It’s been ten years to the day since AD Trev Alberts and the Board of Regents put the darkest eye on the once respected institution. On March 12th, 2011 the University of Nebraska-Omaha, led by Alberts, dropped the storied wrestling program (along with football) to “cut costs and to better align with the sports sponsored by the Summit League.”
The Early Years
UNO’s program began in the 1948-1949 season, and like most young programs, got off to a slow start. Allie Morrison was the first coach and had a combined dual record of 5-10. They then went through a five year stint of no wrestling before coming back under the direction of coach Russ Gorman. Gorman went 24-16 in duals before Al Caniglia came in 1961. Caniglia only coached for two years, going 10-10 in duals. UNO was 14 years into their program and still had never had a top 25 finish. The only All American in that time frame was under Caniglia when George Crenshaw finished runner up in 1962 and won the national championship in 1963.
In the 1963-1964 season, UNO hired legendary head coach Don Benning. Benning, who was the first ever African-American college wrestling coach in history, coached UNO for eight seasons and changed the program forever. During Benning’s tenure, the Mavericks finished in the top 25 at Nationals every year and had a dual record of 87-24. After three seasons finishing outside the top 10, Benning’s teams never finished worse than eighth. In the 67-68 and 68-69 seasons, UNO finished as NAIA National Runner-Up. Benning led the team to their first national title in the 69-70 season. In his final season at UNO the Mavericks finished third. He coached 23 All Americans and had eight national champions. Roy Washington won three of those titles. Bernie Hospodka, Curlee Alexander, Mel Washington, and Wendell Hakanson were the other National Champions. Don Benning would later be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Benning was succeeded by Mike Palmisano. It was under his direction when UNO transitioned into NCAA Division II. Palmisano had a dual record of 144-47 in his eight years as coach. In his final three seasons with UNO his teams finished 15th, 7th and 7th in DII. Palmisano had 15 All-Americans, led by three time All American Paul Martinez. During Palmisano’s time as head coach, the Mavs had four wrestlers win national titles including Frank Gonzalez, Gary Kipfmiller, and Phil Gonzalez two times.
The Mike Denney Era
For the 1979-1980 season, UNO brought in a young man to lead the program named Mike Denney. Coach Denney would go to lead the program for the next 31 years. In his first year he finished 12th at nationals. That would be the only time he finished outside the top eight. In his next 30 years after his first season, UNO only had four finishes outside of the top five in the nation.
Between 1980-2000 His teams went 214-86 in duals. They had 13 top three finishes and Denney won his first NCAA DII National title in 1990. In that 20 year span the Mavs had 116 All-Americans and 15 National Champions. Ryan Kaufman, Greg Wilcox, RJ Nebe, Scott Ruff, Pat Gentzler, Jeff Sill, Brian Zanders, Raphael Kizzee and Corry Royal won one. Mark Rigatuso, Mark Manning and Braumon Creighton each won two. Four times in that time frame, UNO also had wrestlers All-American in D1 in the same season. Mark Rigatuso did it twice, finishing 6th in 1982 and fourth in 1983. RJ Nebe finished 6th in 1988. Joe Wypiszenski finished 8th in 1990.
That was just the start for Denney, his last eleven years would be his best.
The Decade of Excellence
From 2001 on the Mavs finished worse than 3rd just once (5th in 02). Beginning in 2004, they started a historic run at the D2 level by winning six national titles in an eight year span. They had two three-peats: 2004-2006 and 2009-2011. Had UNO not dropped the program in 2011, who knows how long that run could have gone on for. The 2012 team was set to have seven returning national qualifiers including four All-Americans. (Esai Dominguez 7th, George Ivanov 3rd, Matt Baker 8th, and Taylor Escamillia 6th).
From 2001-2011, UNO had 18 individual champions and 68 All Americans. Les Sigman went on to be the first ever four time national champion for UNO in that time. Todd Meneely and J.D. Naig were three time national champions. The Mavericks also had a tradition of holding up their end in the classroom. From 2001-2011 the Mavs had 84 Academic All Americans. The 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011 teams all qualified all ten wrestlers for nationals. In 2006 and 2011, seven wrestlers finished All American. In 2009, nine wrestlers finished All American. In 2010, eight wrestlers finished All American.
