Drama in­volv­ing Alabama Birm­ing­ham’s pro­gram shows ded­i­ca­tion to foot­ball in state


Tony Barn­hart was asked to speak at a char­ity event in Mo­bile, Ala., a cou­ple of weeks ago but faced a con­flict.

The vet­eran sports­writer from Ge­or­gia, au­thor of “South­ern Fried Foot­ball,” was sched­uled to be in Florida to cover the an­nual South­east­ern Con­fer­ence meet­ings.

No prob­lem. The folks from Mo­bile sent a pri­vate plane for Barn­hart and pro­vided a po­lice es­cort from the air­port to the event.

Barn­hart spoke to 800 col­lege foot­ball fans — re­mem­ber, the sea­son was still months away — then jumped on the plane and was back in Florida by 10 p.m.

“Things are dif­fer­ent in the South,” Barn­hart dead­panned.

Alabama be­ing in the heart of the foot­ball-

crazed South, it was shock­ing last De­cem­ber when Alabama Birm­ing­ham an­nounced it was drop­ping foot­ball, along with ri­fle and bowl­ing, for fi­nan­cial rea­sons.

UAB has long been viewed as the foot­ball stepchild to the pow­er­house in Tuscaloosa. Still, the no­tion of drop­ping foot­ball any­where in Alabama seemed anath­ema to the state’s DNA, an honor-code vi­o­la­tion where there is an un­com­pro­mis­ing love of the game.

Imag­ine Star­bucks drop­ping de­caf latte from its menu.

UAB be­came the first uni­ver­sity to drop ma­jor­level foot­ball since Pa­cific in 1995. On the ma­cho-me­ter, Alabama would pre­fer not to be a book­end to Cal­i­for­nia, which may lead the na­tion in de­funct pro­grams — at least eight in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia alone.

So, it was life-af­firm­ing this month when UAB did an about-face and an­nounced it was bring­ing foot­ball and the other two sports back.

The sport was dead for six months, with uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Ray Watts re­vers­ing field based on “broad-based sup­port never be­fore seen.”

That’s the Alabama we’ve come to know: a no­pro-sport state that for­warded ei­ther Alabama or Auburn into the col­lege foot­ball na­tional ti­tle game for five straight sea­sons start­ing in 2009.

Be­hind the re­ver­sal were out­raged and or­ga­nized fans, a few deep-pock­eted boost­ers and one plugged-in politi­cian, Alabama state Rep. Jack Wil­liams, a long­time FOP (friend of pro­gram) who helped fo­ment a move­ment known as “Free UAB.”

The “sup­port never be­fore seen” Watts re­ferred to were pledges to­tal­ing $17.2 mil­lion for the re­turn of foot­ball. (An ad­di­tional $13 mil­lion is still be­ing sought to pay for var­i­ous pro­gram up­grades.)

Best case is that the Blaz­ers will play again in 2016. Next sea­son was aban­doned be­cause most of last sea­son’s play­ers left, as did sev­eral as­sis­tants from Coach Bill Clark’s staff.

That hasn’t stopped the victory pa­rade. Wil­liams said school pres­i­dent Watts grossly mis­read the po­lit­i­cal winds.

“You’re in Los An­ge­les and you know about this story,” Wil­liams said in a phone in­ter­view while he was cast­ing a vote in Mont­gomery. “They don’t want this kind of pub­lic­ity again. I think we have se­cured the fu­ture of UAB foot­ball. We demon­strated we are will­ing to fight for it.”

Wil­liams said the un­der­min­ing of UAB goes back years and that, “It was widely known that the board was not crazy about UAB foot­ball.”

He con­tends the UA Board of Trustees, which over­seas Alabama, Alabama Birm­ing­ham and Alabama Huntsville, did not want UAB to be­come a foot­ball threat to its sis­ter school in Tuscaloosa.

If true, the plan worked beau­ti­fully. UAB has en­joyed only spo­radic suc­cess and doesn’t come close to fill­ing Le­gion Field in Birm­ing­ham, ca­pac­ity 71,594. The Blaz­ers had a solid-forthem 6-6 sea­son in 2014 and still av­er­aged only 21,841 fans in six home games.

