Sacking Football in Alabama

The University of Alabama at Birmingham cites costs as it ends its football program in one of the country's most football-friendly states.

December 3, 2014
UAB's president, Ray Watts, is booed by supporters of football team.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham will eliminate its struggling Division I football program to save $50 million by the end of the decade.

Instead of subsidizing poorly attended games played by a team that has struggled to win, university officials would prefer to invest in educating UAB's 19,000 students and tending to its hospital system, which is is one of the largest in the country and sees a million patients a year.

The decision, effective immediately unless the football team gets into a bowl game, was announced amid widespread criticism by students and alumni in the football-friendly state. It follows an 18-month review of the university's finances by Ray Watts, the Birmingham campus's president. The football team could not become nationally competitive without tens of millions of dollars for new facilities and operations, he said, in addition to the  subsidy it currently gets from the university.

The decision also may fuel serious concerns about the escalating cost to colleges of increasingly competitive football programs.

“With the changing NCAA landscape, we expected there to be a need for further support and investment, but I can say that we were indeed shocked to see how much it would take,” Watts said during a news conference Tuesday. “The further we analyzed it, the clearer the decision became.”

Birmingham’s athletic department is one of the 108 with football programs that lose money each year out of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s 128-team top sports division, known as the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The university’s decision to cast aside football makes it unusual. The last major top-tier football program to shut down was that of the University of the Pacific, in 1995. At least one other university with a top-division football team, the University of Hawaii, is also talking about ending its football program because of the cost.

Jane Wellman, a national expert on college costs, said she applauded the decision and the message it sends about an institution’s values.

“As a general matter, the costs of football in competitive conferences are rising significantly faster than in academic programs and I think unless an institution wants to trade off academic quality for football glory indefinitely, something’s got to happen,” said Wellman, the founder of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability.

Watts, in his news conference, said for the football program to remain competitive in its conference, Conference USA, it would take more money than he was willing to spend.

“It’s our fiduciary responsibility at the end of the day for athletics to work within a budget, just as every other part of the institution has to,” he said.

The university’s decision followed an evaluation by CarrSports Consulting, a top adviser to college athletic programs. Birmingham officials asked CarrSports what it would take to keep the university’s various teams competitive or make them competitive for national titles. Bill Carr, the company’s founder, declined to comment to Inside Higher Ed and hung up the phone.

Officials said Birmingham already spends $20 million to subsidize its $30-million athletic department, which includes a successful men’s basketball program. Its football team has always trailed the top programs in the state, which include the University of Alabama’s main campus in Tuscaloosa and Auburn University, institutions that together have won four of the last five national football championships.

The price tag to improve the Birmingham football team was $49 million. That includes $27 million for operations -- football personnel, equipment, technology and new expenses, like providing athletes with more meals and covering the full cost of attending college -- over the next five years and $22 million for new buildings, including new practice facilities and an administrative building. Those tens of millions would not even be enough to build a stadium on the university’s campus. Right now, its football games are played on the 72,000-seat Legion Field, where no home game topped an attendance of 30,000 this season.

Over the weekend, with his program and job in peril, UAB’s football coach lobbied its football conference, Conference USA, to put the team into a bowl game. "I'm not a politicker, but I do want to fight for these guys," Coach Bill Clark told, the website of a newspaper chain in Alabama. "I think we're playing our best ball.”

If he’s unsuccessful, the UAB Blazers football team’s final game will have been Saturday’s 45-24 away game win over the University of Southern Mississippi.

The football team, which began competitive play in 1991, is 6-6 this season and eligible for a bowl game. Its last winning season was 2004.

Students have protested the decision in recent days as rumors began to circulate that the football program would be cut. After administrators announced the decision, “Upset supporters, frustrated with silence from the administration, punched Watts's car as he drove away, yelled obscenities, and flipped him off,” the Birmingham News reported. A video posted online by a local TV reporter showed Watts engulfed by protesters as he left a meeting with the college's football team.

Critics of the decision have portrayed Watts as secretive and aloof. Students chanted that he was “hiding” in his building. A letter from the coaches of women’s teams at Birmingham said it “seems apparent that very large decisions are being made by a very small group of people.”

Faculty reaction was mixed ahead of the final decision.

“I’ve received calls from faculty, staff, alumni supporters of the university concerned that the football program may be terminated,” said Frank Messina, an accounting professor who is the university’s NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative.

The chairman of the Faculty Senate, Chad Epps, said faculty “are in favor of the athletic programm” but another Faculty Senate member said some professors thought the university should play to its strengths and football is not one them.

The Faculty Senate member, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said when people think of Alabama football they don’t think of Birmingham’s team.

“If his task force sees that football is losing a lot of money and it’s not going to get any better, then why would you want it?” the professor said of Watts. “Just because we’re at a school in Alabama we want football?”

Birmingham is also eliminating its women's bowling and rifle teams. Watts said the university will honor all coaching contracts and all student scholarships. Football players on scholarship will be able to stay and receive their degrees under scholarship. If they choose to transfer, Watts said, the NCAA will not make them sit out a year, as it would if the students transferred from one active program to another.


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