Monday, April 6, 2009

Is Basketball Coach Embarrassing UAB?

The proud past and possibly grim future of UAB basketball were on display in one edition of the Birmingham newspaper this weekend.

As a former 19-year employee at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I know how the successful men's basketball program has spread the UAB name around the nation in a positive fashion. For good measure, I've followed UAB athletics as a professional journalist in various capacities for 30-plus year, so I've seen the program from the inside out.

What I read in The Birmingham News on Saturday left me both sad and disgusted. UAB basketball is hardly the most important activity at UAB. But it is the most public activity--one that has been a remarkable success story.

To now see UAB basketball in a state of disarray is disturbing for those of us who know how the program reached a lofty status in an amazingly short period of time. But the decline in Blazer hoops is a symptom of larger leadership problems that have plagued UAB for 15-plus years.

Consider the juxtaposition of two stories in Saturday's Birmingham News.

On page 2 of the sports section was an article about Gene Bartow, the father of UAB athletics, being inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri. Bartow led UAB to seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1980s, turning down job opportunities at numerous high-profile programs (Memphis, Kentucky, Wake Forest, Kansas, Arizona State, to name a few).

On page 1 was an article about current UAB coach Mike Davis interviewing for the head coaching position at Washington State University. In fact, Davis apparently traveled to the NCAA Final Four in Detroit on Saturday specifically to interview for the job.

That prompted Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky to write a Sunday column with this headline: "Something's Strange About Davis Talking to Washington State."

Scarbinsky is right on target. And my guess is that Davis' dalliance with Washington State is a sign of brewing problems at UAB under the "leadership" of President Carol Garrison and Vice President Richard Margison, who oversees finance and administration (including human resources) but has played a major role in athletics for several years.

What's strange about Davis looking at Washington State? For one, WSU basketball long has been considered one of the most challenging jobs in major-college athletics.

The school is located in Pullman, Washington, and a quick check of your Rand McNally will tell you why the basketball job is viewed as difficult. Pullman is in extreme eastern Washington, right on the Idaho border and a good five-hour drive from Seattle. Basketball is a city game, and most college programs rely heavily on players from metropolitan areas.

Pullman might be a lovely college town, but it is one of sport's true outposts. By comparison, Starkville, Mississippi, is in the middle of the action. And WSU is a member of the ultra-competitive Pac 10 conference, battling for recruits against schools that are close to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Seattle.

Interestingly, Davis grew up about an hour's drive from Birmingham and has no clear ties to the West Coast. Scarbinsky puts it this way:

Davis is an Alabama native. If he's considering leaving UAB for Washington State, something's not right where he is.

Again, Scarbinsky is on target. And Davis' interest in Washington State--and my unlawful termination, for that matter--are just symptoms of much bigger problems on Birmingham's Southside.

Actually, I think one of two things might be going on with Davis:

* The Mike Davis is Arrogant Angle--To be fair to UAB, Davis has long been considered somewhat of a strange bird in coaching circles. He succeeded the legendary Bobby Knight at Indiana and took the Hoosiers to the Final Four. But he quickly wore out his welcome in the Heartland. Along the way, Davis developed a reputation for talking and acting in strange ways. I'm not aware of Davis ever behaving in a malicious way, but he seems to be a verbal loose cannon. Perhaps he is just too honest for his own good, but not long after arriving at UAB, he gave the impression that he didn't intend to stick around long. He imported three highly regarded transfers, including Indiana's Robert Vaden, and several top high-school recruits. It looked like Davis intended to lead UAB to a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances and then wait for the big-time job offers to roll in. But several players either left, flunked out, or got arrested, and those NCAA trips have yet to come. Davis has only four returning players for next year and needs to sign seven recruits this spring to have a full roster. The next couple of years are likely to be rough at UAB, and that might be why Davis wants out. Perhaps Washington State is the best he can do.

* The UAB Is Screwed Up Angle--It's possible that Davis saw early on that UAB's current administration is a mess. Maybe that's why he didn't want to hang around long.

Signs of trouble are everywhere at UAB. The university has numerous human-resources problems, many of which could have easily been avoided. Court documents indicate that research fraud has been, and probably still is, a major issue. And Garrison has shown questionable ethics from her earliest days at UAB, most notably by cavorting about with former University of Tennessee President John Shumaker, who wound up resigning amid a broiling scandal in Knoxville. (My unlawful termination, which Garrison upheld even though her own grievance committee found that it was wrongful, indicate the president's ethics haven't improved any.)

Sources tell Legal Schnauzer that a local reporter is working on a major story about Birmingham businesspeople who are unhappy with Garrison's leadership at UAB.

To top it off, recent reports indicate that UAB athletics might be the subject of scrutiny from the NCAA. Some reports say the NCAA inquiry focuses on academic fraud in the men's basketball program, a problem that might have started before Davis arrived.

If Davis goes to Washington State, he won't be the first high-profile UAB employee to bail out under curious circumstances in recent months. Cheryl E.H. Locke, UAB's former director of human resources, left for a seemingly lesser job at Wake Forest University.

I met face-to-face with Locke on two occasions, and it appeared that she was being forced to take actions that she had to know were unethical. My impression is that Cheryl Locke is a smart, capable person, and I suspect she grew weary of having to operate under a corrupt UAB administration.

Is Mike Davis checking the exits for similar reasons? That certainly could be the case.

Either way, the future doesn't look so good for UAB basketball. The Blazers desperately need a top-notch recruiting class this spring. It's hard to see how that is going to happen with the head coach showing strong interest in moving to Pullman, Washington.

Meanwhile, The Seattle Times is reporting today that Washington State yesterday interviewed Stew Morrill of Utah State and Ken Bone of Portland State. The newspaper said those two might be the frontrunners for the job.

That means Mike Davis and UAB could be stuck with each other for a while.

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