When University of Nebraska at Omaha officials announced their controversial plans to drop football and wrestling, they had moments like this in mind.
The Maverick men’s basketball team played Tuesday night in a nationally televised game for a ticket to the Big Dance. The Mavs came up short, however, falling to North Dakota State 73-63.
The chance to qualify for the March Madness tournament — and put UNO’s name on the line of an NCAA bracket — was always one of the main selling points of the school moving to NCAA Division I in sports.
That hoop dream certainly had the campus buzzing Tuesday, with a tour bus preparing to take students up Interstate 29 to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the Summit League championship game.
Had the favored Mavs prevailed Tuesday, it would arguably have created the biggest sports moment in school history.
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It was eight years ago this week that UNO campus leaders made some bittersweet history.
Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts announced plans to move the Division II Maverick athletic department to Division I in all sports and to accept an invitation to join the Summit League. At the time, only UNO hockey competed at the Division I level.
They said the move was driven by finances, with the school struggling to generate buzz and revenue at Division II. Christensen at one point called the school’s athletic budget “a nightmare.”
But in making the move, the campus leaders also created a furor by announcing plans to drop both football and wrestling.
They said the school simply couldn’t afford to take football up to even the lower level of Division I, which would have required $2 million in additional annual spending to be on par with their competitors. And the Summit League did not sponsor wrestling.
UNO instead decided to add men’s soccer and golf to better align with the sports the Summit League offered.
The move was unanimously endorsed by the NU Board of Regents.
“This is obviously an emotional time,” Alberts said before the regents that day. “It’s also a day of great opportunity for UNO.”
The move ultimately helped lead to construction of the 8,000-seat on-campus arena, which was also spoken of at the time.
And it did help raise the profile of Maverick athletics. The basketball team averaged only 500 fans per game at Division II, but this season the Mavs averaged more than 2,500 during Summit play.
But even eight years later, some bitterness remains.
The winner of the Summit League tournament in men’s basketball receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The same is true in numerous other sports, including women’s basketball, volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball and softball.
Each year, the Summit League has sent teams like North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Oral Roberts to compete with the sport’s big boys in the Big Dance. While it’s a big deal for a school just to be in the bracket, providing huge national exposure, the Summit champ also at times makes some noise. In 2014, NDSU upset Oklahoma in the first round.
After the transition to Division I, this is UNO’s fourth year of being eligible for NCAA championship events. The men’s soccer team became the school’s first to receive an NCAA bid when it won the Summit League in 2017.
The Maverick men’s basketball team two years ago just missed being the school’s first, with a shot at the buzzer in the Summit final against SDSU bouncing off the rim.
To the disappointment of UNO fans, their team came up short again Tuesday night. But the Mavericks will still hold out hope that one of these years, they’ll be dancing.