I'm talking about the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB). Because of a glaring lack of leadership, the Blazers football program has been in cold storage for two years. The Blazers are due to resume action in 2017, but how did UAB -- arguably the state's most important institution and its chief economic driver -- lose its program, in a city that bills itself as "The Football Capital of the South"?
Well, I've identified a man who probably could have kept that from happening. His name is Fritz Seyferth, and without ignorant decision-making from the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, he probably would have been a leading candidate to replace Gene Bartow as athletics director, when "The Father of UAB Sports" retired in 2000.
If Seyfurth had been hired to succeed a UAB legend, here is what I think would have happened:
* Blazer football never would have been discontinued;
* Poor decisions, like the hiring of Neil Callaway to replace Watson Brown as head football coach, would not have been made;
* UAB would be in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) -- along with peer metropolitan schools such as Memphis, Cincinnati, Houston, South Florida, Central Florida, Tulane, and SMU -- instead of a watered-down Conference USA.
* UAB would be playing in a 2016 bowl game and probably would have received multiple such bids since its only appearance, in the 2004 Hawaii Bowl.
* UAB would have an on-campus football stadium, or it would have worked with the City of Birmingham to build a replacement for aging Legion Field -- probably near the Civic Center. Either way, the facility would be finished by now, probably several years ago.
Who is Fritz Seyferth? He played football at the University of Michigan, where he rose from walk-on to standout fullback under Hall of Fame coach Bo Schembechler and earned a degree in industrial and operations engineering. After enjoying a brief career in the Canadian Football League, earning an MBA at the University of Connecticut, and serving a stint with Arthur Young and Company, Seyferth returned to Michigan to work in athletics administration. He was at UM for 20 years, retiring in 2000 as executive associate athletics director. Seyferth started a consulting firm called Fritz Seyferth and Associates, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and remains the firm's principal at age 66.
While running his consulting company in its first seven years, Seyferth also served as development director for the University of Michigan's Cardiovascular Center, helping to raise $105 million in private gifts.
What could have connected Seyferth to UAB? In 1997, UAB was looking for a new president after J. Claude Bennett stepped down following revelations that he was using state employees to work at his private residence. The search came down to two candidates -- W. Ann Reynolds, who was provost of City University of New York (CUNY) and Bernard Machen, who was provost at the University of Michigan.
I worked as an editor at UAB then -- I was a university employee from 1989 to 2008 -- and remember the search well. In fact, here is how I reported on the matter in a 2009 Legal Schnauzer post:
The choice seemed clearcut. Reynolds had an impressive resume, but she also had a history of causing uproars on several campuses. Word was that she had gone through something like 18 secretaries in a short time at CUNY. I later heard from a trusted source in human resources at UAB that those stories were true, give or take a secretary or two.
Meanwhile, Machen appeared to be a perfect fit. He is a dentist by training, and UAB has one of the top dental schools in the country. UAB has a tradition of strong dentist/leaders. Both McCallum and Joseph Volker, UAB's first president, rose to the top spot through the School of Dentistry.
Machen reportedly had family in the South, and that made the UAB job particularly attractive to him. In the Publications Office, where I worked, word was that it was a done deal--Machen would be UAB's new president. We were so sure of it that we did not even attend Reynolds' public interview session with the board. I was right there on the front row for the Machen session, sure I was hearing from our next president.
But in a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the UA board hired Reynolds.
How did that happen? A trusted source provided insight, which I included in the 2009 post:
Michigan was going through a tumultuous stretch at the time, and Machen had been pretty much holding the campus together, handling two or three jobs over several months. The UAB interviews were in the spring, and when board members asked Machen when he could start, he made the mistake of being honest. Machen reportedly said the heavy workload at Michigan had left him tired, and he would like to take some time to recharge his batteries before starting at UAB. Plus, he had a number of loose ends to tie up at Ann Arbor. Machen suggested that he start at UAB in the fall, around the time the school year started.
When asked the same question, Reynolds said she could start right away. In fact, she couldn't wait to get to UAB. Of course that was because, according to reports at the time, she was about to be ousted at CUNY.
According to my source, board members said something like, "This guy from Michigan sounds worn out. We need this energetic gal from New York."
And so Ann Reynolds was hired as president of UAB. Perhaps the only worse personnel decision of the past 25 years was the "election" of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000.
How badly did the UA board botch the hiring? A few months after being rejected at UAB, Machen was hired as president at the University of Utah. He stayed in that position for six years, before being hired as president at the University of Florida in 2006. Machen seems to have received generally high marks in both positions, and he retired from UF in January 2015. On the football front, Machen hired Urban Meyer as head coach at both schools, and Meyer now is in the College Football Playoff with Ohio State.