“Even 25,000 looks like no­body’s there,” Wil­liams said.

The board’s an­i­mus to­ward UAB may in part be con­nected to the late Gene Bar­tow, the school’s long­time men’s bas­ket­ball coach and ath­letic direc­tor who died in 2012. A 1993 Los An­ge­les Times story by in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter Danny Rob­bins made public a let­ter Bar­tow had writ­ten to NCAA en­force­ment that was crit­i­cal of leg­endary Alabama foot­ball coach Bear Bryant.

Bar­tow, who fol­lowed an­other leg­endary coach, John Wooden, at UCLA, wanted the NCAA to in­ves­ti­gate Crim­son Tide bas­ket­ball and foot­ball pro­grams with coaches who were “trained” by Bryant.

Bar­tow is­sued an im­me­di­ate public apol­ogy but the dam­age was done.

It prob­a­bly didn’t help UAB’s cause that Bryant’s son, Paul W. Bryant Jr., re­mains a pow­er­ful be­hindthe-scenes force and trustee board mem­ber. How­ever, Watts said the board had noth­ing to do with the de­ci­sion to drop UAB foot­ball last De­cem­ber.

The plan to jet­ti­son the sports was based on an eco­nomic re­port com­mis­sioned by UAB that low­balled what the school re­ceived from the first Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off pay­out and failed to con­sider the school would not be al­lowed to re­main in Con­fer­ence USA with­out field­ing a foot­ball team.

A sub­se­quent re­port painted a rosier fi­nan­cial pic­ture and, be­fore you knew it, UAB foot­ball was back in busi­ness.

“This cre­ated a great deal of em­bar­rass­ment for folks,” Wil­liams said.

South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans, his­tor­i­cally, have re­acted with far less emo­tion.

Foot­ball was dropped at Cal State Northridge in 2001, Cal State Fuller­ton in 1992, Long Beach State and UC Santa Bar­bara in 1991, Cal Poly Pomona in 1985, Cal State Los An­ge­les in 1977, UC River­side in 1975 and Pep­per­dine in 1961.

Fuller­ton killed its pro­gram shortly af­ter con­struct­ing a new sta­dium, which is now mostly used for soc­cer.

David Lamm, a for­mer Fuller­ton foot­ball player, says the dif­fi­culty in drum­ming up foot­ball in­ter­est be­yond the pow­er­house col­lege pro­grams of UCLA and USC is il­lus­trated in the fact the re­gion “hasn’t had pro foot­ball for 20 years now.”

Lamm con­cedes even foot­ball in a lower di­vi­sion can be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive.

The bot­tom line: don’t make foot­ball as­sump­tions based on any­thing go­ing on in Alabama; it’s best to watch that cir­cus from the grand­stands.

What other place sends a pri­vate plane to fetch a sports­writer?

UAB wouldn’t stand a snow­ball’s chance iso­lated in the drought-plagued heart of Or­ange or San Bernardino coun­ties.

In Alabama, though, where there is a po­lit­i­cal pigskin will, there is a po­lit­i­cal pigskin way.

“No ques­tion …if this had just been about ri­fle and bowl­ing it may not have hap­pened,” Wil­liams said. Y’all think? Foot­ball cuts to the bone. “We touched a nerve,” Wil­liams said. “We didn’t let go.”


Mark Almond As­so­ci­ated Press

A WORKER erases the UAB Blaz­ers logo af­ter the fi­nal home foot­ball game of the sea­son at Le­gion Field. The pro­gram was dropped in De­cem­ber.

John Amis As­so­ci­ated Press

ALABAMA BIRM­ING­HAM run­ning back Jor­dan Howard scores a touch­down against Mar­shall in a game in Novem­ber. Many of the Blaz­ers’ play­ers left af­ter the uni­ver­sity dropped foot­ball in De­cem­ber.

Mark Almond As­so­ci­ated Press

ALABAMA STATE Rep. Jack Wil­liams was one of the lead­ers in the ef­fort to re­in­state foot­ball at UAB.

Butch Dill As­so­ci­ated Press

A UAB FAN de­clares his loy­alty for the ter­mi­nated foot­ball pro­gram at the Birm­ing­ham Bowl in Jan­uary.

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