The Blame Game: UAB Shutdown

Blazers program stopped amid controversy

by Chris Yow – Special Contributor

In the words of Dickens — sort of — it was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham, better known by the acronym UAB, had its best football season at the FBS level since 2004 this past season. The program seemed to be on the rise after finishing 2-10 last season, a year that saw the Blazers help Southern Miss snap the nation’s longest FBS losing streak.

New head coach Bill Clark, an Alabama native, had previously won state titles at the high school level at Prattville High School. There he posted one of the state’s most impressive records of 101-9. He was the defensive coordinator for the Univ. of South Alabama two years ago, and most recently was the head coach at Jacksonville State Univ. where he led the Gamecocks to their first FCS playoff appearance in 10 years and was seconds from advancing his team to the national semifinals before falling at Eastern Washington.

Needless to say, Clark had been a winner everywhere he coached, and UAB was not going to be any different.

The Blazers started the season with a monster win over in-state rival Troy, and the next week put up a very formidable fight against Mississippi State, who would spend much of the season as the top-ranked team in the nation.
After a loss to the FIU, things looked to be business-as-usual on the Southside (UAB’s campus is located on the Southside of Birmingham), but Clark had other plans. He and his team reeled off a pair of impressive wins over Western Kentucky and North Texas before falling at Middle Tennessee. The Blazers bounced back the next week with a win over Florida Atlantic. Suddenly, UAB was at five wins, the most since their 2004 Hawaii Bowl appearance.

A loss to Louisiana Tech put a brief damper on those hopes as the record evened to 5-5 with unbeaten Marshall coming to town in Week 11. The Thundering Herd had been all but unstoppable all season long, but Clark and the Blazers were hearing rumors the football program may be shut down due to lack of support.

The next week, more than 28,000 fans piled into “The Old Grey Lady” Legion Field, where UAB has played its home games since the program’s inception.
UAB fans and Birmingham residents who supported the program were on hand to cheer on the Blazers, and UAB nearly pulled off their biggest win of the season. The Blazers came up about 15 yards shy on their final drive, and Marshall escaped with a 23-18 win. Even in the loss, however, the Blazers proved they were improving. The football team had posted a 5-19 record the previous two seasons, and Clark had turned the program around.
The next week, with those rumors starting to gain momentum, UAB defeated their arch-rival Southern Miss to reach the magic 6-win total, and the Blazers were bowl eligible.

The joy didn’t last long. Just five days later, amid protests and marchers, UAB President Ray Watts told the football team he was closing the program along with rifle and bowling.

Going to a bowl would now be next to impossible, as bowl executives wouldn’t want to get caught up in the middle of this scandal.

Rumors flew about how and why the shut down happened, but all are simply hearsay. Some say Watts was forced to shut down the program by the University of Alabama trustees in order to keep his job. Paul Bryant Jr., son of the “Bear” has been said to have a personal vendetta against the school, and his name has been mentioned by several as the driving force behind the closure.

Nobody but Watts knows the truth, but in staying true to himself the entire process, Watts has not disclosed any information containing a secret plan to close UAB football.

Instead, Watts pointed to a study done by CarrSports Consulting, a firm specializing in research, development and financial stability.
The report stated that UAB football would not be sustainable past the 2018-19 school year, and thus the decision to end football at UAB had to be made.

Since then, however, several reports and fact-check stories have come out and rebutted the CarrSports report stating the report was just plain wrong.
Andy Schwarz of Vice Sports shed light on the inaccuracies of the report by showing the report failed to include millions in conference payouts and television money. Schwarz broke down the cost per athlete and noted especially that subsidies from the school don’t actually cost the school any money.

Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News has been instrumental in the telling of this story, alongside columnist John Archibald. The two have exposed several inaccuracies in Watts’ stories, and have written plenty about the subject. Scarbinsky shed light on when Watts actually began contemplating the shut down of those three programs. Hint: It was well before rumors began circulating in November.

In fact, according to leaked messages on Twitter, the rumors have been flying since Garrick McGee was the head coach in 2012-13. McGee said he’d heard there was a possibility of the program shutting down while he was still the head coach. His attorney’s then advised him not to speak on the matter. More censure by UAB powers? Probably.

UAB boosters have written letters and gone on ESPN’s College GameDay to let the world know they were never consulted as Watts claimed, nor were they ever asked for any donations. Booster Jimmy Filer said, “If I say I’m going to raise $5 million, you can take that to the bank.”

Boosters say Watts didn’t turn any money down, but that was because it was never solicited. A blog site named “UABStrong” allegedly run by the UAB Champion Club — the university’s largest donors — recently released an open letter to University of Alabama Birmingham Chancellor Dr. Robert Witt demanding to know why the club was not solicited for donations if the program was in danger of closing.

“Please be advised that none of us were contacted by Dr. Watts, (Athletics Director) Brian Mackin or any UAB staff members regarding the alleged deficit reported in the Carr Report. In fact, the vast majority of our members learned of the Carr Report results through the media following Dr. Watts’ announcement of abandoning football last Tuesday,” the letter read.

The author of the letter hasn’t been confirmed, and many believe it may be a hoax, but the fact remains that primary donors were not contacted prior to the report and asked for donations to save the program.

At this point, Tennessee has already agreed to play Bowling Green in their 2015 season opener, replacing the Blazers’ game at LP Field in Nashville. Several players have shopped their talent around to other schools in the country, and who could blame them?

It was released this week that four UAB players were named to the C-USA first team All-Conference, and one player, kick returner J.J. Nelson, was even named a Walter Camp First Team All-American.

Former UAB equipment manager Eddie Hardin has voiced his displeasure on social media saying he felt like he was losing family members. Several players echoed that sentiment.

Clark, who was in his first year of a 3-year contract, was plucked from Jacksonville State to lead the program for just one season, and now he and his staff are out of the coaching game. Some have even taken other jobs already.

The faculty senate made a motion earlier this week to hold a confidence vote for President Watts in January, as well as re-evaluating the athletics programs at the school.

In what should have been a joyous time for UAB football, a time to celebrate a bowl berth — at the very least a 6-win season — has become a a time of grief and sadness. What was arguably the best season in UAB football’s history has now become the worst.

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