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SESKER COLUMN: Decision to drop wrestling at Nebraska-Omaha makes no sense at all

KEARNEY, Neb. – It was late Saturday night and it was celebration time for the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.

Top-ranked UNO had overcome its share of adversity, including the loss of a returning national champion and All-American, to win its third straight NCAA Division II championship in wrestling.

The Mavericks edged a strong St. Cloud State squad for the team title on Saturday night at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Hall of Fame Coach Mike Denney’s decorated UNO program had won its sixth national title in the last eight years, and the seventh in Denney’s tenure in Omaha.

The entire Maverick team – starters, backups, redshirts, coaches and trainers – posed excitedly for the championship team photo. The wrestlers held up three fingers for the three straight titles the team has won.

Just a few hours after the team’s post-tournament celebration at the Country Inn and Suites in Kearney, my cell phone rang in my hotel room at 1:24 a.m.

UNO assistant coach Ron Higdon delivered the stunning news to me. Nebraska-Omaha was going to drop its wrestling program.

UNO reportedly is trying to join the Summit League in Division I. The Summit League does not offer football and wrestling, so the plan is to drop both those sports at Nebraska-Omaha.

The decision to drop wrestling, made by UNO athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen, was not only heartless, gutless and unfathomable, but the timing couldn’t have been any worse. It was like someone ripping your heart out of your chest, tossing it on the ground and stomping on it.

At least have the decency to let the UNO wrestling team have a little bit of time to enjoy winning a national championship. Alberts broke the news to Denney by phone, during the team’s celebration at the hotel, instead of doing it in person. It couldn’t have waited until later, after the team arrived at home?

The lack of support from Christensen is a little baffling. He has a wrestling background and competed in the sport in college. His son, Anders, is the head wrestling coach at Omaha North High School. John Christensen was in attendance in Las Vegas in 2007 to support UNO four-time national champion Les Sigman and three-time national Todd Meneely at the U.S. World Team Trials for freestyle wrestling.

How could Christensen not go to bat for the UNO wrestling program? It doesn’t make sense.

UNO would add men’s golf and soccer, since those sports are offered in the Summit League. Are you kidding me? At the expense of strong, well-established programs in football and wrestling? Wow.

South Dakota State and North Dakota State, which were previously in the North Central Conference with UNO, compete in the Summit League. Both schools also compete in other leagues in football and wrestling, since that conference doesn’t offer those sports. Wrestling doesn't have to be dropped.

Football is another high-profile sport at UNO and a large contribution was just made to the school for a new scoreboard. It is crazy to think that Alberts, a star football player who was a college football analyst on ESPN, is going to get rid of the Maverick football program as well.

I covered the UNO wrestling team for six years as a sportswriter for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper from 2000 to 2006, and I have continued to cover them with my job as communications manager at USA Wrestling.

I haven’t, in my life, dealt with a better coach and person than Mike Denney. He’s a total, 100 percent class act all the way who cares about every kid on his team from the national champions to the incoming freshmen. He is a man of high integrity and principles. His coaching contemporaries hold him in very high regard.

Coach Denney said he spoke with Alberts late Saturday night about the decision to drop the program. Denney said Alberts told him the decision wasn’t even about money. Denney raises almost all of the money for his own program’s expenses with all his tournaments, camps and fundraisers.

Alberts said the decision was because the Summit League did not offer wrestling.

Denney is one of the most respected coaches, in any sport, in the country. He handles himself in a dignified manner and has coached more than 40 Academic All-Americans. Wrestling is by far the most successful program in that school’s history.

He has positively impacted hundreds of young men. Quite frankly, he's saved a lot of kids by giving them an opportunity to be a student-athlete at UNO. It is a shame the way the NCAA is structured that opportunities are being taken away from young men because of money.

The early season Kaufman-Brand Open is the biggest college wrestling tournament in the country, with top programs like Iowa, Oklahoma State and Minnesota competing every November at UNO.

Alberts is a guy who has done virtually nothing to support wrestling.

Shortly after Alberts arrived on campus, Denney said Alberts asked him if wrestling was a “club sport” at UNO. Talk about a slap in the face to Denney, who puts in countless hours during and outside the season to keep his program thriving.

Last year, Denney had set up a USA Wrestling press conference prior to the U.S. World Team Trials. The tournament was in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa. Denney agreed to hold a press conference for Sigman in the Maverick wrestling room. When Alberts heard about it, he ordered Denney not to hold it there.

Sigman ended up making the U.S. team and wrestled at the 2010 World Championships in Russia. He is a top contender to make the U.S. Olympic Team next year, but Alberts wouldn't allow a press conference for him on the UNO campus.

Alberts also told Denney following its 2010 national championship season that the team couldn’t hold a banquet. Denney annually holds a season-ending banquet that honors the team. He also uses the banquet as a place to bring in recruits to see what the program is all about. Denney, determined to honor the championship team, held the banquet anyway.

What Alberts is doing is despicable and disgusting.

A teary-eyed Denney tried to make sense of it all, barely speaking above a whisper around 2:30 in the morning as a downcast group of wrestlers, coaches and parents sat in the hotel lobby.

I sat straight across from UNO’s Mario Morgan, a senior from Chicago who had just capped a fabulous career by winning the 141-pound national title on Saturday night.

I interviewed Mario after he won his title. He was being recruited by a number of Division I schools coming out of high school, but when he met Denney he was sold on UNO. He said he made the perfect decision to wrestle collegiately at the Division II level in Omaha.

The program Morgan had poured five years of his life into may now be gone. Morgan sat at a table early Sunday morning, shaking his head in disbelief and trying to make sense of all that had just transpired.

Denney is a guy who should have been able to go out on his own terms. He’s built a program that is recognized as one of the best in college wrestling at any level.

He’s been an institution at UNO for the past 32 years.

I’ve never met a better man in my life than Mike Denney. He’s the best coach I’ve dealt with in my 22 years as a professional in the communications business. He treats everyone with respect. He didn't deserve to be disrespected and mistreated like this.

It is heart-wrenching to see this happen when it didn’t even have to.

It is really sad to see a guy like Alberts, who has very little experience as an administrator, make such an unnecessary decision.

It’s sickening, it really is.

This may not be over yet. The UNO wrestling program plans to fight for what they’ve worked so hard to build.

UNO wrestling backers are planning to be at Sapp Fieldhouse at 5 p.m. Sunday to rally and support a cause to help save the wrestling program.

It would be a shame if we never see the black and red Maverick singlets on the mat again in college wrestling.

They’ve provided so many great moments over the years and provided so many great opportunities for so many young men.

It’s a shame that arrogant, egotistical, clueless administrators chose to make such a cold-hearted decision. An absolute shame.
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