By Joey Kennedy
UAB football is coming back, but the team will have to start all over.
President Gerald R. Ford, in 1974, lamented after Watergate: “Our long national nightmare is over.” One would think that University of Alabama at Birmingham President Ray Watts would have voiced similar words last month when he announced that he was reinstating the UAB football, bowling, and rifle programs he killed last December. “At last, my long, statewide nightmare is over,” Watts would say. After all, Watts was beaten up by UAB faculty, alumni, and students. How dare he kill football, especially after one of the Blazers’ most successful seasons in awhile? There were no apologies. You’d think there would be.
One would think.
But Watts spent the first part of his June 1 press conference explaining why killing football, bowling, and rifle was necessary. And then he spent the rest of the press conference trying to say football, bowling, and rifle would be back…IF.
If is a little word that means a lot. Watts never stated the sports are reinstated, only that they would be IF. IF enough funding surfaced. IF enough support surfaced. IF frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their asses on the ground when they hopped.
With few details, Watts reinstated football, bowling, and rifle, six months after he killed it in the most awkward, unexplainable way. Without student input. Without alumni input. Mainly, most agree, with only the University of Alabama Board of Trustees’ input. And, mainly, with input from Paul Bryant Jr. and Finis St. John. Both enemies to growth of UAB’s undergraduate programs and athletics.
It’s absentee ownership that Birmingham is so familiar with. When the steel mills in Birmingham were king, they operated on direction from the north, from Pittsburgh, from absentee owners elsewhere. Birmingham’s growth and progress was impeded by these big industrialists who had only their own priorities in mind, not those of the people, the workers, the city in their sights. Like the owners of our state’s vast forest resources, who take our pine for their paper mills but don’t base any of their headquarters in our state and pay a piddlin’ amount in property taxes for harvesting our trees and making millions. UAB has suffered the same fate, from the absentee owners on the UA Board of Trustees, who have only their own priorities in mind.
UAB can’t have a full-fledged journalism program in the state’s media center, because the University of Alabama wants to keep that to itself. UAB is the slave. The UA Board of Trustees the master. Yet, UAB brings in more money to the UA system than Alabama-Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama at Huntsville combined.
That Watts and the Tuscaloosa trustees claim they didn’t orchestrate this destruction of UAB athletics is absurd on its face. The trustees refused to allow UAB to hire Jimbo Fisher to be coach of its football team. Fisher went on to win a national championship at Florida State. The trustees didn’t allow UAB football to have a new practice field, knowing that the one that existed was prone to flooding (even though the money would come from private sources). The trustees didn’t support an on-campus football stadium at UAB, even though the state’s other football schools, universities like Jacksonville State, Troy University, and even tiny University of West Alabama have them. And even though the money would come mostly from private sources.
The trustees ensured that UAB’s football program would fail, which it mostly did. Losing season after losing season, ensured by the UA trustees, who responded, “See, football can’t succeed at UAB.” The absentee owners kept their collective thumb on Birmingham. The state’s largest city, with the state’s largest economic engine, UAB, was kept from moving forward by forces they couldn’t even negotiate with.
For the sake of full disclosure, I must say I’m an instructor in the English department at UAB. I have been since 2001. I have never seen an issue that has galvanized the UAB student body like President Watts’s decision to kill football, bowling, and rifle. A few years ago, UAB instituted a mandatory meal plan that cost students hundreds of dollars. They were upset, but weren’t galvanized. Parking at UAB has always been a problem, and students complained when parking lots were taken up by new buildings, but they weren’t galvanized. Nothing—nothing—energized student protest, community protest, and business protest like the killing of football. It’s the South’s sport. Even if it’s not always successful. It’s the South’s sport, and it should be at UAB.
Watts said football wasn’t paying its way. Big-time football in colleges across America do not pay their way. Very few football programs cover their expenses. They just don’t. But football does create a complete college experience for students. It allows universities to recruit, not just football players, but musicians for the marching band, cheerleaders, and students who want to cheer for their own football team. Watts killed that.
So Watts says he’s bringing football back. But what is coming back? A destroyed team, which he destroyed without any transparency or discussion with the public he serves—UAB’s students, faculty, and alumni. That great season last year won’t be repeated immediately. Coach Bill Clark turned UAB’s football team around last year, thinking he would have something to build on this year. But those athletes are now a diaspora, scattered in the winds to other programs across the nation.
Yes, another group of Birmingham’s long history of absentee owners: The University of Alabama’s Board of Trustees. Shame.