In 2004, the Mavericks began a run of excellence that may never be duplicated. UNO Wrestling was THE program in NCAA DII Wrestling. A team full of in-state Nebraska talent (Denson, Pankoke, Dominguez, Escamilla just from 2011 alone) and momentum that showed no signs of stopping anytime soon.
At least that’s what we thought.
The Hiring of Trev Alberts
UNO was already looking at a debt of around three million dollars when they went on the search for a new AD. UNO wanted to make a splash hire, so they brought in Trev Alberts with the idea that UNO would work toward making a jump to Division I. Alberts had played in the NFL for three seasons before his career fizzled out. He then went on to work for ESPN, after working with them in their college football studios he was fired over a dispute about his College Gamday role. It is believed he was upset that Kirk Herbstreit got a role on the set over him.
In 2005 Steven Sipple from the Lincoln Journal Star caught up with Alberts on his future plans and if he wanted to be a coach, Alberts said “The landscape of college athletics has changed since his playing days and has made him less interested in coaching.” Alberts went on later to add “You get three years, a ton of money, if you don’t get the job done, you’re fired. You’re basically dependent on others and you can’t always control your own destiny.” Alberts had no experience when taking the AD job in 2009, but the UNO brass believed he would be the right man for the job. Alberts played the part and said the right things. It wasn’t until he stepped into the role of AD that he showed his true colors to the wrestling program.
Going to D1 and Flawed Rationale
Alberts was ready to make the jump. At the time, Hockey was the only sport that was D1 for UNO. In the proposal to the Board of Regents there was a mention of dropping football because of the cost, which was a significant financial burden on the university, UNLIKE WRESTLING. It is not believed to have been clear that UNO would also be dropping wrestling along with the football program.
UNO had locked up a bid to join the Summit League. One of the lame excuses we’ve all heard is that the Summit league doesn’t have wrestling. However North Dakota State and South Dakota State are members of the Summit League, but compete in the Big 12 for wrestling. This isn’t a unique concept either, and has actually become more popular in recent years.
There were plenty of opportunities for UNO to continue its long storied program, but Alberts went in a different direction and they dropped both programs and added men’s soccer and men’s golf. In NCAA Division I, wrestling is only allotted 9.9 scholarships. Men’s Soccer also is only allotted 9.9 scholarships. Men’s golf gets 4.5. So where is the saving money taking place? An extra 4.5 scholarships? Nebraska is not a talent bed for Division I soccer players or golfers.
Wrestling is a different story. There are many wrestlers in Nebraska and within a 500 mile radius who are ready to compete at the Division I level. The 2010-11 team had 19 native Nebraskans on the roster and nearly everyone else from neighboring states. NINETEEN! Compare that with men’s soccer who has more players from out of the country than they do from Nebraska.
UNO already had the facilities, coaches, and everything associated with running the program. They would have to add all that with the addition of the two brand new sports.
UNO Wrestling cost the University roughly $140,000 a year. The wrestling program raised nearly $120,000 a year to help fund the program and would have been able to come up with the extra $20,000 through donors. There was no logical reason to drop the wrestling program, other than Alberts not having a care in the world for wrestling or Coach Denney. It was all strictly an ego move on the AD. It’s well documented how icy Alberts was to the wrestling team. He rarely, if ever, attended an event and that he actively made things more difficult on the wrestling team. One former assistant coach said, “In his first two years when we won titles in 2009 and 2010 he never once congratulated us or even acknowledged us.”
He didn’t want to be a college coach because of the process of being fired after three years if you don’t get the job done. Now he was not only firing a coach, he was dropping a whole financially sustainable program that had won 6 of the last 8 Division II National titles in his third year. What is the thought process behind that?
UNO had just won their third straight title. Just a few short hours later, several of the coaches were together when Coach Denney received a phone call. It was Alberts, all he said was “Hey coach, congratulations on winning the title. I am calling to let you know that we are dropping the wrestling and football programs for a move to Division I. You will not be able to get into the facilities when you get back tomorrow.” and hung up. When the team got back to Omaha, security had to escort the team into the locker room and watch over everything as the team and coaches cleared out their lockers and offices. Just goes to show the lack of respect that Alberts had for a team that was nothing but a positive force in the state and community.
