Wade on Birmingham

Green and gold and black and blue: On the murder of UAB sports


UAB Marshall

Blazer tight end Kennard Backman leaps as UAB faces
No. 18 Marshall in its final home game.

Author’s note: In the past, I have worked in my capacity as a communications consultant for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Summary: After the loss of its football program, UAB must fire its president and leave the UA system to avoid future calamity.

Dec. 2 would have been a news-filled day without the end of UAB football, and bowling, and rifle.

• Pat Sullivan, a beloved Auburn quarterback and 1972 Heisman winner, stepped down as Samford’s football coach after seven seasons. He turned around a program even as he battled health issues.

• Charles Krulak announced his retirement as president of Birmingham-Southern College, ending in May. His 4-year service brought about a remarkable turnaround for a school drowning in a surprise $67 million debt. Before coming to Birmingham, Krulak served as U.S. Marine Commandant general and MBNA vice president.

UAB would see its own share of departing coaches and a different kind of turnaround from its leader.

Dr. Ray Watts, barely 22 months into his tenure as president, has forged an ugly legacy. He has done so through his unwavering service to the University of Alabama system trustees, rather than UAB’s students and employees, not to mention Birmingham proper (that bothersome B in UAB).

Watts managed to murder UAB football, after a history of 23 years, a 117–150–2 record, plus one bowl game. Caught in the crossfire were UAB’s bowling and rifle teams. He pulled the trigger, and the board of trustees gave him the gun.

UAB is the only FBS school in 19 years to drop football; University of the Pacific ended its program in 1995. Twenty schools have added football or moved up to FBS in that period, including Troy (which welcomed a new coach Monday) and South Alabama (headed to the first Camellia Bowl, Dec. 20 in Montgomery).

His leadership has been laughably disastrous, and UAB should find a way to oust him as soon as possible.

Previously: Should UAB football continue?

Some saw the warning signs earlier. Justin Craft, a former UAB player and member of the UAB Football Foundation, sounded the alarm in a Nov. 5 letter. New coach Bill Clark, who would lead the team to a 6-6 record and a possible bowl game, wasn’t being considered for an extension on his paltry 3-year contract; no non-conference games beyond 2016 were being discussed.

Watts met with Craft on Halloween, but Craft said he received no definitive answers from Watts about the program’s future.

Watts’ public statement offered no hope, referring only to a consulting firm’s report (below) that would determine football’s fate.

Over at Samford, Sullivan leaves a hero as the all-time leader in victories and a string of winning seasons. Attendance hovered just under 5,000. The Bulldogs made the FCS playoffs in 2013, the first time in more than 20 years.

Clark pulled off his mini-turnaround in a single season without an on-campus stadium, without an indoor practice facility (Mayor Bell and the UAB Football Foundation offered to foot the $10 million bill), without the support of UAB’s top official.

In seeing a couple of UAB games over the years as a guest of the university, I remember talking with then-president Carol Garrison at the tailgate party. She has chatted up guests at the pre-game receptions, talked to the squad in the locker room and graced the luxury box at Legion Field.

Watts, to anyone’s knowledge, hasn’t been to any of this year’s six home games at rickety old Legion Field, where attendance more than doubled.

Video: UAB president Ray Watts meets the football team
(perhaps for the first time) to kill the program.

Samford, of course, is a private institution with autonomy and lower expectations in the FCS division. UAB is part of the UA system, represented on a board with only four UAB alumni out of 15 members (the rest UA alums), though UAB brings in three times the revenue.

On Saturday, UAB beat Southern Miss on the road for its sixth win, becoming bowl eligible for only the second the fourth time in program history. The Football Writers Association of America gave the Blazers its Big Game National Team of the Week award.

On Sunday, Sports Illustrated broke the story that UAB was about to dump football. Watts was silent, away on vacation in New York for Thanksgiving weekend.

On Monday, hundreds of student protestors marched to the administration building and demanded answers. Watts’ campus parking space was vacant. Watts, in hiding from his own students, offered a statement nearly identical to the one from a few weeks before.

On Tuesday, protestors again marched to the administration building. Watts could drag this out no longer, his office announcing a meeting with the football team at 2 p.m. and a media conference at 3:30. During the afternoon, the official word came by email: UAB would eliminate the football, bowling and rifle programs.

