By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, December 2, University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB) announced that the football was getting the axe along with the women’s rifle and bowling teams.
University President Ray Watts said in a statement at the time, “More than a year ago, UAB began the largest, most comprehensive strategic planning process in the University’s history. Designed to identify areas of excellence and set priorities for investment and growth, this strategic review has empowered leaders across campus to think critically about how to best invest resources and position UAB as a premier and sustainable institution for the future.”
Since then many have called into question, “the largest, most comprehensive strategic planning process in the University’s history.” On Monday, June 1 President Watts said that things have changed. “As of today, we are taking steps to reinstate the football, rifle and bowling programs,” Watts announced.
University officials were caught unprepared for the shockwaves that the decision to end football made in the community. As expected the City of Birmingham bitterly opposed the decision to end football, 54 other communities in central Alabama however also signed resolutions of support for UAB football.
Conference USA, which was completely blindsided by the announcement to end football, demanded that UAB restore football or they would have to find a new conference home for all of their sports…….even though UAB is the defending Conference USA basketball champion.
UAB fans, students, businesses, and even local governments have pledged $17.2 million to restore the sport. Watts said that fans honoring those pledges would be necessary for UAB football going forward. Watts also refused to add any new debts to the program for new facilities…..which both sides are needed.
The effort to restore football at UAB was spearheaded by state Representative Jack Williams (R-Vestavia). Rep. Williams said in a statement on Facebook, “Thank you to everyone who prayed for me. Thanks to those who came to Montgomery, to those who took to the streets and to social media and thanks to those who pledged. Now we have to show up.”
Rep. Williams for the months since the program’s termination by its own President was a whirlwind of activity on the radio, on TV, on social media, in the streets leading demonstrations, and introducing legislation attacking the very structure of the governance of the University of Alabama System and the Board of Trustees.
President Watts, a doctor who got promoted through the ranks at UAB with no experience running any college or University before, was unable to ever articulate a coherent message as to why UAB was better without football.
Free UAB organizer and UAB football player Timothy Alexander said on Facebook, “Thank you so much for believing in me and allowing me to be an advocate for the #FREEUABMOVEMENT! THIS HAS BEEN A LONG LONG LONG JOURNEY AND I WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO FIGHT CONSISTENTLY WITHOUT MY UAB FAMILY!”
Rep. Williams said in a statement, ““We have been faced with a great challenge – and our community has risen to the occasion. Never before have I even been so proud as I am now to call this community home.”
College Football is the biggest sport in Alabama. The Birmingham – Hoover – Cullman Metropolitan area is the most populated area of the State. The University of Alabama in Birmingham is the largest employer in the State of Alabama. Given the number of students at UAB, the number of people who work at UAB, the number of people who live within 55 miles of UAB, and the football fervor that exists in Birmingham (once known as the “Football Capital of the South” starting a major college program at UAB seemed logical to many people when legendary basketball coach Gene Bartow (who then doubled as athletic director) started UAB football. Somehow it never really worked and UAB never became the major football power that the University of Alabama and Auburn University have been for decades and losing season after losing season hurt both ticket sales and attendance. The program has never been able to sell out and has struggled to fill the stadium despite thousands of free tickets to home games purchased by the City of Birmingham. Supporters blame the aging Legion Field and the perceived danger of the neighborhood that surrounds the stadium.
When UAB officials attempted to submit plans to the Alabama Board of Trustees, who oversee both UAB and the University of Alabama (in Tuscaloosa), to build a new stadium on UAB’s campus; the Board refused to even consider the ambitious plan. The University President was replaced shortly after that episode. UAB supporters have been critical of the Alabama BOT’s perceived lack of support for UAB athletics for years and Watts’ actions last fall did nothing to build confidence in the BOT.
Only time will tell if UAB can build on the momentum gained ironically from the decision to kill the program. The University allowed all of its players to transfer to other schools without penalty. Those few that do remain will have to wait out a year for the 2016 season. Because of the decision by Watts to kill the program, the 2015 recruiting class was never signed. Coach Bill Clark will have to assemble a staff and begin recruiting the 2016 recruiting class that is likely to be seriously outmatched without upper classmen leadership. The coaches of the ladies bowling and rifle teams will have similar challenges in getting their programs up and running.