LINCOLN, Neb. — The current landscape of college sports, in the view of Trev Alberts, reveals a menacing storm. On the one-year anniversary Thursday of his hire as athletic director, Alberts’ vision for Nebraska football and the department he leads calls for the Huskers to hunker down, stay vigilant and prepare to take their shots.
“We’re entering into a tornado of events,” Alberts said. “And so, the question I ask is, how do you push yourself to create a mindset not only able to weather that storm — because that’s part of it — but also to have a team that almost enjoys the tornado?
“To me, it feels like the more comfortable we are with the chaos, the better chance we have of emerging in a stronger position.”
Alberts, in an interview this week with The Athletic, reflected on his first year in charge and offered a view on the 12 months ahead at Nebraska. As busy as it’s been, with the revelation and settling of an NCAA investigation, the rise of a $165 million football complex and a difficult season last fall that led to the restructuring of Scott Frost’s contract and coaching staff, the next year promises to bring even more big decisions and turning points.
“I enjoy working,” he said, “so that’s not a problem for me. It’s kind of never-ending. It’s a 24-hour-a-day deal, but I think we’re making really good progress. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Alberts came on board in Lincoln from his position as AD at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in July 2021. Name, image and likeness opportunities emerged for college athletes in the same month. The structure gave birth to powerful, competing collectives, with donor cash funneled legally to top players.
It set the transfer portal ablaze. Nebraska this offseason added 15 in football from other Division I programs. And the environment fostered more seismic change, with the announcement last month that USC and UCLA will join the Big Ten in 2024 as the conference prepares to unveil a landmark multimedia rights package that could send annual television revenue for each league school soaring past $60 million.
“We’re not driving that change,” Alberts said. “There are certain parts of it that we don’t love. The reality is, our job is to find a way.”
He said he wants Nebraska to push the limits in the NIL race while staying on the right side of the rules. For instance, Alberts has not authorized the hiring of a fundraiser in athletics whose full-time job it would be to work with collectives to secure donations for NIL deals. But as several of the Huskers’ contemporaries choose to make such a move, he wonders if the time is coming.
A goal for Nebraska amid the constant change?
It “threads the needle,” Alberts said.
“How do we do everything we can to help our student-athletes monetize their name, image and likeness? How do we give our coaches every tool in the toolbox? And how do we at the same time protect the integrity of the institution?
“Those things are at odds. I want our toe right up to the line, but I don’t want to cross the line.”
The AD had more to say this week as Nebraska coaches and players gear up to report for preseason camp on July 26, the same day that Frost and three players represent the program at Big Ten media days in Indianapolis.
Focus on Frost
The pressure on Frost and his coaches this year is real, Alberts said. But it’s nothing new.
“We’re in the competition business,” Alberts said. “I think all of us feel a sense of urgency. I know Scott does. I know our coaches do. We don’t have tenure in the athletic department. We’re judged on wins and losses.
“And ultimately, those types of things lead to stability or removal.”
Frost, 15-29 at Nebraska after a three-win season last year, enters his fifth year on a hot seat. He jettisoned four offensive assistants last November, two days after Ohio State beat the Huskers 26-17. They suffered an NCAA-record eight defeats by eight points or fewer.
With help from five new assistants, recruiting appears reinvigorated, even with the looming of Oct. 1. That’s when Frost is set to accept the reduction of his $15 million buyout by 50 percent in addition to a $1 million cut from his annual pay to $4 million.
Alberts said he’s worked to remain steady as reactions and emotions around him often turn messy.
“You just can’t sit here in this chair and be whipped around,” he said. “The one thing that’s such a blessing about this place is that so many people care. The other thing that makes this job really challenging is that so many people care. And so many people have opinions.”
Seemingly dramatic storylines will always erupt around Nebraska football, he said.
“Our job is not to get caught up in the drama,” Alberts said. “We’re going to contribute to the drama. But a lot of it’s noise. If we spend all of our time diving into the noise and not getting better, it’s counterproductive.”
About those metrics
Frost helped devise the much-discussed metrics in his contract that could shape his future at Nebraska, according to Alberts.
The school in November announced the existence of “mutually agreed upon” metrics, which, if met, would return Frost’s pay cut and extend the length of his contract by one year. The specifics of the metrics were not revealed, despite attempts by media outlets to obtain them through public records requests.
USA Today filed a lawsuit against Nebraska in June for its refusal to supply the metrics in the contracts of Frost and men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.
Alberts said he believes in the importance of a leader in his position to engage in “honest, transparent communication” with staff about expectations. He’s said in the past that the metrics do involve actual numbers.
“Part of those (expectations) are more subjective in nature,” the AD said. “To me, that’s more of an HR issue. It’s about an improvement plan for our coaches. I’m not sure if the word metrics created some unnecessary consternation for some. It’s probably overstated, to be honest with you.”
Alberts talked with Frost at the time of the contract restructuring, to create the expectations. And yes, the metrics.
“If we don’t even have the same definition of what excellence looks like, we have a bigger problem,” Alberts said.
“I want to win championships here. My push is, let’s define where we are today, let’s look at where we think we can go. And then, let’s get busy working together on the strategy that gets us there.”
The expanding Big Ten
Various issues nationally and within the Big Ten occupy Alberts’ attention. In addition to the fluidity of NIL-related topics, future College Football Playoff growth and conference realignment talk, he keeps an eye on possible changes to the NCAA governance model and deregulation that could shift control to the conferences.
“You better be engaged,” Alberts said. “Or you can fall behind real fast.”
He said he’s talked with UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond since the news two weeks ago that USC and UCLA would leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Alberts is intrigued by the possibilities that exist in Southern California, where Nebraska counts a large alumni base.
“I just think it really strengthens the Big Ten,” Alberts said. “The fact is, when you look at the brands that are in the Big Ten today, there just aren’t a lot (of outside candidates) that strengthen the Big Ten beyond where we currently are. These two were at the top of the list.”
Their future membership reshaped discussions with media rights partners.
“It looks different today than it did two weeks ago,” Alberts said, “and in a positive way.”
Up next, schools will continue to position themselves to make moves that bolster their stability. And the powerful leagues won’t stop considering options, Alberts said.
“There’s a lot to sort through,” he said. “We have a list and all the data around it. But what other schools bring value to the Big Ten?”
Notre Dame, to start the discussion.
Alberts did not offer thoughts on candidates, real or perceived, for Big Ten expansion. But he subscribes to one belief without hesitation.
“There will be more change.”
(Photo: Mitch Sherman / The Athletic)