In the Community
UNO was notorious for taking Nebraska boys for their lineups. Many of their lineups were homegrown kids. UNO Made a conscious effort every year to recruit the best kids from Nebraska. They held camps every summer with hundreds of kids. Many state champions from across the midwest attended those camps. The late and legendary RJ Nebe helped put together and run a lot of the camps. They were also a big fundraiser for the UNO Wrestling program.
The coaching tree from Mike Denney is massive. For starters you have Mark Manning, a three-time All-American and 2x National Champion, who has been the head coach of Nebraska for 21 seasons. Steve Costanzo, a three-time All-American is now the head coach of St. Cloud State. Marc Bauer was a three time All-American and coached UNK, leading them to three national titles. Bauer started his own coaching tree of wrestlers that you see all over the state at the high school level. Ron Higdon was an All-American and is now head of wrestling for NSAA. Brad Hildebrandt was a three-time All-American and coached Omaha Skutt to 12 state titles. 3x Champ Todd Meneely has been an active coach from the kids level all the way up through high school. Numerous others have been coached in Nebraska and have or still are making a positive impact on kids’ lives through the sport of wrestling.
Life after UNO Wrestling
Coach Denney and the Maverick wrestling team were left without a home. Although some of the wrestlers and coaches were not able to leave Nebraska, coach Denney and some of the wrestlers were able to move to St. Louis and be a part of a new program at Maryville University. The Maryville Saints wrestling team didn’t take long to become a force in NCAA Division II. Since their first official year in 2013, they have finished in the top 12 six times and have three top five finishes.
Assistant coach Ron Higdon is now the NSAA Assistant Director and heads up the State Wrestling Tournament. Another Assistant Coach Zac Dominguez started MWC, which has become one premier clubs in the country, with several D1 wrestlers coming from there. The reach of the UNO dynasty will be something we can likely always trace back over the years.
Perspective from former wrestlers.
Matt Rein (Former wrestler/Coach)
To swing the situation that we all went through and as many negative feelings as we felt then and still feel today, it has shaped the man I am today. Through those trials and tribulations I have learned first hand how not to treat people whether in business, personally or in coaching. I truly feel that MWC was forever changed due to this and we make sure and treat our athletes the way we were treated by Coach Denney and that is helping propel our athletes, as three of us coaches were directly involved in this travesty.
Steve Costanzo (former wrestler/current St. Cloud State head coach)
The University of Nebraska at Omaha, their administration and the State of Nebraska higher education administration dismantled one of the best things going in NCAA DII wrestling. To this day, such a shame on them!
Georgi Ivanov (Former wrestler, Head of The Best Wrestler, Executive Director of NEUSA Wrestling)
“You can always pick and choose what side you want to be on, I try to always look at the positive. For me, I reflect on the good memories, we laughed a lot. We battled and fought for each other. It was special to be a part of. When we walked in a room or a gym everyone looked at us. We were a dominant force. It makes it a little more special for me knowing that UNO does not exist because I can reflect on my three years there. We were three time champions. I can look back on that and look at the friendships I still have from wrestling for UNO. I could tell you how bad it was in the end, but I don’t choose to reflect on those times. I was able to learn a lot from Coach Denney, positivity, belief, caring, going the extra mile, being professional, and just being there for people. He had a huge influence on me as an athlete, in my personal life, in my business, and in the wrestling room. Coach Denney taught me a lot. My best memory at UNO had to be my redshirt freshman year, entering my first tournament it was national duals, no one knew who I was. I went 4-0 beating three ranked kids including the top ranked kid in the country.”
Todd Meneely (Former wrestler and coach, current MWC and Millard south assistant coach)
Three-time National Champion Todd Meneely said “I don’t know where I’d be in life without coach Denney and the UNO program.” After spending some time at Iowa and Nebraska he credited a chance meeting with UNO All-American Ross Taplin into getting him back into the UNO program and the rest is history. Meneely had high praise for the foundation and support system the team provided. He said coach Denney would “acknowledge and give credit to everyone on the team” regardless of their record or their spot in the lineup. He said his coaches helped put him on the right track with his lifestyle.
