Tuesday, June 2, 2015

UAB football supporters win a major battle, but the struggle for long-term success is just beginning

UAB football at Legion Field
The big news in Birmingham yesterday came when UAB President Ray Watts announced that he was reinstating the university's football program, which had been cut six months ago. Despite my ugly experience with being unlawfully terminated after 20 years on the job at UAB, I still care a lot about the university. I wasn't planning on writing a post about yesterday's events, but when a reader asked what I thought about it in the comments section from one of yesterday's posts . . . well, I discovered I had a lot to say on the subject.

After all, I saw the UAB football program grow from its earliest days under Coach Jim Hilyer, and I saw it reach bowl status in Division I under Watson Brown. During my sportswriting days, I covered SEC games all over the Southeast. But some of the most entertaining football games I've ever seen were UAB games in the aging but still intriguing confines of Legion Field. I've still never seen a quarterback who could launch a prettier pass than UAB's Darrell Hackney. And his missiles to receiver Roddy White, now a standout with the Atlanta Falcons, were beautiful in their strength and precision.

My response to the reader's question grew too long for the comment box, so I decided to turn it into a post. Here is how that exchange went, and my response includes material that would not fit in the comment section:

Q: Hey Schnauzer, how do you feel about yesterday's news that UAB is getting its football program back.

A: I was glad to see it, on the surface, because a university of that size in Birmingham, AL, should have a D-1 football program. UAB recruited players primarily in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida, so those are important scholarship opportunities for kids who largely get bypassed by the SEC. 

I say "on the surface" because I heard a lot of "ifs, ands, and buts" in Ray Watts' talk, and I don't think either he or key members of his administration can be trusted. The way I heard it, if fund-raising goals are slow in being reached, the plug could be pulled again, maybe 4-5 years down the road.

With that hanging out there, how is Bill Clark going to attract and retain top-notch assistant coaches? How is the coaching staff going to recruit and keep top-notch players? If I'm Bill Clark, I have major concerns about moving forward under Ray Watts' leadership--and the "leadership" of a Board of Trustees that probably still is out to kill or handicap the program.

All of the qualifiers in Watts' talk make me think that perhaps only the "method of execution" has been changed. The original plan was a quick death by chopping off the head. The new plan might be more gradual, by slowing choking the program to death.

Aside from all the dark possibilities going forward, UAB fans should take time to celebrate. They stood up, led by the writings of UGA Prof. John Knox and legislative pressure from Rep. Jack Williams, and truly embarrassed both the board and the UAB administration. Their voices were heard, and they didn't go away quietly. Good for them.

I hope the public remembers this: There is no question UAB can have a successful football program at D-1. Watson Brown has already proven that. Before Gene Bartow retired as athletics director, and administrative dysfunction took over, Brown built a really nice team. The Blazers of the Darrell Hackney, Roddy White, Steel Shield era would have been a real threat to beat Alabama or Auburn, on the right day. During that general time frame, UAB did beat LSU and Mississippi State from the SEC. 

The Blazers also went nose to nose in the same conference with very good teams from other metro areas--schools like TCU, Louisville, Cincinnati, East Carolina, South Florida, SMU, Tulsa, Central Florida, Memphis, and more. UAB has been left behind during conference realignment in a watered-down C-USA--and that happened probably because of weak leadership on the Birmingham campus.

To get back where UAB really belongs, it needs to get the kind of forward-thinking leadership that will seek membership in a league like the American Athletic Conference (AAC), where many of the teams noted above now reside. As a university, UAB has very little in common with the schools it now shares space with in C-USA. The Blazers need to get their competitive legs back under them and move toward the AAC. When UAB has real leaders, it is an extremely attractive partner with other "brand name" metro schools. Blazer sports teams got left behind only because school "leaders" shrugged their shoulders and let it happen--all the while, the Tuscaloosa-driven board of trustees also was dragging down the Blazers.

A note of caution: The rebuilding process for UAB football is likely to be difficult. Momentum from last year's surprising 6-6 season has been lost--almost all of the players and coaches who made that happen are gone. Some 1-11 and 2-10 records might be part of the rebuilding process, and if fans give up during those tough times, it will be an excuse for another round of "pull the plug on the Blazers."

If UAB fans are serious about having football, and a comprehensive student experience the sport represents, they need to recognize that the struggle is just beginning. They need to hang in there with their financial support and physical presence, even when losses start piling up early. They need to continue to push for Ray Watts' ouster, with strong UAB input on naming his successor. And with the leadership of folks like John Knox and Jack Williams, they need to push for reform of the UA board.

With the right backing, UAB football can not only exist, it can thrive. Watson Brown and his staff and players proved that when they were operating under a trustworthy athletics director (named Gene Bartow). The UAB football swoon began when Bartow retired as AD and a series of weak and/or clueless presidents took over the campus. 

Blazer football can be good--and extremely entertaining--again someday. And it won't hurt Alabama or Auburn one bit. The campus needs a new Dick Hill as president and a new Gene Bartow as AD. If that happens, look out. UAB could have plenty of bowl games in its future.


Anonymous said...

I agree that UAB football is not out of the woods. PBJ and St. John never dreamed UAB supporters would rise up like they did. My guess is that this is the start of Plan B to kill UAB football. The bad guys didn't think they would have to use this plan.

Anonymous said...

Great story from Kyle Whitmire about UAB's humanoid president:


Unknown said...

Plan B is right! The Empire will strike back.

Anonymous said...

The BoT underestimated the blowback. They probably will again, but it is not the open attacks that I fear. I think that those will again be beaten back. What scares me is the sneak attack through bureaucratic means, the transfer of programs and funds, things like that. The new hire from UA to head admissions will have a lot of influence in the types of students recruited, and the ones who are subtly encouraged to "seek a fuller college experience" down the road a piece.

Go and take a look at the Mission Statements of UAB and UAH - how they read now and the Statement that they replaced, and tell me that there's nothing going on. Undergrad has been written out of UAB's.

Stay awake and keep fighting, Blazers.

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for an insightful comment, @1:21. That anyone would even think of tinkering with the success UAB's had--as the No. 1 economic driver in the state's No. 1 market--is hard to fathom. The Bryant crowd, however, has always been selfish and short-sighted and fearful of change. That's largely why cities like Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte, and Jacksonville have left us in the dust in terms of professional sports. What is it they call Atlanta--"The city that's too busy to hate"? Well, Birmingham has been "the city that always has time for hate"--and that's largely because of people who think like P. Bryant Jr. and his lackeys.