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