After his college eligibility was up, Meneely continued training at the international level at UNO while also being an assistant coach for the program. It was during that time when Alberts cut the program. Like many others, Meneely was left baffled by the decision. “It would be an easy transition to D1” for the wrestling team. Meneely was in bed and found out the following morning of the decision. At first he thought someone got hurt or in trouble, and cutting the program was the last thing on his mind. “The way it was handled was the worst part. Tell me if that’s ever happened to any other program in any sport, if a team has won a national title and had their program cut in the same night.” In regards to Alberts, Todd mentioned the cheap shots he’d take at their program, mentioning Alberts once called the DII powerhouse program a “club team.”
After the program was cut, that not only left Meneely without a coaching position, but without a place to train. “If there was still a program, I believe I would still be there coaching there.” Todd said.
Meneely is optimistic that there may be a day we are able to see college wrestling in Omaha again, but not until Alberts is gone.
Brad Hildebrandt (Former wrestler and grad assistant, former Omaha Skutt State Champ coach, Current USA Triathlon director)
Coach Hildebrandt was a successful UNO wrestler who went on to build one of the most successful high school programs in the country. He coached Skutt to 17 state titles and his teams were consistently nationally ranked. He had multiple individual state champions and four time state champions. He also coached Thomas Gilman who went on to be an All-American at Iowa representing the USA on the freestyle national team.
Hildebrandt credits a lot of his coaching back to what he learned from Coach Denney, saying “I tried to build the culture the way it was when I was at UNO. I cared for every kid that came in that room from state champ all the way down. It was because that’s how coach was, it didn’t matter what your name was or your accolades were Coach Denney cared about you and touched you in a way, spiritually, emotionally, with his words or just a pat on the back. He did it for everyone, it was just a positive affirmation. That’s how I wanted to coach. If it was in the morning or after school, I wanted to start my wrestlers day off or end their day with positivity. Another thing I stole from Coach Denney was going on retreats. He always took his wrestlers on retreats in the summer and I wanted to do that for my kids. It helped build comradery and friendships. Wrestlers have a bond with each other because they go through so much together, from weight cutting, to ups and downs, wins and losses, traveling together, everything amounts to so much.”
Hildebrandt had many memories from UNO and he loved wrestling for UNO and learning from Coach Denney and Coach Harry Gaylor. One of the things he misses the most was after he graduated, going back and watching the Mavs and catching up with old teammates. That is one of the things he misses most about the UNO program being gone is the fact that the former coaches and wrestlers lost their home. They don’t have somewhere they can go and just reminisce on their time at UNO and catch up. His best memory he says though is “Going on trips in the motor home with RJ and creating lasting memories, we had a lot of fun on those trips.”
He also talks a lot about the memories created with teammates and coaches like Mark Manning, Ryan Kaufman, Roy Oliver, Mark Rigatuso and Mark Wilcox. They laid a foundation and built a culture for everyone to follow. One of the things Hildebrandt always appreciated about Denney was just being able to go in whenever he wanted and sit on coaches couch and just have a conversation during and after his time at UNO. He said “I have no idea how Coach got any work done. That door was always open for anyone to just come in and have a conversation. I am sure you can ask any wrestler about that couch and they will have a story for you.”
The night that UNO wrestling was dropped will forever be embedded into Hildebrandt’s memory. He got a call from Ron Higdon at 2AM saying that UNO had dropped the program. It was something that Hildebrandt had a bad feeling about that weekend. He says “That Friday, My dad and I went up to watch the guys wrestle and I ran into John Christensen. We were talking and I heard rumbling about UNO going to D1 so I asked him about it. He mentioned all the money that UNO basketball could bring in and talked how football was draining the athletics program. Anytime I asked about wrestling he dodged my question so I knew something was not right. I went up to the upper balcony and told my dad that I thought UNO might drop wrestling. Jan Christensen was sitting right behind us and I asked her about it and she just said she knows nothing. I am so disappointed in the leaders of that institution at that time. They deceived a great man. Had any of that gone public beforehand, there would have been a huge ground swell to save the program.”
He already had a bad feeling about the wrestling program since prior to everything happening, Alberts had told Coach Denney that “wrestling was just an intramural sport anyway.” Another thing that hurts coach Hildebrandt, “the vacuum that Coach Denney had created. So many wrestlers had come to Omaha to wrestle and stayed in Omaha to become Lawyers, Doctors, Policemen, Firefighters and coaches. Coach Denney was a like a feeder program to great high school coaches in Nebraska and across the country.”