BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Amid anger, tears and protracted hugs, the University of Alabama-Birmingham announced the shutdown of its college football program on Tuesday, four days after its team gained bowl eligibility by improving to an unexpectedly good 6-6 record.
Alabama-Birmingham became the first American university to disband a top-division program since the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., did so in 1995. After announcing the decision to players and coaches in a tense meeting that lasted about 20 minutes, university President Ray Watts emerged from the back of the football complex and through the gate to loud jeering from a throng of students, fans and athletes from other sports.
Police officers helped him inch haltingly through the crowd to a waiting black SUV.
By then, Watts had released a statement outlining budget numbers. “The difference between our future athletic department with and without football is an additional $49 million investment on top of the $100 million UAB will already invest in athletics in the next five years,” the statement read. Yet as the decision from the 15-member Board of Trustees cut against the national grain of football escalation in pursuit of revenue, and as football supporters noted that a minority of universities turn football profits, the statement also noted that UAB’s annual $20 million subsidy of athletics ranked it only fifth in 13-team Conference USA.
As former and current players in the meeting brought up the recently formed foundation which a local businessman said could raise $5 million for starters, two players said Watts told the team, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Hatched in 1991, the Alabama-Birmingham program lasted for 24 seasons in three divisions. Since joining the top division in 1996, UAB has had three winning seasons. Long an afterthought in a state with college football titans Alabama (Tuscaloosa) and Auburn, Alabama-Birmingham reached one bowl game, in 2004, and will play a second later this month if invited. Under first-year Coach Bill Clark, whose likeness appeared in a cardboard cutout among the 300 chanting supporters outside the meeting, the team leapt to 6-6 from a 2-10 finish in 2013 and an aggregate 8-28 record over the previous three seasons. Attendance rose, and for the final home game, a 23-18 loss to then-unbeaten Marshall, 28,355 showed up at Legion Field.
“Frankly, we’re confused,” said Justin Craft, the former UAB safety and local businessman who has tried to help save the program. “The business community is supportive, the alumni, the students, the city and the county itself have reached out and pledged support. We averaged over 22,000 in attendance, which put us fourth in our conference, and it’s up 130 percent from the last couple of years.”
As place kicker Ty Long said on Monday at a rally outside the UAB administration building, “Attendance has gone up. Wins have gone up. Facilities have gone up [with a new locker room, if not a new practice field to replace the potholed current one]. We have people donating money. Everything is on the rise.” As former player Tim Alexander read from a players’ letter at that same rally, “Who exactly is against us?”
That uncertainty has stirred anger. Players, coaches and fans have spoken of being left dangling during days of silence from Watts and Athletic Director Brian Mackin. Three program members confirmed that last Saturday, when UAB clinched bowl eligibility with a 45-24 win at rival Southern Mississippi, the team decided Mackin, a former UAB baseball player, should not join the locker room celebration.
Two football players, accustomed to punctuality, noticed Watts arrived five minutes late for the meeting. When the president did speak, tight end Kyle Sappington said: “He talked to us like we were a bunch of kids, but these last couple of months, we’ve become men. We’ve had to.”
Linebacker John Robinson said, “We asked him questions, but he basically said the same thing: It’s about the numbers, and we don’t know what we’re talking about.”
Local businessman Michael Pizitz, who follows UAB basketball but came to support football more closely this season, said: “The timing seems very bad. Had it happened two years ago, it wouldn’t have shocked me.” Local businessman Jimmy Filler, who has led the new foundation, said by telephone from California: “The last month, it’s been terrible. This is something that’s been going on for years . . . This is all about a vendetta.” That referred to Board of Trustees member Paul Bryant Jr., son of Bear Bryant, the late and revered Alabama coach.
Filler believes Bryant Jr., nearing the end his tenure on the Board of Trustees, has wanted to kill UAB football to get revenge on the late leader of UAB athletics, Gene Bartow, because of a letter Bartow wrote in 1991 to the NCAA. Filler said Bartow, who died in January 2012, warned of this several times. The letter, for which Bartow apologized, noted that many of Bear Bryant’s former assistants had gone on to trouble with the NCAA at other schools. The contents of that letter appeared in a Los Angeles Times report in 1993. The Board of Trustees oversees three universities of Alabama: Tuscaloosa (the best-known), Birmingham and Huntsville.
As AL.com reported Tuesday morning that the shutdown would come, about 300 people gathered in the parking lot at the football offices. Some brought posters with messages such as, “MORE LIKE THE BOARD OF CAN’T-TRUSTEES,” “SABAN STARTED OFF 6-6 TOO,” and “WE LOVE OUR BLAZERS LIKE YOU DO YOUR TIDE.” Before the meeting, they repeatedly chanted, “We want Watts!”
Tears abounded, including those from athletes on the track and softball teams, their futures also roiled because Conference USA requires football for membership. Band members gathered and played. One fan, Mitchell Miller, gave a brief and inspired speech to the supporters, then stood aside and wiped away tears. As Watts got out of the SUV by the sidewalk on the side street, a fan yelled across the street, “Shame on you, Ray Watts!”
Players emerged from the meeting to the parking lot with many red eyes. Some sobbed outright. Jordan Howard, the running back who gained 262 yards last Saturday at Southern Mississippi and 1,537 this season, walked arm-in-arm with his mother, Flora Williams, a Birmingham-area resident who said, “It meant a lot for him to play here.”
As the reality settled in, young players had their first minutes in the new unknown. By NCAA waiver, players can transfer straightaway.
Williams tried to encourage her son: “Not too many people get a chance to be recruited twice in a lifetime.” Robinson hugged a coach and said, “It has been an honor.” A second-year linebacker, Robinson then said, “I came out of high school, I wasn’t heavily recruited, UAB was the only place that gave me a shot. And I came here, I’ve lived out a dream. I’ve dreamed about playing college football my whole life.” Said Sappington, the tight end from Tuscaloosa, “I can’t tell you what a big family I’ve felt these last couple of weeks — all the support, the rallies. . . . So now we just sit and we wait and we find out what happens.”
And Shannon Ritch, administrative assistant to the head coach, said she realized something at a traffic light on Monday: In all the worry, she hadn’t even thought that she soon might look for new — and probably less meaningful — work.
“These team members, these are like my sons,” she said. “I joke and say I have 100-plus children. I know what’s going on in their lives, and with their girlfriends. Those things matter to me. I love them. I love these coaches.”
Of her heart, she said, “It’s already breaking.”