Watts emailed students. He didn’t announce it in person first to students. He emailed it. And not to alumni, even as student volunteers continued to place fund-raising calls for the $1 billion Campaign for UAB.

The school begs for money, but when alumni and the City of Birmingham offered millions of dollars, Watts said no.

Football was the real target. And it was an easy one: It loses money, as most FBS programs do. Even Auburn, which played for a national championship this year. He said as much during a closed meeting to a disbelieving group of players, who confronted him about his singular focus on the numbers.

When Watts tried to slip out the back door after that meeting, an angry mob of students shouted and lunged at him, pounding on the SUV taking him to the media conference. He needed an armed escort to make it to the vehicle.

Watts explained his position to the media, citing the consulting firm’s report that estimates UAB athletics’ spending at $100 million total over the next 5 years while mentioning the university’s cancer research.

He played the cancer card, even though research funding through grants isn’t the same as athletics revenue through conferences, television, licensing and donations.

CarrSports Consulting report for UAB on how to
cut football, 16 pages

CarrSports Consulting report for James Madison University
on how to move up to the FBS division, 65 pages

The report from CarrSports Consulting has been in the offing for months, even when Clark was hired as football coach in January. It’s less a consideration of the question of football and more a how-to guide on dropping football.

Title IX requires a balance of men’s and women’s sports in number and participation, so out go rifle and bowling’s all-female teams after football. In come men’s cross country and track to keep the university in NCAA Division I sports.

UAB will get the boot from Conference USA, which requires members to sponsor a football team. Ironically, the conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will take place March 11-14 at the BJCC Arena and on campus at Bartow Arena.

The financial intangibles muddy the picture, such as in enrollment, Blazer merchandise and donations.

Chuck Krulak has received accolades not only for his fund-raising at Birmingham-Southern, but his hands-on attitude, living in the dorms, eating daily in the cafeteria. Many alumni were justly concerned about the school’s financial malpractice, but he won them over in his first year by putting the college in the black for the first time in 7 years.

Krulak never took a salary during his 4 years on the job. Watts’ annual salary is $853,464, the 11th highest among American public universities. But Birmingham-Southern is a small, private college, one that resumed its Division III football program in 2007 after a 68-year hiatus. UAB has more faculty members than BSC has students.

In August, Krulak co-wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune asking President Obama to force the military and CIA to come clean on the use of torture in Iraq. He shows courage and leadership in financial, practical and moral issues.

Watts demonstrates no such courage, no such knack for leadership. He displays no grasp of candor, no backbone, no vision for making the university and her students stronger and smarter.

He will drag UAB, Birmingham’s largest employer, into an abyss.

The first step is clear: My pal Steven E. Chappell named his new site FireRayWatts.com.

Don’t look for help from the UA board of trustees, which denies any involvement. The same board that approves all UAB athletic personnel contracts (bye bye, Jimbo Fisher) and nixed plans for an on-campus stadium in 2011. The same board that bows to the dictates of the overly influential trustee Paul Bryant Jr.

And don’t look for help from ex officio board member Gov. Bentley. Bryant donated $25,000 to his re-election campaign, as editor Jeff Poor noted.

Purge Watts, this sorry, gutless wonder, from campus as soon as possible.

The second step will be more difficult. Because none of this was really about football. It’s about self-determination.

UAB cannot function with absentee landlords, as reporter Kyle Whitmire notes in his al.com essay. He likens UAB to UA’s plantation, great for the masters and terrible for Birmingham. (As I would liken al.com/Birmingham News to Advance Digital’s plantation …)

Since Birmingham cannot hope to win over the trustees, it must wrest UAB from the UA system. Let the trustees bat around the Huntsville campus instead.

UAB must have autonomy or face the whims of an untrustworthy board, one that can and will make decisions that continue to damage the city’s crown jewel. What next … academics, research, the arts, new construction, housing? Imagine a worse successor as university president. Imagine fewer amenities to attract top professors, undergraduate applicants and research dollars.

Only a month ago, the suggestion of decimating UAB football would’ve seemed crazy.

It will take the authority of the Legislature to grant such a divorce from the UA system. Last week, Rep. Jack Williams proposed a bill to remake the board, but a far more drastic reshuffling is required.

The Blazers won’t play again in Birmingham, but if they’re very lucky, they might still go to a bowl game at 6-6. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy is alone in picking UAB for any bowl: the first Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl vs. Western Michigan on Christmas Eve.

