omaha ad Dowell talks opportunities, challenges with changes in college athletics at noon forum

By Bridget (Weide) Brooks 

Changes are coming to college athletics in the next few months, and University of Nebraska Omaha Athletic Director Adrian Dowell gave attendees at an Oct. 27 Omaha Press Club Noon Forum a sneak preview of some of the things coming — “what keeps him up at night.”

A native of Salem, Va., Dowell “grew up in sports and studied sports.” A student-athlete at Roanoke College, he was captain of the men’s basketball team, before graduating and going to work for the NCAA as part of the Division I (D-I) Men’s and Women’s Basketball staff.

Dowell and his wife, Stephanie — a standout player for the UNO women’s soccer program in the early 2000s — have three children. Stephanie is a Nebraska native. He jokes that Stephanie is the “most notable Maverick in the family.” She was a two-time All-American in soccer while at UNO, and was inducted into the UNO Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010. “Family is everything,” he noted.

He had what he describes as a “watershed moment” at 21 years old when he found himself working for the NCAA and “in a war room for March Madness,” which he described as a “dream come true.” And although his work at the national office at the NCAA “guides him even today,” it wasn’t his ultimate goal.

With the guidance of mentors who knew his objective, he pursued a Masters in Business Administration and Master of Science in Sports Administration at West Virginia University. Then he got a call from Creighton University from Director of Athletics Bruce Rasmussen, who he had met while Rasmussen served on the D-I men’s basketball committee. Creighton was making the transition to the Big East and was starting an athletic development office. Dowell made the move to Omaha and said he learned a lot from Rasmussen, who he called one of his most influential mentors. He was at Creighton for a little more than eight years, gaining experience in fundraising and sports administration, rising to the title of AVP/associate athletic director.

Then Trev Alberts accepted the job as athletic director in Lincoln. The Omaha job was “everything I was looking for in a next step,” Dowell said. When considering the opportunity, he asked himself, “Is it the right fit for me? For the institution? Are the challenges manageable?”

His goal of becoming an athletic director was realized with his selection in November 2021 to lead the Omaha athletic department. Friends were amazed, asking “How did you get your first A.D. job in the place you lived?”

A little less than a year into his tenure as “A.D. the A.D,” as fans call him, Dowell has made his impact felt on an athletic department in the midst of one of the greatest times of transition that college sports has ever known.

College athletics is facing unprecedented changes. “Eleven years ago, it would have been hard to believe where UNO is.”

Dowell leads 16 varsity sports and spirit squads at UNO and is chief executive of Baxter Arena, the university’s on-campus sports arena. He administers a budget of approximately $21 million annually. He oversees 100 staff members and coaches supporting nearly 400 student-athletes.

He has made two coaching changes, bringing in UNO alums Chris Crutchfield to lead men’s basketball and Donovan Dowling for men’s soccer. He negotiated a partnership with OrthoNebraska to be the exclusive medical provider for UNO Athletics.

Under Dowell’s leadership, athletics conducted a Title IX review as well as a top-to-bottom evaluation of organizational assets, challenges, opportunities, and priorities.

He provided an analysis of what he categorized as “Organizational Assets,” which include:

  • Omaha metro. “A huge asset of Omaha is that it is a college sports market like no other. With Lincoln, Creighton, and Omaha, it is a market passionate about sports.” 

  • Institutional profile. UNO currently has an enrollment of close to 16,000 students. “You don’t realize how big the campus is until you are there day-to-day.” The university also has affiliations and partnerships with key organizations, like the Department of Defense. 

  • Alumni base. “This is a huge asset. There are close to 70,000 (alums) in the Omaha area, more than Creighton and UNL combined.” What he found in conversations with people are that “a tenth of the city has a tie to UNO” in some way. He sees this as an “untapped resource” but that we “haven’t done a good job engaging that base.” 

  • Dodge/Scott Campus and Aksarben Village. “I encourage you to go on campus. Dodge Campus is incredible — then combine that with Scott Campus and Aksarben Village” and that environment is something that “moves the needle.” He said, when recruiting athletic staff, coaches, and student-athletes, “Once they are on campus, we will have a chance.” 

  • Facilities. UNO facilities include Baxter Arena, Maverick Park, Caniglia Field, Sapp Fieldhouse (“a 1940s building” where he has his office), Indian Creek Golf Course, and Miracle Hills Tennis Facility. 

  • Conference affiliations. For the uninitiated, he likened the conference the UNO Hockey program plays in (the National Collegiate Hockey Conference) to the SEC in football. “It’s the best conference in the sport — lots of challenges and lots of opportunities.” UNO Athletics competes in the Summit League for all other sports. “The Summit League is an incredible fit for us,” Dowell said. It offers “like-minded institutions and a path for competitive success.” 

  • Cost of attendance. “Cost of attendance is an asset. A Creighton scholarship is a $55,000 equivalency. Average cost of attendance is less than $20,000 at UNO — you can stretch a scholarship more.” 

  • Coaching personnel. UNO currently has three coaches who are alums of the university — Mike Gabinet (men’s hockey), Chris Crutchfield (men’s basketball), and Evan Porter (men’s baseball). “It’s incredible to have alums coaching,” Dowell noted. 

  • Executive personnel. He asks himself all the time, “How can we have the smartest people in the room?” He joked that sometimes he’s not even the smartest person in the room when he’s the only person in the room. 

  • Academic support. He is thrilled how successful Maverick student-athletes are — with an average GPA of 3.4 for the Spring 2022 semester — with only three academic advisors. 

  • Leadership alignment. “Leadership alignment might be the most important dynamic” in the university’s success, Dowell noted. President Ted Carter’s resume is incredible, he noted, saying that he holds “a record for landings on an aircraft carrier.” Carter’s first hire was Joanne Li, UNO Chancellor. The three work closely together and “having that shared vision is impactful.” 

  • Market niche. Dowell noted that the “hockey dynamic gives a perfect niche in this community,” saying that we are “yielding the benefit of decisions made decades ago.” He said there is a lot of crossover among sports fans and “room to like all three schools.” 

  • Potential broad success for multiple sport programs. What really excited him about the opportunity at UNO, Dowell said, was this factor. 

He also provided an analysis of “Organizational Challenges,” which include:

  • Relevancy. In a market with Lincoln and Creighton athletics, “how do we increase relevancy?” I believe there is room to grow” and marketing and promotion can make that possible. 

  • Revenue sport success. “The more we win, the more relevant we are. If we can win consistently, it will increase the coverage.” He also expressed his excitement for “when we make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time.” 

  • External engagement. “Our success is based on our ability to engage with season ticket holders, corporate sponsors, and donors.” It’s something he and his staff are committed to. “We have increased our external staff and they are out in the community meeting people,” working to increase attendance, relevancy, and resources for student-athletes. 

  • Staff structure/personnel. “We have modernized to match our peers in college athletics,” Dowell said. “It’s not a hard sell to attract personnel” because of the appeal of Omaha and the campus. 

  • Campus integration. This is a mandate from President Carter and Chancellor Li, Dowell notes. At the mid-major level, Dowell says “we don’t want to duplicate efforts. We want to integrate more with the university setting” — particularly with sports information and marketing. “We have one of the best athletic training programs in the country. We have one of the top biomechanics programs in the world.” This can help with recruiting student-athletes. 

  • Resources. “Resources are a challenge,” Dowell admitted. “We’re not where our peers are. Everyone wants more.” His goal is to put his coaches and student-athletes “on an even playing field” in terms of resources. 

  • Scholarship numbers. Here again, “We are behind our peers,” Dowell said. “We are well behind our peers, especially in the Summit League.” He noted it’s a challenge to win a conference championship when you’re not giving out as many scholarships. 

  • Economy impacts. “When the market goes down, it impacts us,” he noted. Inflation increases costs, “especially the travel costs for 400 student-athletes.” Dowell said, “We have to find a way to offset it.” He also said supply chain management is a challenge, noting that one team received their uniforms the day before their first competition. 

  • Pandemic impacts. In addition to lost revenue from the pandemic (“Close to $5 million lost due to competitions” cancelled), Dowell noted that one of the biggest impacts has been on the mental health of student-athletes. Logistics were also impacted, Dowell noted, giving the example of the hockey team being impacted by a COVID outbreak last fall that resulted in a major disruption in scheduled games one weekend. 

  • Sapp Fieldhouse. Dowell noted it was built in the 1940s and still houses significant resources for sports, including locker rooms, weight rooms, and practice facilities. 

  • State of college athletics. “Fifteen years ago, we would have had no way to imagine we’d be dealing with the state of athletics today,” Dowell said. “The next 2-3 months we’ll have more change” than ever before. “It’s pretty scary.” 

Dowell spent a significant amount of time explaining the factors impacting NCAA athletics today: 
  • Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). “There is no topic more polarizing outside of politics, especially at the D-I level,” Dowell said. He added that he has no issue with student-athletes being able to profit on their name, image, and likeness but he said there has been “unintentional consequences,” including “collectives” that have formed at some schools, as well as organizations pursuing whether they can create limited liability companies (LLCs) to pay students directly. 

  • Transfer portal. “The transfer portal and NIL are a very dangerous cocktail,” Dowell said. He added that there are a number of schools using NIL to recruit high school students and potential transfers, and it is against NCAA regulations for schools to use NIL to recruit. “Student-athletes can transfer freely — that’s the reality. We want student-athletes who want to be at a school.” The transfer portal makes it a challenge for coaches to retain their roster, especially for revenue sports, he pointed out. Consequently, the university is expending more resources to retain student-athletes. 

  • NCAA Constitution. “Last January, every athletic director was summoned to Indianapolis — for only the third time ever — to vote on a new constitution.” 

  • NCAA Division I Transformation Committee. One of the things that came out of the new constitution is a new committee. Some of the policy changes from the committee are starting to “leak out” — they are expected to be finalized by January. There will be “new minimum standards” to stay at the Division I level. “We have to successfully navigate this. We have to be strategic. The margin for error is very thin. It will squeeze out some small schools.” 

  • Litigation. Lawsuits over compensation to amateur athletes have changed athletics. 

  • Leadership vacuum. “The NCAA has lost the perception battle over the last several decades,” Dowell said. 

As it regards the NIL, Dowell said athletic departments received “clarification of what’s permissible” on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022 — two years after NIL came about.

“As a mid-major (university), NIL won’t be a major impact in student-athletes not choosing or leaving (a university) because of NIL,” Dowell noted. “We can use it as an educational vehicle to better prepare student-athletes for what’s next.” He said student-athletes are now much more interested in the topics of brand management, contract law, and tax law.

Two weeks ago, the “Omaha Mavericks Marketplace” launched on the Opendorse platform. He said it gives Omaha student-athletes the tools to manage their NIL relationships. “We want to protect them and educate (student-athletes),” although he acknowledged the NIL won’t have the same impact as at other schools. Some student-athletes are receiving “six-digits and a vehicle” for playing football and basketball at some schools. That’s not likely for UNO athletes.

As for some of the changes that are coming out of the D-I Transformation Committee, one of the biggest impacts is on scholarships. Dowell said scholarship numbers will increase — and there may even be “no caps on scholarships,” giving the example of Arkansas baseball offering 28 scholarships in the future.

Another will impact personnel. College hockey will be allowed to have five paid coaches instead of three.

In addition, “cost of attendance” is causing a gap. He mentioned the “Alston Case” [National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston et al, decided June 21, 2021], in which the Supreme Court (by a 9-0 vote) allows universities to pay student-athletes close to $6,000 ($5,980 currently) in additional financial support for meeting specific academic achievements.

