On the afternoon of Tuesday, Dec. 2, the University of Alabama at Birmingham became the first major university since Pacific in 1995 to cease operations of a football program. Citing the results of a school-sanctioned year long economic study done by CarrSports, university president Ray Watts claimed that roughly $49 million would be required to sustain the program for another five years, an amount he didn’t view as sustainable itself.
“In order to invest at least another $49 million to keep football over the next five years, we would have to redirect funds away from critical areas of importance like education, research, patient care, or student services.” Watts stated.
UAB officials also stated that the results showed that the program cuts were necessary, “in order to more effectively invest in the success of priority programs.” The other two programs that were cut in order to provide this “effective investment?” The bowling and rifle programs, both of which will combine for $400,000 to $600,000 over the next few years. That is merely chump change when compared to the football budget.
The decision was met with understandable heartbreak and bewilderment from the team. During the meeting with the players, Watts was subject to numerous emotional outbursts from players, trainers, and coaches. Several players lashed out about how far some of them moved to play in Birmingham. Others brought up the several surgeries and rehabs players on the team have endured. Despite the president’s efforts to present the decision as strictly financial, players weren’t buying it.
“But you say numbers?” UAB tight end Tristan Henderson yelled. “This man (Blazers first year coach Bill Clark) walks to you, walked into your office and said, ‘You’ve got to do it the right way for me to be here.’ And you said you would, and now you just pull the plug? So you lied to the man’s face?”
That night, a video was posted of the meeting. The video already has almost 1,000,000 views:
The decision was met with protests from students and the Birmingham community. Hundreds of students demonstrated outside of the football building as the Blazers marching band showed up and played the Blazers fight song. Former players, most of them in tears, embraced each other and other members of the student body. Dusty Davis, UAB’s team chaplain, was also on hand, leading tearful players in prayer and offering up his own views on the decision. Davis described himself as “violently angry” about the situation. Although the university said it would honor scholarships for the players that wanted to remain on campus, as well as granting transferring players the ability to play at another school immediately, it wasn’t anywhere near enough for him.
“A lot of these kids won’t get other opportunities,” said Davis. “They might be able to drop down and play at other schools. A lot of these guys will be working fast food or back in their hometown living with mom or grandma. That’s the cold reality.”
Perhaps the most stinging aspect of the decision is the turnaround the team has made under their first year coach. Bill Clark was hired in the offseason from perennial FCS title contender Jacksonville State, and immediately brought life to a struggling team. The Blazers have certainly had their fair share of mediocrity in recent history, but there was a sense of optimism on the campus this year. The team finished 6-6 and was bowl eligible for the first time since 2004, when they finished 7-5 and played in the Hawaii Bowl. Average attendance had doubled to over 20,000 for home games after being down for several years. UAB senior Kristen Blanchard shared her disappointment in relation to the team’s success this season.
“I used to be proud to be a Blazer,” Blanchard said with tears in her eyes. “Now I’m embarrassed because our football team was on track to do really good and we pretty much got shot down. I just feel like nobody believes in our school and that’s not fair.”
The school’s decision has been criticized by everyone from former players to prominent boosters. Former Blazer and current Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White issued a statement days after the decision, saying that he was “hurting for the players. ” Prominent alums and football program mega-boosters Jimmy Filler and Don Hire have both made remarks to the press disputing president Watts’ view of the decision. Filler claims he had close to $5 million that he was willing to immediately provide the program, and could more than likely raise millions more over the next few years, with help from other boosters and Blazers alumni currently playing in the NFL. For some odd reason, Filler claims, he was never taken up on the offer. Hire has said that, although the school knew of his resources and the dire situation they claimed to face, he was never asked for his help financially, oddly enough.
So why exactly would a university refuse or disregard prominent donors willing to dole out millions? If the decision isn’t strictly financial as some have been claiming, what else could it be? It might be helpful to take a close look at the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. The board oversees not only UAB, but also the University of Alabama in Hunstsville.
Oh, and they also oversee some school in Tuscaloosa known simply as the University of Alabama. Yes, that Alabama. The mighty Crimson Tide, currently the No. 1 football team in the country. Nick Saban may be their beloved head coach currently, but the late legend and former coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is still the name that is synonymous with the storied success and history of the program. Bryant’s son, Alabama alum Paul Bryant Jr., happens to serve on that very Board of Trustees, along with several other University of Alabama alums. So in essence, Bryant is in a position of authority over UAB.
Ok, so he’s on the Board of Trustees. So what? Boards tend to have several members that deliberate to make decisions, so it’s not like he can single-handedly enforce his own will, right? And even if he did, why would he be out to get UAB?
Jimmy Filler has the answer, and that it is a longstanding vendetta from Bryant against the UAB athletic program. The vendetta has a lot to do with the late Gene Bartow, who in 1977 left his position as UCLA’s men’s basketball coach to begin a basketball program at UAB. Bartow served as UAB men’s basketball coach and athletic director for 18 years, guiding the upstart Blazers to seven NCAA tournament appearances, even reaching the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight in successive seasons.
