jumping on it.”
Thompson said there are a group of athletes that he has already started looking at and is considering targeting if he begins to recruit their athletes.
“I’ve already looked,” Thompson said. “I know the handful of kids that I will go after once it is time, but I haven’t attempted a release for any of those kids yet.”
Thompson said he respects what 32nd-year Nebraska-Omaha wrestling coach Mike Denney has accomplished at Nebraska-Omaha, building the Mavericks into a national powerhouse, and feels compassion for his plight.
“I have always wondered how someone can keep up with so many things at once,” Thompson said. “He has so many things going on in his life. … He is one of the best people in the sport of wrestling.”
Thompson said he is unsure why the wrestling program would be a smart cut, since Nebraska-Omaha has state-of-the-art facilities and a plethora of expensive equipment and wrestling mats.
“Football was something they had to get rid of because of Title IX and equity, but with wrestling, they did not have to necessarily get rid of that,” Thompson said.
Hammeke said he was unclear about the exact reasoning for cutting wrestling, but on the surface, he thought it would make sense to keep wrestling at Nebraska-Omaha.
“(Cutting football and wrestling) would be shocking to anybody, but when you look at the big picture, then maybe some of that makes more sense,” Hammeke said. “(Football) makes more sense than the rest of them, but their wrestling program isn’t that far from being able to compete at the Division I level.”
Thompson said he was hoping Fort Hays would be able to transition to the MIAA in 2012-2013 to compete with the University of Central Missouri, Truman State University, Lindenwood, Central Oklahoma and Nebraska-Kearney. Nebraska-Omaha would have been the most storied program in the conference, but Thompson said the six-team conference should still work.
“I think it is time for us to move over to the MIAA,” Thompson said. “We’ll have to probably look into it more, but that is my gut feeling. I think we are ready to make the transition over there. I don’t see what the big difference is between six teams and seven teams.”
An interview was unable to be set up with Fort Hays football coach Chris Brown to talk about his strategy dealing with the loss of Nebraska-Omaha.