Sufficiently convinced that donations from multiple outside sources can make up the projected shortfall in the athletic budget, Alabama-Birmingham President Ray Watts on Monday announced the reinstatement of football at his school. Watts had continued meeting throughout the weekend with supporters and enthusiasts who were desperately trying to persuade him to do exactly what he ultimately did, i.e., bring back Blazer football. The patchwork financial support, pledging
$17 million over the next five years, comprises students, alumni, the city of Birmingham itself and movers-and-shakers in the community.
Watts had axed football at UAB last December along with bowling and rifle, which are also now being restored. His decision at that time was met with greater-than-expected pushback; after all, UAB football had been little more than a blip on the radar screen for the past decade, if not longer. More importantly, it inspired the near-miraculous groundswell of financial backing that would end up saving the program.
Watts, who was under pressure from local politicians to reverse course on his December move, seemed genuinely impressed with the efforts on behalf of UAB football. He said, “A public-private partnership like this for university athletics is unprecedented and is the result of a lot of hard work, study, input and commitment from many.”
Not all, of course, is peaches and cream. The athletic facilities remain badly in need of serious upgrade, but Watts made it clear that UAB will not finance a new stadium to replace the decrepit Legion Field. A proper facility upgrade could cost $13 million; that’s separate from the $17 million mentioned above. A fundraising committee has been formed to finance the building of a new practice field.
Keeping football will allow UAB to stay in Conference USA, a league featuring a bylaw that mandates football for its members. Commissioner Britton Banowsky said other schools in the conference didn’t want to make an exception, perhaps fearing the precedent that would be set. Banlowsky: “Football is something that is critical to our long-term success and part of our core.”
Besides the private monies that will be generated, several other factors played into a rosier financial outlook for UAB’s football program. CarrSports Consulting, one of several firms that reviewed UAB athletics, had projected that scholarships for football were costing the school about $5400 per player per year. It now appears that the cost may be around half that amount. Additionally, the bowl payout, of which every conference and every team gets a share, was 63% higher in the first year of the College Football Playoff than in the last year of the BCS. This was a far greater increase than UAB, or anyone else, had anticipated.
Fanatics are hoping that the Blazers will see the field as soon as 2016, but new athletic director Mark Ingram would not commit to that. His words on the matter: “As soon as possible.” Coach Bill Clark, who had stayed in hopes of reinstatement, will have to reassemble a staff and begin recruiting. More than 50 players have understandably left to play elsewhere. It would greatly help Clark’s efforts if he could tell people that there will be football at UAB in 2016. Many schools on the Blazers’ 2016 schedule have already sought and found other opponents. Still to be determined: How soon UAB will be eligible to compete for a Conference USA title, and how soon they’ll be allowed to play in a bowl game if they qualify.
Definitely not all peaches and cream. But credit Watts for reconsidering. And Clark for staying. And UAB in general for fighting to keep its football program. And, mostly, all those supporters who were, in the final analysis, willing to put their money where their mouths were.
We’ll look forward to your return, UAB. May it be sooner rather than later.