In 1991, Bartow wrote a letter to the NCAA asking them to investigate the Alabama men’s basketball program, suggesting that several rules were being violated. Bartow also included the fact that several former Alabama football coaches had been penalized by the NCAA and that they were “trained” by Bear Bryant Sr. himself. Filler claims that Bryant’s son took grave offense to the letter, and has been out to get UAB ever since. Bartow passed away in 2012 after a battle with stomach cancer. Filler says that Bartow believed until the end that the younger Bryant was after still after UAB’s athletic program.
“He said this would happen,” Filler said. “He said it two weeks before he passed that they wanted to kill UAB athletics. My good friend and dear man was 100 percent right.”
Bryant was widely criticized in 2006 for blocking two of UAB’s choices for a new head coach. First, he had the Board block UAB’s first choice, which was simply to promote UAB assistant Pat Sullivan. The second coach blocked by Bryant and his alleged cronies was the then offensive coordinator at LSU, Jimbo Fisher. Fisher, as we all know, has gone on to win a national title at Florida State and is currently within reach of another. UAB and Fisher had already agreed on basic contractual terms. Half of Fisher’s annual $600,000 salary was to be subsidized by private boosters. So basically, UAB was getting the coach it wanted, and at a bargain price.
Seemed like the perfect hire at the time, with all sides getting what they wanted.
But Bryant was having none of that, and for two reasons. One, he didn’t want UAB to have a good coach, and two, he likely wanted Fisher in Tuscaloosa, coaching the Crimson Tide. And if not as a head coach, maybe as an assistant to the other man in their sights, Nick Saban, whom Fisher was offensive coordinator for at LSU. Hence, why the hiring was not approved by the board. Bryant instead forced the hire of disgraced former Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway. Callaway played for Bryant’s father at Alabama in the late 70’s. He went 18-42 in five seasons as head coach before being fired in 2011.
Bryant Jr. and the Board of Trustees were also instrumental in blocking a proposal in 2011 that would have funded a much needed actual on-campus stadium to replace the decrepit and oversized Legion Field. Bryant Jr. was the president pro tempore over the meeting. Filler points to that decision as just another example of Bryant Jr. blocking any kind of infrastructure improvements that would have benefitted UAB.
None of this is surprising for someone like Bryant. This is after all, a man that has made some of his fortune on dog racing operations, including a notorious track in Idaho that was shut down in 1995 and was alleged to have cultured a terrible open atmosphere of animal abuse and killing. This is a man who has admitted that his family ties were essential in his business escapades. How else do you explain a 25 year old Bryant Jr. owning a minor league baseball team? This is a man who folded one of his companies after it was linked to insurance fraud and investigated by the Department of Justice, re-starting it with a slightly different name a short time later. This is a man that was once sued by his own company, Greene Group Inc., for using company assets to his personal gain. He is still with the company. This is a man who in 1989 was quoted by Esquire describing the frequenters of his Alabama dog race track as “a low-class, low-income crowd … generally your lower class of blacks, your welfare blacks, you want ’em to have enough room to get in and out, but at the same time you want to get as many in as possible.”
Bryant would later deny making the remarks, but only after they were brought up years later during his successful bid to be appointed to the Board of Trustees in 2000. In short, this is a man who does and says what he wants, and gets away with it, while perhaps protected by the local wealthy elite, the good ‘ole boy system, and certainly the name of his father.
Coach Clark and his players met together after the meeting with Watts to discuss whether or not they wanted to play in a bowl, if even selected for one. The players all agreed to, knowing it was a slim chance, yet remained hopeful to share the field together one last time. To hear the fight song one last time. To hear their fans one last time. To play for their coach one last time.
They were passed over when Sunday’s bowl bids were announced.
And just like that, the lights fade to black on a proud football program. Lockers are cleaned out, offices are packed up, staff members are left searching for jobs, players are left out in the cold after having the rug pulled out from under their feet. For them, it’s like the last day of high school suddenly being announced in the middle of your first semester on a Wednesday at 11:00am. Not exactly the inevitable goodbyes you were hoping for. The UAB Blazers football team becomes a thing of the past, it’s facilities and offices left to stand as monuments to what was, and what could have been, had it not been for the calculated actions of a select few.
It is because of the grudge of one and perhaps the superiority complex of some others that the dreams of over 85+ student athletes have been shattered, not to mention plunging a dagger through the hearts of thousands of fans, students, alumni, and players who look back fondly on their time in the program they assumed would always be there. The players in that dreadful Tuesday afternoon meeting have now been faced with the impossible choice of either forsaking their love for staying in the community they’ve come to call home, or continuing their dreams at a location yet to be determined, starting over and picking up the pieces they had no fault in dispersing.
And in the world of college athletics, where student athletes entrust themselves to a system run by select individuals that are supposed to give them the best of both worlds, that is truly a shame.
Update: An independent study released on April 23, 2015 concluded that the university made a profit from the football program, with the surplus on track to grow even more over the coming years.
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