Nebraska-Omaha to make jump to D-I

OMAHA, Neb. -- The University of Nebraska at Omaha announced Sunday that it plans to switch to the Division I Summit League and eliminate its football and wrestling teams in order to make its athletic program financially sustainable.

Athletic director Trev Alberts said the school was invited Friday to join the 10-team conference in 2012. The move will help the athletic program fix its money woes and Title IX violations and help renew interest in its sports teams, he said.

"This was an effort to look at UNO achieving long-term sustainability and relevancy in this market. ... Heretofore, with the exception of our hockey program, we haven't been able to do that," said Alberts, a former UNO football standout who went on to be a TV sports commentator.

UNO currently competes in Division II through the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association -- except for men's ice hockey, which competes in Division I through the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The school relies on hockey to generate revenue for the athletic department's 14 other sports. Alberts said the football program is a drain on the $9.5 million athletic budget and the wrestling program would need an infusion of funds for it to be competitive at a higher level.

"Our current structure was not sustainable and, in all likelihood, we wouldn't have an athletic program in five years," he said.

But the Mavericks have been competitive in football and wrestling. The football team went to the NCAA D-II playoffs in 2007, and the wrestling team won its third straight NCAA D-II championship on Saturday. It was the wrestling team's sixth such victory in eight seasons.

School officials said they regretted the timing of the decision on the heels of the wrestling team's win.

UNO has been considering a switch to Division I for years. But school officials said their decision was forced by the NCAA decision to lift the ban on division jumps, effective June 1. A conference must sponsor a school's switch, and the Summit League was open to a new member to replace Southern Utah, which will join the Big Sky Conference.

"Because the conferences are the gatekeepers of who goes to Division I, if you're not prepared to take advantage of this opportunity, the opportunity may not manifest itself again," Alberts said.

Chancellor John Christensen said the decision to eliminate the teams was the toughest he's made but it is necessary for UNO to achieve its goal of becoming a revered metropolitan institution by 2020. For the past year, the campus has been working on its strategic plan, for both academics and athletics, and the move to the Summit League matched UNO's goals, he said.

"I am a football fan. I am in love with wrestling. So I can say to you on a personal level, I've never had to make a call like this ... but it's in the best interest of the greater good of the campus," he said.

The school will honor the scholarships already awarded for football and wrestling and provide coaches with separation packages, Alberts said. A meeting with student athletes was scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

As part of the conference switch, Alberts said, UNO will work to improve its basketball program and will add men's soccer and golf, which aren't expected to be financial drains.

University regents must approve the conference change, which was first reported by the Omaha World-Herald.

In addition to Southern Utah, other Summit teams are Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, Missouri-Kansas City, North Dakota State, Oakland, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois.