Monday, December 08, 2014

Alabama-Birmingham drops football

Last week was a sad one for Blazer players, coaches, fans and alumni:
UAB is shutting down its football program.
The university announced the decision Tuesday, minutes after president Ray Watts met with Blazers players and coaches, while several hundred UAB students and fans gathered outside for the third straight day in efforts to support the program. UAB made the decision after a campus-wide study conducted by a consulting firm over the past year.

"The fiscal realities we face -- both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint -- are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB," Watts said in a statement released by the university. "As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the athletic department, football is simply not sustainable."

UAB said in a release that it subsidizes $20 million of the athletic department's operating budget of some $30 million annually, and said both those numbers rank fifth in Conference USA. The university said the difference over the next five years would be an extra $49 million with football, including a projected $22 million needed for football facilities and upgrades.
UAB's problems, however, weren't just financial. They were also political:
Part of the problem, according to UAB football supporters and former players, is that the university doesn’t have its own board of trustees and is controlled by the University of Alabama System board, which oversees campuses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. 
Thirteen of the 15 trustees received undergraduate or law degrees from the University of Alabama, including Paul W. Bryant Jr., the son of legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. 
Only three board members have academic ties to UAB. One of them, Barbara Humphrey, is the wife of former Crimson Tide star running back Bobby Humphrey. 
“Some of the folks on that board would rather destroy UAB than beat Auburn,” said Alabama state Rep. Jack Williams, an outspoken supporter of UAB football. 
UAB football supporters have long argued the board of trustees has sought to hamper the program’s success. In 2006, UAB had reached an agreement with Jimbo Fisher to become its new football coach. But the board of trustees nixed the deal, and Fisher, who was then LSU’s offensive coordinator, went to Florida State the next season. He succeeded Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden in 2010 and guided FSU to a BCS national championship last season. 
In 2011, UAB announced plans to build a 30,000 on-campus stadium, which would have allowed them to leave the cavernous-yet-crumbling Legion Field. However, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees shot that plan down as well. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Board did not want UAB football to succeed; as's Jon Solomon reported last month, apparently there was personal animus involved:
Simmering under the surface of this debate is the role of powerful trustees with Crimson Tide ties, including Paul Bryant Jr., the son of the legendary Alabama football coach. To UAB supporters, there is no doubt Bryant Jr. plans to finally kill UAB football before he leaves the board this year after a decades-old feud tied to Gene Bartow, the late founder of UAB athletics.

Bartow accused Bear Bryant of cheating in a letter to the NCAA in 1991.

"Gene Bartow, out of his mouth, told me on many, many occasions that the aim of the board of trustees was to kill UAB football in the last 8-10 years," said Jimmy Filler, UAB's biggest booster and the creator of the UAB Football Foundation. "They're going to get the recommendation from [UAB President Ray Watts], and they'll accept what he brings to them."
The Board's meddling aside, UAB football faced a genuine financial crisis, the same one that many other smaller schools with lesser-known programs are facing as well:
In many ways, UAB football symbolizes the have-nots in college football -- schools with limited resources for such an expensive sport. It's a divide that's only going to widen due to NCAA autonomy and pending court cases. Athletes are going to receive more benefits from universities, such as cost of attendance, and consideration of those extra expenses is a large part of UAB's strategic study.

Like many lower-resourced Division I schools, UAB has drained money on football. From 2006 to 2013, UAB athletics received $85.4 million in direct institutional support and $28.4 million from student fees. Subsidies accounted for 64 percent of UAB's athletic revenue in fiscal year 2013, though the university's support declined by $1.4 million that year in a rare instance when subsidies decreased.
Although UAB won six games and qualified for a bowl for only the second time in their program's history, they were not invited to any bowl games, so their victory over Southern Miss at the end of November will be the last game in the program's history.

UAB began playing football in 1991 and moved up to FBS (Division I-A) in 1996. The Blazer program went 119-152-2 over its 24 seasons of existence, including an all-time record of 4-5 against Houston. (Their very first win as a member of Conference USA was against Houston; that game ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back as far as Kim Helton's disastrous tenure at UH was concerned, and it's worth mentioning that the same consultant who recommended to the UAB administration that they shut down their program, Bill Carr, hired Kim Helton when he was Houston's AD. So Carr clearly has experience in killing, or almost killing, football programs...)

Alabama-Birmingham is the first FBS school to drop football since Pacific University ended their program in 1995. Fivethirtyeight's take on the Blazers' demise is here.

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