For the first time, UNO is offering “full cost of attendance” scholarships for four sports this year. Those sports are men’s hockey, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s basketball. In addition to a tuition-free education, student-athletes receive stipends intended to cover cost-of-living expenses. “This is a huge issue for us — we would like to do it for all sports,” Dowell noted.

Dowell said they have to focus on the principle of “selective excellence” — “We have to prioritize, but we have a commitment to move forward.”

UNO is also looking to offer additional nutrition and mental health resources in conjunction with partnerships within the campus and community.

“Why is all of this happening?” Much of it has come out of litigation on behalf of student-athletes.

But even with all the imminent changes, Dowell sees opportunities. “If we can navigate more efficiently than our peers, we can compete.” But he sees the need to leverage Omaha, the community, and alumni to be competitive.

“We will be efficient with our dollars. We need our resources to stretch further,” Dowell added. “The Chancellor and President get it. I talk with (peers) at other schools and their leadership doesn’t get it.”

UNO also has the opportunity to be successful in multiple sports, giving them an advantage that some Power 5 schools don’t have. “We have eight teams that can compete for the NCAA tournament,” he said. “We can use athletics as an opportunity to drive institutional goals.”

Dowell outlined “Institution and Athletics Priorities.” For university priorities, he said Chancellor Li emphasizes “student performance while in school and degree completion,” noting that the completion rate is 70 percent currently, as well as “workforce development.”

For athletics at UNO, the “guiding principles” are:
  1. Continue to provide an exceptional educational experience. “You are here to get a degree.” 

  2. Provide the most effective environment possible for our student-athletes. “Give them a level playing field.  What can we do to help student-athletes and coaches be competitively successful?” 

  3. Productive partnerships with our community. 

  4. Strive for competitive success. 

At the end of his prepared remarks, Dowell took questions from the audience. 

Question: Fifty years ago, Title IX changed athletics. Progress has been made, but only two universities are close to compliance with athletic participation. What is UNO doing on this front?

Answer: One of the first things we did is assess where we are. We did a Title IX review. We are compliant, but there are a lot of changes happening. How do we remain compliant, especially in terms of sponsorship, scholarships, and resources? We will continue to assess this. I am married to a student-athlete, and my mom was a student-athlete. Nebraska is amazing. Show me someplace else where women’s volleyball is prioritized like it is here. UNO women’s volleyball drew 2,000 fans last Saturday.

Question: Have you considered a move to a different conference?

Answer: We are more than happy with the Summit League. But maybe some conferences in D-I won’t exist in a few years.

Question: Do companies like HUDL play a role in recruiting?

Answer: Yes, for recruiting and film review. You can send a jump drive or file with highlights on it.

Question: Safety issues with players is a big concern. What is being done to protect players, for example, from concussions?

Answer: Mental health is in the front of everyone’s mind in this industry. I was a student-athlete 18 years ago. Nowadays, you have the impact of social media on mental health. There is no right answer — we need to do something, “more than what we’re doing now.”

As for concussion protocols, Dowell said he’d had six concussions in his life. “It really impacts us. I am color blind, and I was not born that way.”

He said it’s particularly important for hockey and football. The NCAA spends over $15 million a year in lawsuits tied to concussion protocols. Two opportunities for impact are equipment and rules and protocols — for example, to “eliminate hits up top” — to the head.

Question: Thoughts about transgender athletes and women’s sports?

Answer: We are members of the NCAA and have rules and protocols we abide by. And then you have state law that interacts with the NCAA. It’s an “evolving topic and we will abide by institutional and NCAA principles.”

Question: What surprised you most after taking the UNO job?

Answer: “You don’t realize how many people have a tie to UNO.” He said he wishes he had saved his text messages after getting the UNO job. “A high percentage of the community has ties to UNO” — he had no idea how many.


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