The University of Alabama at Birmingham may drop its football program:
“I think it’s going to happen,” said Clark, who led UAB to a 6-6 record in his first season at the school. “Unless something changes before the weekend ends, I think it’s over. I think the odds are very high it ends this week. To shut the doors? That’s sad.”
Clark has been in contact with school and Conference USA officials as recently as Sunday. UAB commissioned a university-wide strategic planning initiative to evaluate things like fiscal feasibility.
Discussions have also taken place between athletic director Brian Mackin and the school on a separation agreement, sources told ESPN.
This is looking far less speculative than the situation at Hawaii that I wrote about previously. This looks like it’s actually going to happen.
I tend to be skeptical of predictions that the football teams in the lesser five conferences of the FBS are going to hang up their spurs. There are, however, exceptions. Hawaii was one, and UAB is another. Not even due to their historically dreadful attendance issues, or the fact that they have twelve wins in the last four seasons or haven’t been to a bowl in a decade. That all may matter a little bit, or it may not. UAB is vulnerable for a specific reason that other, similarly troubled programs aren’t: The decision isn’t the university’s.
San Jose State made the decision not to terminate its football program, and didn’t. Tulane and Rice did the same thing. Eastern Michigan has considered it and has not, as of yet, made that decision. No FBS program has folded in almost two decades. But UAB’s program will be shut down not by UAB, but essentially by The University of Alabama:
Part of the problem, according to UAB football supporters and former players, is that the university doesn’t have its own board of trustees and is controlled by the University of Alabama System board, which oversees campuses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.
Thirteen of the 15 trustees received undergraduate or law degrees from the University of Alabama, including Paul W. Bryant Jr., the son of legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Only three board members have academic ties to UAB. One of them, Barbara Humphrey, is the wife of former Crimson Tide star running back Bobby Humphrey.
There is actually a long history of friction ranging from indifference to animosity between the Tuscaloosa-dominated Board of Trustees and the Birmingham university. In 2011, the university was looking at building their own stadium instead of playing in the dilapidated Legion Field, and it was shot down by the Board. Fair enough, though, because committing the program to a $70-million project demands prudence. But in 2006, they had planned to hire a well-regarded coach named Jimbo Fisher, whose name may sound familiar because last year he won the national championship as Florida State’s head coach. Despite the fact that they’d already made a handshake deal, they’d already lined up the money to pay him, the Board didn’t let them do it. In 2004, UAB had a blockbuster season defeating Baylor, TCU, and Mississippi State on their way to a bowl game and right after the potentially program-building season ended… the Board made noises about reviewing whether UAB needed a football program. And here we are in 2014, UAB has had an amazing year and doubled their attendance, and this may be the last year they play football.
Notably, while the presidency at the University of Alabama at Huntsville was vacant, the Trustees dropped the school’s championship hockey program. It was shortly thereafter revived when money was independently raised to save it.
Will the same happen here? Some reports are suggesting that the football program would continue to 2016, which is how far out their present commitments run (coach’s contract, scheduled games), though most suggest that it would be ending immediately. If you’re sunsetting your program, it’s almost better to do it immediately because you’re never going to be able to recruit athletes for a program that’s going away. On the other hand, if the university can just postpone it to 2016, that would give them time to do whatever they could to make it not happen.
I have no special loyalty to the UAB program. Because of their unique situation, I am not the least bit worried that they will set off a chain reaction that will prove my long-running predictions wrong. They are a not-large commuter school that has struggled on the field, off the field, and in the stands.
At the same time, the manner in which this is occurring is strange. Alabama is over-extended in football, but it should not be UAB that is most vulnerable. UAB fans have complained for years and years that Tuscaloosa “has it in” for them, and this is providing a degree of justification for that view. It’s hard to figure out why, though, making me think it is probably more likely that Bama fans – like many fans of the big programs – can’t understand what the point of having a program at UAB’s level is (especially when you’re sharing a state with Bama).
And, of course, many would argue that they are right. One of the big reasons I do not predict a large-scale collapse of the lower FBS programs is that regardless of the merits of discontinuing a program, I think there are institutional reasons that schools will only very rarely see it that way. In that sense, one could argue that taking the decision out of their hands and putting it into the hands of a more neutral body is optimal. That, along with having seen some embarrassingly empty stands, is the best argument I can see for this.
Anyhow, so if the trigger is pulled, what happens? This is simpler than the Hawaii situation, because it would involve fewer conferences. UAB would need to be replaced in Conference USA, and C*USA would most likely choose either James Madison University (currently of the FCS Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10 Conferences) or Georgia State (currently of the Sun Belt). If the Sun Belt loses a team, it is probably not replaced.
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