It’s one last chance for those orphaned players and coach to shine before a national TV audience and perhaps find new schools that won’t lie to them and use them up for sport.

P.S. Columnist John Archibald writes an epitaph for UAB football: “In the end we lost again, because Birmingham did not support its own. … Support local sport. High schools and colleges …”

If only his employer, Alabama Media Group, had followed his advice, instead of giving the Blazers such inadequate coverage during the season …

• • •

  • Kevin Scarbinsky, al.com: “Ray Watts and his balance sheet kill UAB football, and strong men shed honest tears”
  • Jon Solomon, CBS Sports: “The day UAB football died a painful death”
  • New York Times: “It’s a Game of Spiraling Costs, So a College Tosses Out Football”
  • Kyle Whitmire, al.com: “The leader vs the lackey: UAB’s Ray Watts could learn a lot from BSC’s Charles Krulak”
  • John Archibald, al.com: “Evidence mounts that killing of UAB football was premeditated”

What are your thoughts on UAB, football, self-governance and the future? Share them in the comments.

20 Yips for “Green and gold and black and blue: On the murder of UAB sports”

  1. frank franklin
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 12:47 pm

    I support keeping UAB in the UA system and the elimination of football at UAB. Universities as they are currently organized and funded are ripe for disruption. Their funding is threatened at many levels from loss of state revenues, eroding funding from federal science programs and students inability to pay rapidly increasing tuition and other costs. Online education is eliminating the relevance of physical location for students. Disruptive technology has radically changed newspapers e.g. the B’ham News, independent bookstores, and much shopping. Universities with large full-time faculty and brick and mortar facilities are next for disruption. Similarly, mergers and buyouts continue to shake the business world e.g. pharmaceutical firms and hospitals. Consortia of universities have emerged with sharing of resources and opportunities for students. Competition among large consortia of educational institutions is predictable. The future for education at a university-level in our state is even closer interaction of institutions of higher education with the elimination of redundancies e.g. multiple offerings of the same courses and multiple departments. These inefficiencies cost students money and educational opportunities. While it is hard on the young athletes in the eliminated programs and their coaches, university leadership must be foresighted in planning for their future. Like it or not, it is numbers game. The numbers are not there at any level (paid attendance, wins-losses, dollars to support UAB football. Think forward strategic thinking is what Dr. Watts is doing and should be supported. His goals are offering strong educational opportunities and strengthening UAB. The angst and anger about the Board of Trustees and Dr. Watts are railing against the winds of change. Continuation of the status quo with denial, dreaming, and poor planning will close universities.

  2. Wade Kwon
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 1:10 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Frank.

  3. Will Truman
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 1:19 pm

    Is there a source on those declined donations? I’ve seen references, but not anything more firm.

  4. Leigh Farrior
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 2:09 pm

    I hate losing our rivalry, and it really sucks for the players and fans. I did want to point out an error…did you mean Troy moved to Division ! in that time? Because Troy University has fielded a football team continuously since 1946.

  5. Leigh Farrior
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 2:09 pm

    That’s Division 1, not !. Sorry for the typo!

  6. John Knox
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 5:36 pm

    Thank you, Wade. This is about more than football, however.

    Watts has also been behind the diluting of the UAB University Honors Program, of which I was a member of its inaugural class in 1983. When honors students (from multiple honors programs) convened two summers ago, upset about the changes, Watts unexpectedly showed up to address the concerns. And… this will be no surprise to anyone now… he talked down to the students, told them they were being “elitist” for coming to UAB primarily for the high quality of the honors programs, and so forth. Incredible. Watts may be the only college president in the nation to seek out his prestige-scholarship, award-winning students to BERATE them for their high standards!

    I have since learned that the changes at UAB are larger than sports, and larger than the honors program. The changes are part of a Pottersville-type vision for the undergraduate component of UAB concocted at very high levels, a nightmare vision of my alma mater as if Dick Hill, Tom Hearn, Gene Bartow and others had never been born.

    Keep digging for the truth and keep speaking out. You are on the right track here… but again, it’s much bigger than football, and puppets such as Watts and Palazzo. Ask questions, lots of questions.

