By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
This story is the first in a two part series about the UNO Athletic Department’s decision to drop the football program. The Gatewayhad the opportunity to interview three players three days after the announcement was made.
UNO’s decision to move to Division I came with a cost. While the Summit League and reclassification became part of UNO’s future, the football and wrestling programs suddenly became part of its past.
When Athletic Director Trev Alberts and Chancellor John Christensen announced the move at a March 13 press conference, most of the discussion centered on the financial and organizational explanations of the move. But the human aspect of the decision was more difficult to put into words.
Grant Otten, Justin Coleman and Zach Ruiz are three student-athletes affected by the decision. All three are underclassmen in the middle of their football careers with the Mavericks.
“I didn’t really believe it,” said Coleman, a sophomore receiver from Beatrice. “To be honest, I would have thought there was going to be a heads up. I was like no, they wouldn’t just…I didn’t believe it.”
Coleman was the Mavs second leading receiver last season with 26 catches for 313 yards. He also had one catch for a touchdown while gaining 100 yards rushing, including one touchdown.
Ruiz, a linebacker also from Beatrice, and Otten, a tight end from Columbus, made most of their appearances on special teams. The two had a combined total of nine tackles.
“I was home for the weekend,” Otten said. “I heard from one of the volleyball players first, she texted me. She said something and I said what are you talking about? She said the football and wrestling teams got cut and I thought, ‘Shut the (expletive) up.’ I didn’t believe her at first. [I was] just kind of stunned more or less.”
Most of the players found out via phone calls or texts from each other Saturday night. Otten, Coleman and Ruiz said that although most of them already knew, UNO Head Coach Pat Behrns still tried to reach everyone by phone the next morning.
Though the news was less than 24 hours old, changes were already in effect on the UNO campus. The national championship wrestling team returned to Omaha to find out they no longer had access into the Sapp Fieldhouse.
“When the wrestlers came back from nationals, their locker room code had been changed,” Otten said. “So they couldn’t get into their own locker room.”
Coleman also questions the way the Athletic Department made its decisions known.
“I don’t know why it had to be handled like that,” Coleman said. “It was handled very poorly. Especially for how professional Trev is, I didn’t think it was very professional at all.”
Days later, the football team had to deal with some of the same changes to their normal routine. Players wishing to work out and lift weights were forced to find space in the HPER building rather than the athletic department weight room.
Part of that may have been the players’ own doing. Sunday evening after Alberts and Christensen met with student athletes at Sapp Fieldhouse, part of the football locker room was vandalized.
The three players interviewed insisted that none of them were involved, but had heard about the incident. Though the football players haven’t been banned from the Sapp Weight Room, a member of the training staff is required to be present during workouts.
During the press conference, only members of the media and athletic department staff were allowed access. For players like Otten, Coleman and Ruiz, the details on why all of this had to happen remain unclear.
Although all three were in attendance for the March 13 evening meeting with Alberts and Christensen, the news was still a little shocking for many of them.
“That meeting – I was pretty mad,” Ruiz said. “I didn’t really listen too much.”
Coleman wonders why DJ Sokol Vision, a $1 million video and scoreboard was installed when there was such uncertainty about the future of UNO football.
“In a couple articles that I read, [Alberts] said that they had been meeting for once a month,” he said. “That group that was working on how to make us more money. They had been meeting once a month for the past 12 months. That would have been before we even bought the video board so why would they have even bought it if that was an option?”