Editor's Note: This is part I of a two-part story on Northern Illinois football players Tim Semisch and Donovan Gordon, who transferred to NIU from the University of Nebraska-Omaha after UNO's football program was disbanded. Part II will run in Friday's Daily Chronicle.
DeKALB – The question on Tim Semisch’s cell phone seemed innocent. He was at a University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey game, cheering the nationally ranked home team with his girlfriend, three roommates and their girlfriends. A friend from the nearby University of Nebraska sent a text asking what Semisch would do without football.
Semisch still remembers smirking while he texted back. It was early March. His first season with the Mavericks ended a few months before. Spring practice was about to begin.
“No,” his friend replied. “UNO doesn’t have a football team anymore.”
“I go to UNO,” Semisch responded. “I think I would know if we have a football team or not.”
Semisch, a 6-foot-8 freshman tight end, didn’t rush back to his dorm. He thought it was a joke. It became more laughable when his friend mentioned UNO wrestling also was cut. That night, the wrestlers won their third straight Division II national championship. They were kings on campus.
Semisch stuffed the cell phone in his pocket and watched the game. When he returned to the dorm, those texts lost their humor.
More than 20 freshmen packed one room. Everyone talked over each other while they crowded a computer. An article confirmed everything.
“A lot of expletives,” Semisch said. “We were just looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ It was like a really bad joke was being played on you, but this was real.”
‘I WAS SHOCKED’
Donovan Gordon was enjoying a night in with his friends. A computer engineering major, Gordon was playing Call of Duty Black Ops, one of his favorite video games. Then a teammate knocked.
“Have you heard the news?” he asked Gordon.
Gordon’s teammate told him to go on the Omaha World-Herald’s website. The paper reported UNO’s men’s basketball program was moving to Division I. It would join the Summit League, which didn’t have football or wrestling, but Gordon didn’t know that.
Instead, his face lit up as he read.
“I got all excited like, ‘Heck yeah, we’re going Division I’ “ said Gordon, a 310-pound freshman defensive tackle. “That’s any player’s dream.”
Then Gordon kept reading.
“It started talking about, ‘but drops football and wrestling,’ ” Gordon said in his baritone voice, before raising the pitch. “And I was like, ‘What the [expletive].’ ”
Gordon shook his head and buried his face in his hand.
“That’s how I found out. I was shocked.”
The story ends well, but it took time. For Semisch and Gordon, the journey felt like an eternity. Both are scholarship players on the Northern Illinois football team, trying to help the Huskies win their first Mid-American Conference championship since 1983. They rely on each other while adjusting to Division I football for the first time, far from the comforts of familiarity.
Semisch and Gordon had many low points before landing in DeKalb. They thought the lowest would be in that dorm room, packed shoulder to shoulder with their abandoned teammates, choking on the unknown. They were wrong.
ANGER TO PROTEST
The next two days were some of the longest Semisch and Gordon ever experienced. Phone calls to coaches went unanswered. Messages weren’t immediately returned. The newspaper offered no further details.
“It felt like a really bad dream, and slowly everything was getting worse and worse,” Semisch said. “Then we started to hope. ‘OK, not everything on the Internet is true. Yeah, it was on the Omaha World-Herald website, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe they do spoof articles all the time.’ So that whole two days, everybody kept trying to come up with reasons it couldn’t be true.”
Finally, UNO football coach Pat Behrns called a team meeting with a mass text. Semisch and Gordon found out why they couldn’t reach their coaches.
When UNO athletics director Trev Alberts proposed chopping the football and wrestling programs, he only told the town’s local newspaper. Coaches told players they were left to figure out for themselves. After a couple days, there was no denying the inevitable. A program that had won five league championships the past decade vanished overnight, discarded like trash.
“That’s a proud place, Nebraska and UNO in particular,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “They had a brand new stadium built, and it was a winning program. I mean, that was a shock. I can’t imagine being at a winning place, having tradition and having that happen.
“It’s different at a place that never wins and is not important. That wasn’t UNO.”
Semisch called the next several days the most annoying week of his life. Unofficial team workouts continued. Players attended classes, sitting in their seats like zombies, heading toward a dead end.
One week after the news broke, UNO’s administration held an approval meeting with the board of regents and student-athletes at Sapp Fieldhouse Auditorium on campus. Alberts promised scholarships would be honored the night before in a campus-wide email. He said the decision was made for the school’s best interest.
Nobody accepted the peace offering.
“It was like a cheating wife,” Gordon said. “They went out, and they slept with somebody else. I poured everything I had into playing football for them, and it was just betrayal.
“I was really heated.”
During the meeting, anger spilled into protest. With Alberts at the podium, the entire football team walked out. Wrestlers followed. Then the rest of the university’s athletes.
“Even the basketball players, who were pumped to go Division I,” Semisch said. “They were like, ‘No. You can’t do this. We don’t want to go Division I like this.’ And they walked out.”
They marched straight to their locker room. Sending a message was only a partial reason. With no warning, UNO already locked the wrestling room, and it was about to do the same to the football players. Semisch and many of his teammates still had personal items inside.
They gathered their things and never returned. As Gordon left, something gnawed away at him.
“I was like, ‘Why would they do this?’ ” he said. “It kind of felt like some under-handed stuff was going on. They told the newspaper and didn’t even tell the coaches. It was definitely not the official way to go about cutting a program.”
Gordon, a Kansas City native, always was amazed by Nebraska Cornhusker lore. He remembers a trip he took to his teammates’ hometown early during his time at UNO. It was out in the “boondocks,” the state’s furthest corners.
“You’d see Husker flags everywhere,” said Gordon, who calls himself a city boy. “Old guys would be sitting around, talking about the Huskers. The fans for Nebraska are insane. The whole state is about Husker football.
“I understand how it is there. If anything was endangering the Huskers, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get rid of them.’ “
Alberts blamed finances. He told reporters the football team lost $1.3 million that year. However, an ESPN report uncovered discrepancies, showing football was only losing $50,500.
Another theory widely is accepted by those close to the UNO program. Alberts is a former consensus All-American linebacker at Nebraska, where he led the Huskers within a game of the 1993 national championship. His college coach, Tom Osborne, is now the Huskers’ athletics director. Osborne, whose popularity propelled him to three straight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, still is a legend in the state.
Many people around the program believe Alberts cut football so the state would not have another Division I team threatening Nebraska’s walk-on program, and that the request came directly from Osborne.
Alberts and Osborne publicly denied the allegations. To Gordon’s father, Willis Authorlee, that means little.
“I think that Osborne did not want two major football programs in Nebraska,” he said. “It was just easier to wipe the UNO program out with them being friends. You can’t tell me it was about finances.”
Semisch, an Omaha native, grew up about 60 miles from the Lincoln campus. He attended games at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium with his father, Doug, as a child, sitting in the stands with 89,000 fellow pilgrims. The atmosphere impressed him. He fantasized about playing for the Huskers on Saturday afternoons.
But when Nebraska didn’t recruit him, Semisch easily accepted the UNO alternative. “I never really bought into the hype,” he said. The thought that the Huskers had something to do with the debacle presented a new low.
“We Nebraska kids, all we had for options was to walk-on at Nebraska and be a blocking dummy for four years, or go to UNO or some other Division II school,” Semisch said. “When the rumors came out that Nebraska didn’t want another Division I team taking kids away from their walk-on program, that upset a lot of us.”