  7. Shane
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 7:07 pm

    Have you, or anyone you know, ever paid to see a UAB football game?
    How many of the protesters do you think could name three other teams in C-USA?
    Funding of athletics at UAB will not be decreased. Indeed, now free of the Title IX constraints caused by football aspirations, UAB might rebuild their once excellent men’s soccer program.
    Finally, UAB should be free to leave the UA system and become the University of Birmingham. But they don’t get the med school or the other professional health schools. Those belong to the UA system, as always.

  8. Wade Kwon
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 7:39 pm

    Will: That’s a good question.

    From an ESPN story on Sunday:

    Earlier this year, Craft and other former players formed the UAB Football Foundation to raise money to help build the Blazers an indoor practice facility. But during a meeting with UAB president Ray Watts, the former players were told they were welcome to raise money for the entire athletics department but not specifically for football.

    I don’t think UA or other schools have an issue with boosters funneling money into specific sports, projects or coaches.

    My thinking is that Watts knew all along that football would be killed. So he didn’t do anything except deflect and stall. To me, that’s equivalent to a big fat no.

  9. Wade Kwon
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 7:48 pm

    Leigh: You are correct, and I have amended the story. Thanks for the good info!

  10. Wade Kwon
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 8:16 pm

    John: Thanks for mentioning the UAB Honors Program. I read a little about it, but ran out of time in putting together this essay.

    And “Pottersville-type vision” is a masterstroke of phrasing but also terrible to behold.

  11. Wade Kwon
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 8:25 pm


    Have you, or anyone you know, ever paid to see a UAB football game? I know plenty of people who have paid to see a UAB football game, but I think that’s irrelevant.

    How many of the protesters do you think could name three other teams in C-USA? Not even close to relevant.

    They don’t get the med school or the other professional health schools. Those belong to the UA system, as always. That’s. Hilarious. Thanks for the laugh today — I needed it.

  12. Shane
    Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 9:30 pm

    Relevancy being in the eye of the beholder, apparently.
    Good luck breaking up the UA system but taking with you the UA system medical school.

  13. Darryl Jones
    Thursday, December 4, 2014, 1:44 pm

    UAB should be awarded full custody of the entirety of the UAB enterprise for 30 years of damages by the trustee board. Or shall we call them, dis-trustees.

  14. Stephanie Grau
    Thursday, December 4, 2014, 3:30 pm

    I have a family member who play(ed) with UAB.I attended everyone of his game. All the C-USA schools have on campus stadiums that were very nice. These stadiums were not filled to capacity in fact UAB had more fans at their game. The problem here is that these other universities have leadership and their board behind them unlike UAB.

  15. Stephanie Grau
    Thursday, December 4, 2014, 3:37 pm

    One more comment. If the BOT actually cared they would have halted Dr.Watts decisions and involved more people to help find a solution. But instead they are sitting on their butts and allowed this man the authority to make such a devastating decision as well as Governor Bentley.

  16. blazer
    Sunday, December 7, 2014, 9:26 pm

    To most of you who have responded, you under-estimate the value of athletics.
    As a former student athlete, UAB donor(soon to be former), and concerned taxpayer….. I think this has legal issues galore.
    I was NEVER contacted. Not once. I would have donated.
    Current reports are lies. I’m working on retrieving information to prove that this is yet again another “good ol boy move”….routine in this state. I’m done being silent.

  17. Wade on Birmingham » #sundayread for Dec. 28, 2014
    Sunday, December 28, 2014, 12:06 am

    […] Green and gold and black and blue: On the murder of UAB sports blazer | To most of you who have responded, you… Stephanie Grau | One more comment. If the BOT… Stephanie Grau | I have a family member who… Darryl Jones | UAB should be awarded full… […]

  18. Albert Khalis Pride
    Sunday, December 28, 2014, 3:27 pm

    This may be more than just about football, but make no mistake, the football program was the primary target. The whole thing’s despicable and disgusting, and I hope the Faculty Senate and the State House do what needs to be done to set things right and soon. Enough is enough! FreeUAB…

  19. Lynn
    Sunday, December 28, 2014, 10:49 pm

    Take a drive down University Blvd…. Take note of the names and colors of the signs on the buildings.
    Or google “UA medical center” images- funny thing none of the pictures look like buildings on University.
    Now google UAB medical center..

  20. Wade on Birmingham » The $1 billion question: Can UAB afford to keep Watts as president?
    Thursday, January 15, 2015, 8:38 pm

    […] Dec. 2: President Ray Watts announces he is dropping the football, rifle and bowling teams. […]

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