The phone rang. Sandy Buda answered.
A woman, who said she was from UNO, told Buda that he was going to be inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Aren't you happy?” she asked.
Buda, once the all-time leader in coaching victories for UNO football, wasn't sure. He had to think about it.
(Timeout for a quick question: Why isn't Buda already in the Maverick Hall of Fame?)
Part of him was happy. That was the part that grew up in south Omaha, and tagged along with his father to UNO practices and played with the tackling dummies while his father talked with his good friend, coach Al Caniglia.
That part of him remembers all the good times and players and great wins together on Caniglia Field. A coach never goes into a Hall of Fame alone. It takes a village of former players and assistants who paved the road there.
But there was a part of Buda that sees that stadium now. East bleachers gone. Track dug up. Preparing to become a soccer stadium.
And a part of the old coach still hasn't gotten over the pain of seeing the football program wiped out more than a year-and-a-half ago.
That's a pain that won't ever go away.
But life at the University of Nebraska at Omaha goes on.
Thursday, in an ironic setting at the new Ralston Arena, the Mavs will induct six Hall of Famers. The list includes Buda, former running back Adam Wright and wrestler Steve Costanzo. But those three aren't going to attend.
Buda took a poll on Facebook of his former players on whether he should attend. Fifty-seven replied that he earned it, he should show up.
“But I can't do it,” Buda said Wednesday. “I feel like I'm betraying all the student-athletes, all the kids and coaches who were part of it for 99 years. I called Trev (Alberts) and said, ‘It's too soon. How about maybe next year?'”
Alberts understood. But the show will go on tonight. Buda, Wright and Constanzo will be inducted. UNO's alumni association, which puts on the event, won't wait for another day, won't wait for anyone to get over it.
It's a shame. Shouldn't you be there for your big night, with family, friends and former teammates sharing the moment?
On the other hand, time marches on. So does UNO.
“I totally get it,” Alberts said. “But we aren't going to stop honoring football players and wrestlers. It's not in our best interests to disassociate ourselves from our own history.
“It's not easy. It's sort of indicative of how hard change is.”
The past having trouble embracing the future. It's absolutely indicative of where UNO is, at this crossroads in its history.
The symbol of the transition was announced earlier this week: a new hockey arena to be built a block from campus. The future crown jewel, and hub, of Maverick sports.
The events of the past few years are mind-blowing for the older generation of Maverick Mojo. They associated UNO, or Omaha U., with Division II football and wrestling. Bob Hanson and Bob Gates often had good basketball and baseball teams, but for many in this old sports town, the faces of UNO were the bruised mugs of football players and wrestlers.
Now, there will be a new generation of kids in Omaha who grow up thinking UNO, or “Omaha,” is all about electric hockey crowds jammed into an arena just off campus. Or a basketball team trying to make the NCAA Division I tournament. Maybe soccer.
I'm not here to debate whether that's good or bad, right or wrong. That discussion is worn out.
But it's going to be different.
I asked Alberts if he had considered the transition that is taking place, that he is overseeing. The question caught him off guard.
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“I haven't thought about that in that way,” Alberts said. “Our staff didn't set out to create a new UNO or alter the image of UNO.
“But I did recognize with our staff early on, that we better do something quick. We had very little value on our campus and in our community. We needed to be a valued partner with our university, or we were going to be in trouble.”
The cynics and critics will argue that these moves and changes were all about Alberts putting his stamp on UNO, all about his vision. You can argue with Alberts on that one.
In my book, these moves were forced a long time before Alberts ever imagined being a Division II athletic director in the city of Omaha.
First, there was the addition of Division I hockey. From the moment the first puck dropped, UNO became a conflicted place. There were some boosters who wanted to go big time. There were others who liked the Division II mentality just fine. Ultimately, hockey became the breadwinner and had to be catered to. Finances became a big deal at the Division II mom and pop shop.
Second, Creighton basketball transformed into something that most veteran sports fans couldn't have ever imagined.
“There wasn't a big difference between Creighton and UNO,” Buda said. “Creighton didn't play football, and UNO played good basketball and had good baseball. Basically, they were the same, two good options for getting an education and playing sports.”
But as Dana Altman's monster program moved into the Qwest Center, CU lapped UNO on the local sports map.
Also, the mentality of the city changed. Omaha became more cosmopolitan, with a lot more to do than hang out at Caniglia Field on Saturday afternoon. The average fan dollar was now being tugged by Creighton and the Rolling Stones.
Alberts decided he needed to be Division I to get that share of the market's dollar. Is he right? Will this “New UNO” work?
Some people want a verdict now. But it's too soon. We'll need at least five years, after UNO hockey has had a year or two in the new arena, to begin making that call.
Financially, it should be a no-brainer. Being in control of hockey revenue (including beer) is huge. Mav coach Dean Blais has said the program could net up to $3 million a year in its own digs. Alberts wouldn't project but said Blais' estimate made sense.
But on another level, the question is, what will UNO sports mean in this town in five years? Ten? Twenty?
We have our hockey fans. But college hockey is like college baseball or volleyball. It's a niche sport. Now, if UNO were to win a Division I national title, that's a whole different bandwagon.
But if the Mavs are averaging 7,500 in their own arena and competing for championships in their league, isn't that what football used to do? Does the arena put a cap on the growth of the program? Or is it just right?
For Derrin Hansen's basketball program to be relevant in this town, it has to win big. It's not going to eclipse Creighton on a nightly basis. But if the Mavs win their league tourney and make the NCAA tourney, that's a big, big deal. The question is, how often will that happen?
There's every reason to believe UNO is in position to be viable financially. The new arena will be a cornerstone of the “new campus” and fits the chancellor's long-range vision and goal of a big-time metro campus that attracts 20,000 students.
But what will the Maverick logo mean to sports fans in this town? Check back in several years or so. The squeamish should wander down to Caniglia Field at their own risk.
“One of my former players posted a photo on Facebook of one of our old games,” Buda said. “The east bleachers were packed. He wrote on there, ‘I bet they don't have that kind of crowd for a soccer game.'”
I hope Buda shows up tonight. Fellas, embrace the past while you still can. In 10 years, they'll be inducting hockey and basketball players.
Contact the writer:
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