UAB Football: Wrong Decision for the Wrong Reasons

UAB President Ray Watts has announced that the institution is “taking steps” to reinstate the football program just six months after eliminating it. I wrote at the time that the move was the right decision for the wrong reasons. Although members of the UAB community are understandably thrilled with the reversal, I’m not. In fact, I believe the announcement was the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.

President Watts, Chancellor Robert Witt, and the University of Alabama trustees grossly misrepresented the original decision to cut football. They also dramatically underestimated the backlash that would result.

From the social media cries of #FreeUAB to legislative proposals to change the governance of system, the backlash was fierce and powerful.

On campus, Watts suffered no confidence votes from nearly every major campus constituency.

Well, everyone except those that matter most: the Chancellor and the trustees.

There was much to criticize in original decision from the way it was announced to the secrecy of the deliberations.

Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin summarized the feelings of many saying, “It has been my belief that the decision was not based on solid evidence by the desire of the president and his Geppetto.”

I agree with Councilman Austin.

From my view, the real problem was never about football. It was about whether the system encouraged and supported the institution as any other in the system. It was also about shared governance and involving key stakeholders in decisions.

Again, I could easily argue that eliminating football is the right decision. I think UAB would be much stronger as a primarily basketball university.

While many UAB supporters are happy at the turn of events, I still believe the fundamental problems with President Watts, Chancellor Witt, and the trustees remain.

Even in regards to football, it seems to me that the team is likely set up to fail. For example, there is no timetable for a return (although one is promised soon). Head Coach Bill Clark, who served as a rallying symbol, was not at the press conference nor did Watts suggest the university would be negotiating a new long term contract for the coach (which would be a sign of commitment).

Rather, I heard a lot of reasons being set up to come back in a few months and say that boosters did not uphold their end of the bargain.

The university is not going to provide additional operations revenue (which over time is a cut in support considering inflation). In addition, the university is not going to take on debt service for new facilities.

From an institutional perspective, this makes sense. A university should spend money on academics.

However, it seems disingenuous to me to suggest you are going to restart a football program and not contribute additional financial resources to success. No Division I program in the country has a funding model that relies this heavily on booster support.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that this announcement is not a reason for celebration. Rather, I believe the odds of Watts announcing in a year that ultimately the “private support was not there” is more likely than announcing the Blazers upcoming fall schedule.

I hope I’m wrong.

UAB is vital to the success of both the city of Birmingham and the state as a whole. In many ways, UAB may be more significant to the University of Alabama’s impact on the state than the flagship campus in Tuscaloosa.

What would be the true signs of progress?

President Watts, Chancellor Witt, and the trustees need to reach out to Birmingham and UAB constituencies that rightly feel burned by all of this.

For years and for reasons both real and imagined, UAB as well as UAH have felt neglected and taken advantage of by system leaders and the Tuscaloosa campus.

The problem is both real as well as one of perception. There needs to be greater diversity on the board. There needs to be more transparency. There needs to be more support of UAB’s aspirations. Leaders need to listen and respond to the concerns that this whole debacle exposed for the world to see.

I frankly couldn’t care less whether UAB has a football team or not.

But everyone who cares about improving the state of Alabama should care if UAB is a strong institution.

Personally, I’m not yet convinced that all of the decision makers have UAB’s best interests at heart.

That’s why I’m not celebrating yet.