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Chicago Daily Herald
As news about a football player boycott at Minnesota broke, Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier quickly realized his Huskies might have a chance to play in the Holiday Bowl.
One problem: NIU was already on winter break.
But in less than 24 hours of frantic work, Frazier and NIU coaches knew they had what they needed most to accept a postseason bid on short notice: a motivated team.
With the Huskies having played in San Diego bowl games two of the last three seasons Frazier knew the logistics would fall into place for a game against Washington State on Dec. 27. Easy? No. But far from impossible.
"Because we've had a relationship with (Holiday Bowl organizers), we felt this was necessary to support the bowl and support our student athletes," Frazier said. "That was a major part of this. This bowl committee, which had been so nice to us, friends to us, that we would get ourselves together and mobilize."
Earlier Saturday, Minnesota players announced they would end the boycott over the university suspension of 10 players accused of sexual assault. The Golden Gophers say they will make the trip to San Diego.
Not even two days ago, that was in serious doubt.
Frazier began getting text messages and email about what was happening at Minnesota on Thursday evening and immediately knew what that meant. It was time to start making calls.
Related: Minnesota Football Team Ends Boycott
He informed his president and board of regents. Then he had to get his staff moving. Eight straight bowl appearances by NIU made Frazier's staff "seasoned veterans" when it came to bowl preparation.
Most of all Frazier had to talk to coach Rod Carey to determine if NIU had a team that could play in 12 days - in a top second-tier bowl, nonetheless.
"Picture me calling him up at 9, 10 o'clock at night saying, 'Rod, this is the scenario. Talk to me.'" Frazier said, "He took a deep breath and said, 'Sean, I've got to get my guys back and some of them are training for the pros. Some of them are now on vacation. Some of them are here.' As you could imagine he did a fantastic job. I definitely have to take him out to dinner."
NIU finished its season the Saturday after Thanksgiving at 5-7, but having won four of five as it got healthy after early season injuries. NCAA rules allow bowls to select 5-7 to fill spots if there are not enough six-win teams. The teams are selected in order of their latest Academic Progress Rate scores. NIU was next on the list, but the team hadn't even met since Nov. 27. Fall commencement was Dec. 11. The players had dispersed.
Carey told Frazier early Friday morning the players were onboard. Most could drive back to campus, but some would need flights. Frazier said it would have cost the university $15,000-$20,000 to pay for travel expenses.
The first practice would likely have been held Monday, Frazier said. The coaches had already started breaking down film of Washington State. Wanting to play is one thing. Being eligible is another. Frazier said he had compliance staff working on whether players, who now had fall grades to consider, would be academically eligible. Also, they needed to determine which players with professional aspirations had signed with agents. That would make them ineligible.
"We were in the middle of going through those recertifications as well as those appeal processes to make them eligible," Frazier said. "We feel confident we would have ... been able to reverse anything that might have happened."
Holiday Bowl officials were not commenting publicly, but they were working on backup plans Friday. Frazier assured them the Huskies were good to go if invited.
The Huskies played in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium last year and in 2013, a game run by the same group that handles the Holiday Bowl.
Frazier said the plan for NIU was mostly to step into whatever Minnesota had already arranged. The Huskies would have redirected the charter flights Minnesota had lined up to leave from Minneapolis to go out of Rockford, Illinois. They would have used the Gophers' hotel reservations and practice facilities.
As for costs, Frazier said conversations never made it money. The Holiday Bowl payout to its contracted teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12 was $2.8 million last year. NIU would not have been guaranteed that payout, but Frazier said he is confident all costs would have been covered.
"It would have been great exposure for the Holiday Bowl and NIU," Frazier said.
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