The University of Memphis, UAB's No. 1 sports rival, has accepted an invitation to join the prestigious Big East Conference. That means the university on Birmingham's Southside will be left to wallow in a crumbling Conference USA.
It didn't have to be that way.
The Big East, with headquarters in New York City, has a BCS spot in football, a reputation as a top two or three basketball league, and an enormous television footprint. Memphis has been dying to join the conference for years and finally got its wish last week.
Why was UAB left behind? We can think of several valid answers to that question, but the most important one is this: UAB has been suffering from wretched "leadership" for more than a decade, and that's why a league of the Big East's stature wants nothing to do with Blazer athletics. I personally have witnessed the corruption at the heart of UAB's current administration, so I can understand why Big East officials would want to keep the university at arm's length.
For those paying attention, President Carol Garrison has allowed decay to set in at UAB. She should have been fired after her first year on the job, but the University of Alabama already was facing a lawsuit from Garrison's predecessor (W. Ann Reynolds) and did not want to risk another one. Reynolds and Garrison now have combined to wipe out much of the progress UAB athletics made under the late Gene Bartow.
Why is UAB left to hope that Conference USA can salvage a far-flung merger with the Mountain West Conference? David Knox, of The Birmingham News, addressed that question in a recent column and hit on some key points. Here is a major reason UAB's athletics department figures to be flailing for the foreseeable future:
When the Big East is now made up of nine former foes from the Great Midwest/C-USA leagues that UAB co-founded -- Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul, Memphis, South Florida and now Houston, SMU and Central Florida -- you have to ask how did UAB get left on the outside looking in. . . .
Fan support? Big part of it. UAB fans, administration, faculty, alumni and students have only themselves to blame here. They have not supported a fledgling football program that could have positioned itself for the Big East. Winning would have helped, but you have to support the program regardless.
And why are the fans not filling up Bartow Arena to watch a program that's historically among the 25 winningest programs in college basketball? No excuses. None.
Knox is right on target, but he fails to address UAB's leadership vacuum--and I think that and poor fan support are reasons 1(a) and 1(b) that Blazer sports are on shaky ground.
As we have reported previously, Carol Garrison's 10-year reign has been riddled with mismanagement, but let's focus on a few key items that might have given Big East officials pause:
* The John Shumaker Affair--In her first year on the job, Garrison became embroiled in a scandal that cost University of Tennessee President John Shumaker his job. It became known that Garrison was carrying on a "relationship" with Shumaker and jetting around the South with him at taxpayer expense. Any other UAB employee would have been canned for such behavior; Garrison was allowed to stay on. The Garrison/Shumaker alliance started when both were at the University of Louisville--and Louisville now is a member of the Big East. Any chance Louisville officials wanted to be affiliated again with Carol Garrison? I doubt it.
* Massive Research Fraud--Garrison was at the helm when UAB paid $3.4 million to settle a federal whistleblower case involving widespread research and Medicare fraud on campus. The fraud totaled an estimated $300 to $600 million, and the settlement agreement states that the government can reinstate a civil or criminal investigation at any time. Do you think the Big East wanted to risk the PR fallout from such a case in the future? I don't either.
* The Neil Callaway Fiasco--UAB's once-promising football program has gone in the tank, largely because of Garrison's decision to cave in to pressure from UA trustee Paul Bryant Jr. and hire Neil Callaway as head coach. After four losing seasons, Callaway was fired--and interest in Blazer football is at an all-time low.
* The Shadow of Paul Bryant Jr.--The Callaway hiring proved that Garrison does not have the spine to stand up to Bryant, who now has risen to be president of the UA Board of Trustees. It's a poorly kept secret in athletics circles that Bryant Jr. is a scam artist. We have written extensively about his ties to a massive insurance fraud scheme in Pennsylvania from the late 1990s. That case was tried in Philadelphia, which just happens to be a major market for the Big East. Can you imagine the conference taking on UAB, only to have investigative reporters from East Coast newspapers dig up the ugliness in Paul Bryant's past? I suspect Big East officials could live without that potential headache.
As for my own experience with corruption under Carol Garrison's regime, I worked in various editorial positions at UAB for 19 years before being unlawfully fired in May 2008. A tape-recorded conversation I had with UAB Employee Relations Director Anita Bonasera proves that I was targeted and fired because I have written numerous blog posts--on my own time, with my own resources--that have been supportive of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. I was one of many journalists--conservative icon George Will is the latest--to address the likelihood that Siegelman, a Democrat, was the victim of a political prosecution under the Bush Department of Justice. Evidence strongly suggests that Carol Garrison got heat about a UAB employee exercising his First Amendment rights to report on a matter of public concern, and she caved in from pressure to fire me.
I have an ongoing federal lawsuit against UAB, and who knows how that will turn out? But there is no doubt about why I was fired. The following video spells it out, especially at the 1:40 to 2:30 mark. This is the kind of "ethics" that UAB practices under Carol Garrison. Is it any wonder that the Big East wanted no part of it?