Buried but never completely dead, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s football program is alive again.
UAB president Ray Watts announced Monday that steps are being taken to restore football, bowling and rifle, only six months after a highly contentious decision to end the sports. UAB officials were short on specifics, saying they hope to play football again by 2016 and that money must be raised by an unstated deadline.
UAB supporters fought the death of football for months, raising millions of dollars to show support, releasing documents to contradict administration statements, and trying to politically change the makeup of the University of Alabama System’s board of trustees, which oversees UAB. The result: Monday’s reversal that many believed was unthinkable throughout the past half-year.
UAB essentially gave itself a self-imposed death penalty, raising legitimate questions of how much damage will have to be overcome upon reinstatement. But in the process, UAB football arguably generated more support and exposure than at any time in its history.
At a news conference, Watts said the biggest reason for the reversal is UAB now has “tangible” additional financial support it did not have before. UAB supporters have committed $17.2 million to cover the athletic department’s operating deficit and need to produce an additional $13 million for facilities, Watts said.
Watts laid out three conditions for the return of football: UAB can’t exceed the amount of institutional support it currently provides for athletics; public and private donors must meet “reasonable” timelines to convert their pledges into money, a timeframe Watts said he will make public at a later date; and UAB won’t borrow money to improve outdated athletic facilities. UAB is a rare Football Bowl Subdivision School that for years has not carried an annual debt service due to athletics.
At times, Watts became annoyed by specific questions, such as why the university couldn’t have better analyzed football’s future on the front end before eliminating the sport. “I don’t want to pursue a lot of time looking back,” Watts said.
Last December, UAB became the first university to drop major college football since the University of the Pacific in 1995. In an emotional team meeting at the time, UAB players questioned Watts how other schools could make football work financially but UAB couldn’t and they accused him of lying to UAB’s coaches.
Watts told the players, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
In fact, Watts didn’t know what he didn’t know — or chose not to know it.
To justify the initial decision, UAB cited a report by consultant Bill Carr. But the report had miscalculations, discrepancies and bad assumptions, most notably no financial model for life without Conference USA revenue. UAB assumed it would stay in C-USA without football, but the conference told the university it won’t remain a member if football doesn’t return.
When UAB’s faculty threatened to have a no-confidence vote in Watts last January, he created a task force to review the decision. The no-confidence vote still happened and Watts fought the task force’s initial hiring of a new consultant, OSKR. Instead, UAB hired College Sports Solutions, which determined that keeping or cutting the sports are both viable options, but reviving them could allow UAB to capitalize off new interest in the athletics department.
Staying in C-USA
For months, Conference USA played the long game with UAB’s future while the university couldn’t get a grip on what to do. C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky elected not to rush UAB into a decision about reinstatement, thus avoiding giving the UAB administration an out to kill the reinstatement possibility sooner. C-USA was content to let the issue run its course.
“I hoped that the longer it played out, the better the chances would be for it to be reinstated,” Banowsky said. “I was trying to encourage everyone just to be patient and give them the space they needed to get the answers they needed.”
Watts confirmed UAB plans to remain an FBS program in C-USA. New UAB athletic director Mark Ingram said the goal is to play football again as soon as possible, which may be 2016. There will be NCAA issues to navigate through for UAB to regain its FBS status.
Banowsky described UAB’s immediate FBS status as “unchartered territory” because he doesn’t think there has ever been a program to take this route. A school can stay in FBS if it has 76 scholarships — 90 percent of the maximum 85 scholarships.
“My initial thought is I think they’ll be able to maintain FBS status, even though they don’t field a team in a given year,” Banowsky said. “The sooner they can get back to 76 (scholarships), I think the better off they’ll be under the NCAA’s eyes. I think UAB’s intention is to move it along as quickly as they can within practical reasons.”
Banowsky said he is not counting on UAB playing football in C-USA in 2016, based on the league’s experiences with Texas-San Antonio and Charlotte as start-up programs. “To do it right you have to have a period of time where your roster builds and then you have to have a schedule that enables you to compete and not just get killed,” Banowsky said.
Division I membership without football requires a minimum of 14 sports (eight women’s and six men’s teams), compared to 18 with football. When UAB cut football, it was down to five men’s sports so the university said it planned to add men’s cross country and track and field to maintain Division I requirements. It’s not clear if cross country and track will still be added.
Banowsky said C-USA will have to discuss how to divide football-related revenue with UAB in years the Blazers don’t play football. “I think we’d want to understand first what their plan was to reinstate and on what timeline,” he said. “It will take a while to sort itself out.”
About 56 UAB football players transferred to other schools after the program was eliminated last December. They picked up their lives and moved on somewhere else — only to now see UAB football return six months later.
What are the eligibility rules for a player who left UAB and wants to return? Does he lose a year of eligibility? Does the 2015 season — with no UAB football — become the year the player would have to sit out? Osburn said the NCAA’s Academic and Membership Affairs staff will likely work directly with UAB to answer questions such as these.
After not signing any players in 2015, UAB’s next class will presumably be for 2016. Under NCAA rules, schools are allowed 25 initial counters and would need to seek a waiver if they need more than that total.
“Like all UAB supporters, I am thrilled with today’s news,” Clark said in a statement. “This is a critical first step toward UAB football’s new path. It takes tremendous commitment and support to run a successful football program. We have a lot of work to do but we start anew today!”
Why the reversal
A major development in the past week was Birmingham businessmen meeting with Watts and providing financial support for UAB football. Some of these businessmen had traditionally not been associated with UAB.
“I think that as the business community began to see the grassroots passion in this, they started to see what a great thing this could be for our community,” Alabama state Rep. Jack Williams said. “This is a community that hasn’t always put its best foot forward, and I think it decided it wants to be great and UAB is a vehicle to get us to greatness.”
Williams, who ran a recruiting website devoted to UAB football, became a key figure over the past six months. The Free UAB movement spanned across racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
“I never did anything to move the needle,” Williams said. “I just had to keep it alive until the needle-movers had to engage.”
Williams decided early on to treat the issue like it was a political campaign. With the Alabama board in transition as some members cycle off, Williams said he knew football could be brought back by making this issue about public opinion and public perception.
“We were dealing with folks that were used to getting their way,” Williams said. “I knew if we kept the pressure on the board and administration that eventually folks would rally to our side because we were standing up for a community that desperately needed success.”
The decision to end football will be expensive, “but it may turn into a genius marketing strategy unintentionally,” Williams said. “The one thing we’ve seen is this has been an Alabama and Auburn town. I think UAB has finally shoved its foot in the door and there’s about to be a UAB aspect and this town will start to embrace UAB football like Memphis has embraced Memphis football over Ole Miss and Tennessee.”
Former UAB running back Ja’Won Arrington, who is now playing at North Dakota, said he was overjoyed by Monday’s announcement and pledged to eventually return to the school to get a degree at UAB.
“I still long to be at UAB, but I can’t turn that hand of time,” Arrington said. “I feel there wasn’t enough pressure on (Watts) six months ago. I feel like when he announced the program would end, he would sweep it under the rug, but clearly everybody rallied together.”
Banowsky views the UAB saga as an opportunity to learn lessons: Nurture something you love, don’t take it for granted, and be patient when trying to bring it back.
“That’s an amazing side story here to have a community to get the opportunity to rally,” Banowsky said. “It’s the ultimate do-over.”