The biggest story in Birmingham last week involved the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and its refusal to address plans for an on-campus football stadium at UAB--even though the chairman of the board's athletics committee had enthusiastically endorsed the plan in September.
Many UAB supporters are baffled and outraged, understandably so. After a presentation on the stadium proposal less than two months ago, Athletics Committee Chairman John McMahon said he thought the project would "get done and get done quickly." At last Thursday's board meeting in Tuscaloosa the project was pronounced dead.
What happened between September and November? UAB supporters tend to point angry fingers at Paul W. Bryant Jr., president pro tempore of the Board of Trustees and son of UA's late, Hall of Fame football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Blazer fans are correct to be suspicious of Bryant Jr.'s motives; he long has been seen as an impediment to UAB's aspirations in the sports arena. But UAB President Carol Garrison should not escape scrutiny. Her weakness as a leader helped set the stadium fiasco in motion.
To be sure, Bryant Jr. is a shady character, and public documents show that Bryant is a businessman with deeply skewed ethics, as we pointed out in a post with a not-so-subtle headline:
Why Is Paul Bryant Jr. on the UA Board of Trustees and Not In Federal Prison?
Court documents from Pennsylvania show that one of Bryant's companies, Alabama Reassurance, engaged in a "wire fraud scheme" to deceive insurance regulators and "inflate financial statements." A Philadelphia lawyer/entrepreneur named Allen W. Stewart received a 15-year prison sentence in the case, but an investigation of Alabama Re was called off by U.S. Justice Department officials in Alabama.
According to Alabama Department of Insurance records, Bryant was one of five people on the Alabama Re board, and the company had two full-time employees. In such a closely held organization, it's hard to imagine that Bryant was unaware of a $15-million fraud scheme.
Bryant is not the only slippery character in the UAB stadium story. Carol Garrison has her own set of shaky ethics, and UAB is not likely to move forward until both Bryant and Garrison are out of power.
Like Bryant, Garrison has a disturbing history of being tied to financial shenanigans. In fact, she probably should have been fired for misuse of public funds during her first year on the job at UAB. But the Board of Trustees, already facing a likely lawsuit from UAB's previous president (W. Ann Reynolds), decided to keep Garrison on--ensuring that she would be their toady for the foreseeable future.
How weak is Garrison as a university president? Consider her almost comical response to the Board of Trustees' announcement that the stadium plan was going down. First, here is a portion of the board's statement:
A majority of the Board believes that an on-campus football stadium is not in the best interest of UAB, the University System or the State. It is the Board's duty to be responsible stewards of the limited resources available for higher education. In these difficult economic times of rising tuition and decreasing state funds, we cannot justify the expenditure of $75 million in borrowed money for an athletic stadium which would only be used a few days each year. The UAB football program has not generated sufficient student, fan or financial support to assure the viability of this project.
Here is Garrison's response:
I forwarded for consideration by the Board of Trustees the information on our proposed on-campus stadium. My responsibility is to make the best recommendations I can, based on the information that I have available to me. The responsibility of the Board includes reviewing the information and making their best individual and collective judgments. In this case the judgment was not to entertain this item. Together we need to refocus with the Board on all the important and exciting opportunities before this great university.
How's that for a "profile in courage"? That's really standing up for your constituents, isn't it? Garrison came across as a labradoodle, rolling over in hopes that someone would rub her belly.
|Paul Bryant Jr.|
UAB fans are howling for Callaway's dismissal, and that apparently has ticked off Bryant Jr. It has been widely reported that Bryant Jr. forced UAB to hire Callaway, a former UA player and coach, after the board refused to let UAB hire its first choice, Jimbo Fisher (now Florida State's coach).
In an exchange last Thursday with al.com's Kevin Scarbinsky, Bryant strongly hinted that UAB and its fans are being unfair to Callaway:
Bryant: "Given the way the vote was, if it had gotten to me, I would've voted no (on the stadium project). I think there are a lot of things to be done to help the football program."
Q: Short of building an on-campus stadium?
A: "To start with, it's very difficult for them to have a chance recruiting with the facilities they have. It's very difficult for them to recruit when they can't admit players from Birmingham that qualify under NCAA requirements (but not under UAB's higher requirements). It's tough being the Vanderbilt of Conference USA, and that's what they're having to try to do. My main interest in it is to support the players and the coaches. I think last Friday there was something written in (a Hot Corner in The Birmingham News) whether to pull for them to win the (Marshall) game or not because you didn't know who you wanted the coach to be. I think that was a horrible thing to write. If anybody's looking at it that way, they ought to be doing everything they can to support the team to win games right now."
Bryant's comments are nonsensical, at best. If UAB's facilities make it hard to recruit football players, does Bryant think pulling the plug on a new stadium will help? As for UAB's tougher admissions standards for athletes, reducing special admits, those are an attempt to address problems with the NCAA's guidelines for Academic Progress Rate (APR). Does Bryant think the university should ignore those issues? As for the "Hot Corner" item in The Birmingham News, it was a written by one of the paper's sportswriters--not a UAB supporter. It doesn't represent an official UAB position--and it's not the sportswriter's job "to support the team."
If UAB had a respectable record in 2011--say, 5-4, with three games to play--would the stadium plan be moving forward? Did Bryant Jr. pull the plug on UAB's stadium plans because the university wants to can Callaway in the midst of a dismal season?
The answer to both questions, I think, is yes. And that brings us back to Carol Garrison.
She set this soap opera in motion by agreeing to hire Callaway in the first place. If Bryant Jr. and the board wanted to nix Jimbo Fisher, claiming he was too expensive, UAB could have gone in a different direction. The best choice probably would have been John Neal, a long-time UAB assistant who has been highly successful as secondary coach at the University of Oregon. Former Blazer players speak glowingly of Neal, and he has the kind of energetic, fiery presence the program desperately needs.
If Bryant balked even at Neal, Garrison could have pointed to page 18 of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees Board Manual. Under responsibilities of the campus presidents, it includes:
Personnel administration including employment and termination, wage determination, and conditions of employment for faculty and other employees of the campus.
Translation: The hiring or firing of a football coach--or any other UAB personnel--is the responsibility of the university president. And that would be Carol Garrison.
If Paul Bryant Jr. forced UAB to hire Neil Callaway, and he almost certainly did, it was a violation of university policy. If Bryant Jr. is punishing UAB for its desire to fire Neil Callaway, that also is a violation of university policy.
It appears that Paul Bryant Jr. doesn't take university policy seriously. But what do you expect from a guy with clear ties to massive financial crimes?
Sadly, Carol Garrison is not a whole lot better. And we will show why in an upcoming series of posts.
People who care about UAB should do everything in their power to expose Paul Bryant Jr. for the fraudster that he is. But they also should take immediate steps to help push Carol Garrison toward the exits.
The university will not thrive as it should until both of them are out of the picture.