Trev Alberts could kick himself for not seeing it coming.
But maybe he should pinch himself when assessing what UNO has done, just to make sure it isn't a dream.
Halfway through UNO's four-year transition from Division II to full Division I status, the Mavericks' athletic director has a stable of programs that already are more than respectable — and in some cases are of championship caliber.
And there are still two more years to go in the transition.
“I shouldn't have been surprised, and I mean that as a compliment to our coaches,” Alberts said. “But honestly, frankly, I am surprised.”
Though ineligible to compete in NCAA-sponsored postseason events until 2015-16, the Maverick athletic program is more than just passing time. It's making progress.
“It would be really discouraging if we went to Division I and every program was in last place in everything for several years,” Alberts said. “But the fact that they did what they did in our second year — and we were all told the second year would be even more difficult than the first year — is very encouraging.”
UNO moved quickly from Division II to Division I when it announced in March 2011 that it was accepting an invitation to join the Summit League. It began competing at the Division I level that fall.
Most of UNO's programs played a mixture of Division I and Division II opponents in the first year, as well as a handful of opponents from even lower levels of competition.
Then in 2012-13, UNO for the first time played full Summit League schedules and for the most part almost all-Division I nonconference teams, too.
The results: UNO earned its first-ever Division I conference title in baseball. The softball team finished second while posting the second-best record in school history. The women's basketball team contended for a spot in a non-NCAA sanctioned national postseason tournament until late in the season. And the men's basketball team, like the women, surprised most by finishing in the middle of the pack in the Summit's premier sport.
Also, the second-year men's soccer program continued its quick progression, while the women's soccer and volleyball programs continued their rebuilding phases.
UNO also started men's golf and tennis when it moved to Division I, and elevated women's programs in cross country, golf, swimming, tennis and track.
While those seven sports represent UNO's least-funded tier, there have also been standout performances at that level, particularly the all-around track excellence of Sami Spenner, the former walk-on from Columbus Scotus who has become a national-level heptathlete despite being unable to compete in the NCAA meet.
Like Spenner, many of the athletes competing at UNO are still former Division II recruits who were offered partial scholarships — or less — when first recruited.
“We owe it to the students, who feed off each other,” Alberts said. “They see a Sami Spenner or a Ryan Keele or a Cory Buckley (baseball teammates), and they see the effort. They see our men's basketball team struggle early, but then hang in there and have a great season.
“Little by little, as each one of the programs has success, it creates a belief.”
While UNO had some success on the national level in Division II — getting national championships from the women's soccer, softball and volleyball teams as well as from the since-eliminated wrestling program — there were skeptics about the school's ability to compete in even a lower-level conference in Division I.
But Alberts said Division I academic standards and compliance have contributed to the program's overall success.
“It was harder for us to be successful at Division II in many ways because of the (institutional) standards we imposed on our student-athletes,” he said.
In other words, UNO is better-suited for competing at a level where all institutions must meet the same NCAA standard than at a division where standards are more arbitrarily set by individual institutions.
Academics and finances go hand in hand in building Division I success, too.
UNO already had a Division I program in hockey before the rest of the athletic department was elevated two years ago, and that program is expected to help drive revenue.
The Mavs fully funded their men's and women's basketball programs as well as the volleyball program by offering the Division I scholarship maximums. The men's and women's soccer programs and baseball and softball programs are in the school's second tier of sports, with close to the Division I scholarship maximum.
Over time, Alberts said, UNO would like to add resources to each of its programs.
“We're growing slowly and appropriately,” he said. “We've done some benchmarking with our peers in the Summit, and we're very strong in all our sports from a competitive, operational standpoint.
“There are outliers, but if you look at the averages and the support across the board, we are very competitive.”
Much of the department's future growth hinges on its ability to continue to drive revenue — which the planned arena on the edge of campus is expected to create.
The arena would serve as home to the hockey team as well as the basketball and volleyball programs. Its success would in turn lead, the school hopes, to on-campus facilities for baseball and softball.
Meanwhile, Alberts said, the department is holding its own financially after several years of crisis.
The fiscal year ends June 30.
“We're confident we'll balance it again and finish in the black,” Alberts said.