February 15, 2007

Nebraska State Wrestling: Omaha Builds on New Traditions

By Dirk Chatelain

Neal Randel walked into the Qwest Center Omaha a year ago and missed the colors.

The Lexington High School activities director wrestled in the state tournament as late as 1984. He has coached medal winners. He has consoled losers. But all those experiences came at Lincoln's Devaney Center, where a rainbow of school banners adorned the walls and splashed high school spirit onto a typically bland canvas.

"To me, the school colors are one of the neatest things about the state tournament," Randel said. "It's maybe a minor thing, but it's really part of what makes the state meet a special deal."

Nebraska's high school wrestling tournament returns to Omaha this week, a year after the event made a dazzling debut at the arena. Coaches and administrators around the state say the state-of-the-art facility improved athlete safety and produced revenue.

But some resist change, saying the Omaha arena robs the event of its character and tradition. It belongs, they say, in the cozy confines of Lincoln's Devaney Center, which had held the event every winter since 1977.

The two cities, which have grappled over the event since the construction of the Omaha facility, are expected to contest the tournament's future again, in April. They'll prepare bids to host the event starting in 2008 and present them to the six-member Nebraska School Activities Association board, which voted unanimously in 2005 to move the tournament to Omaha.

"Heading into last year, there was a lot of apprehension on my part and a lot of people's part," said Brian Maher, principal of Centennial High School in Utica, who represents Lincoln on the board. "But after seeing the three-day tournament, I was amazed at how well it went."

The only criticism Maher heard: "It's not Devaney. After 30 years, many people were sad to see it go. Heck, I was sad."

The tournament pumps an estimated $1 million to $2 million into the host city's economy, according to Jeff Maul, executive director of the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I feel strongly that Lincoln is the home of state tournaments and that should not change in years to come," Maul said.

Lincoln's drawback, the Devaney Center, has not changed, Maul said. But "we have to find ways that we can make it work down here. We have begun discussions."

Omaha officials, on the other hand, were thrilled with the event in 2006 and hope this year to fix its few glitches.

"I don't know, quite frankly, how you could compete from a facility standpoint with the Qwest Center," said Dan Morrissey, Omaha Sports Commission president.

After expenses, net wrestling revenue in 2006 at the Omaha facility surpassed that of 2005 at the Devaney Center by $14,762, according to NSAA Executive Director Jim Tenopir, an increase he attributes to the larger capacity of the Omaha arena, which seats about 2,000 more people than the Devaney Center.

The tournament's final year in Lincoln, Tenopir estimated that about 3,000 fans were turned away Friday night alone because there wasn't room.

"It's a shame at a high school event that there's a sellout, that you should have to prepay to watch someone compete," Hastings High School wrestling coach Rod Tickle said. "If you have the facility to handle it, then you should use it."

Compared to the Devaney Center, the Qwest Center Omaha has more parking, more concourse space and more seating. Most important, there's more space on the arena floor, allowing for proper spacing between wrestling areas. At the Devaney Center, mats overlapped, causing scoring and safety problems.

"In years past, there are a handful of wrestlers that perhaps the outcome of a match could've been different had they been wrestling at the Qwest Center as opposed to the Devaney Center," Tickle said. "Officials had to make strange calls to keep kids safe.

"At state tournament time, you ought to be able to follow your rules. The Qwest Center can allow you to do that."

The Devaney Center's appeal centers on its atmosphere. Some of the old smells and scenes are "near and dear to my heart," said Randel, an Ogallala native who has coached for almost 20 years.

Among rural and Western Nebraskans, there may be another factor that works in Lincoln's favor, according to Hastings' Tickle.

"I think a lot of it has to do with comfort of a big city versus a middle-size city," Tickle said. "People have an aversion to driving into a big city. . . . You go into Omaha and you get scared. You go into Lincoln and you're still comfortable."

Randel downplayed the big-city intimidation. However, he said the costs of things such as parking and concessions were greater in Omaha than in Lincoln.

"Honestly, the way it stands right now, I like the old way," Randel said. "Not because of one reason, but because of a combination of things."

One point of contention a year ago -- potential alcohol use in arena suites -- has apparently been dealt with.

Tenopir said the alcohol flap leading up to the 2006 tournament was unfortunate, but problems never materialized; suite holders were asked to remove their alcohol before the event. Tenopir said the situation requires monitoring again this year, but he expects no problems.

The NSAA's primary concern this year: cold wrestlers in the warm-up area. Subzero temperatures during the 2006 tournament and the warm-up area's proximity to overhead doors interfered with athletes' ability to prepare for matches.

"Our kids aren't used to warming up on an iceberg," Tickle said.

Other than that, "concerns were very minor," Tenopir said. He credited the staff at the Qwest Center Omaha for smoothing the transition.

The 2006 tournament set an attendance record, 51,015, that surpassed by almost 5,000 tickets the previous record set in 2005. Tenopir hopes for similar figures this year.

"We hope this year goes smoother than last year," he said, "and we felt last year went pretty darn well."