Reynolds wound up antagonizing people across the UAB campus, helped launch the Brittany Benefield scandal (perhaps the most embarrassing episode in the university's history), and finally was forced out of office, leading her to file a lawsuit against the UA System. She has not been heard from in higher education for years.
What if Machen had been hired at UAB? By 2000, Bartow was announcing his retirement as the only AD in university history. At the same time, Seyferth was retiring from the athletics department at Michigan, but he was only 50 years old. One of Bartow's close coaching friends, Steve Fisher (now at San Diego State), had worked under Machen at Michigan and given him high marks.
Seyferth would have made a lot of sense for UAB. Given the length of his tenure at Michigan, Seyferth probably worked with every sport in one of the nation's most renowned athletics programs. But his history indicates Seyferth is a football guy, and UAB (with its basketball reputation set under Bartow) needed someone to help its young football program take flight.
For much of his time at Michigan, Seyferth worked under the late Don Canham, who generally is considered one of the most innovative ADs in U.S. history. Canham was considered a pioneer in marketing and promotion of athletics; in fact, one of his first achievements at Michigan was to turn around the Wolverines' sagging attendance in football. Canham also hired Schembechler, whom Seyferth lists as his No. 1 mentor.
Did some of that marketing and promotion savvy rub off on Seyferth? If so, that likely would have caught UAB's attention. Seyferth has a background in systems engineering, and that probably would have been attractive to UAB, too. From his bio at Fritz Seyferth and Associates:
The foundation of FS and A is built on Fritz’s rich background and being a part of “teams” that have succeeded at the highest level. Fritz uniquely combines a systems engineering mindset with a deep understanding of what enables organizations to thrive. . . .
After leaving Arthur Young and Company in NYC to join his former coach Bo Schembechler’s football staff, the study of what made a great leader like Bo successful began. Bo built a legacy that continues to grow. Fritz has identified the human science behind Bo’s enduring success and now shares this with leaders for their personal journey.
Does Seyferth sound like a fit in a science-rich environment like UAB? I think he does -- or maybe I should say, "He would have been." Would Seyferth have been the perfect AD? No. Would he have made mistakes? Yes. Would he have ticked off some people? Probably. But would UAB athletics in general -- and football in particular -- be much better off if he (and Bernard Machen) had been hired? The answer, in my mind, is yes.
After having been cheated out of my job at UAB, I sometimes wonder why I still care about the place. But I do. And while I'm living like a refugee in Missouri, I still care about Birmingham and hope to return there someday -- sooner, rather than later. After all, my misfortune was not caused by UAB as an institution; it was caused by a few ethically-challenged individuals and driven by a UA board that included corrupt governor Bob Riley.
Come to think of it, Fritz Seyferth and I have something in common. He was denied an opportunity, perhaps, because of the UA board's nutty decision to pass on Bernard Machen. I was denied my position at a university where I had invested 20 years (including accumulated leave time) because the UA board caved to the desires of a corrupt governor -- and his even worse son, Rob "Uday" Riley.
Heck, Seyferth is only 66 years old, and I tend these days to think that's not so old. Maybe he still has something to offer UAB; perhaps he would be the guy to help Coach Bill Clark breathe life back into a program that crooked trustees like Paul Bryant Jr. tried to suffocate.
What kind of potential does UAB football have? One clue comes from checking the NFL's rushing statistics. The No. 7 rusher, with 1,178 yards, is Jordan Howard, of the Chicago Bears. He is listed as a product of Indiana University, but he is from Gardendale, Alabama, and spent his first two seasons at UAB -- gaining a school-record 1,587 yards in 2014 -- and only transferred to Indiana when the Blazers' program was disbanded.
Going back a little farther, UAB has turned out NFL standouts like defensive lineman Josh Evans, linebacker Bryan Thomas, wide receiver Roddy White, quarterback Joe Webb, and defensive back Dainon Sidney. That list doesn't even include the player many consider the best in UAB history -- quarterback Darrell Hackney, who (perhaps because he was a tad short) never quite made it in the NFL. As a former sportswriter, I've seen a lot of college football games -- SEC, Big 12, etc. -- and I've still never seen anyone throw as pretty a ball as Darrell Hackney.
Would Fritz Seyferth like to help guide a program that turns out that kind of talent? Would he like to tackle one more big challenge in sports? I don't know, but I would like to see him get the opportunity. I really wish he had gotten the opportunity 16 years ago. If he had, I think UAB now would enjoy an enhanced reputation as a comprehensive university in the Deep South, a university that could help lead a backward state reach its enormous potential.
Here is a video of Seyferth conducting a seminar on interviewing and hiring in athletics: