It was an odd little press conference, more rife with questions than answers, highlighted by a white-haired university president who looks very much the part standing before a bright green background and declaring that he was reversing the decision he had made six months earlier: Damn it all, the University of Alabama at Birmingham would reinstate its football program.
The president’s name is Ray Watts, and to put it lightly, he is not the most popular person in Alabama at the moment. After he’d made the decision to disband the football program (a football program within the state of Alabama, no less), a popular uprising ensued, resulting in the release of documents that contradicted his administration’s statements, an attempt to alter the makeup of the University of Alabama’s board of trustees and the pledge of millions of dollars in private support from people in the community bent on restoring football.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Watts said at the time.
On Monday afternoon while facing the media, Watts still didn’t seem to know much of anything. He appeared uncomfortable and defensive, and he offered few specifics or details about how this was going to happen (except that donors had provided additional money), or how it might be sustainable over time, or how it might impact UAB’s overall bottom line. (At one point, after a particularly pointed question from a local print reporter, a UAB flack asked for more questions from the “broadcast media.”) Watts simply said that UAB was in a “different position” than it was six months ago; he said that UAB would remain in Conference USA, and that they would bring back head coach Bill Clark and that they would start over again, preferably in 2016, even though their entire team has been jettisoned and spread out across the country.
The decision was fresh in Watts’ mind, and a cynic couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing had driven more by politics than common sense. In May, a consulting firm called College Sports Solutions concluded that a number of the points in the original report that led Watts to shutter the program were based on flawed assumptions; the conclusion of CSS was essentially that UAB could take or leave its football program and it would essentially wind up in the same place. So Watts, facing vilification from a UAB community that’s always felt overshadowed by the big ole university in Tuscaloosa, and buoyed by $17 million in commitments to overcome UAB’s operating deficit, reversed himself.
This is a situation rife with WTF’s, but there’s a larger point looming over everything here, and it goes back to the College Sports Solutions report, which, after noting that Watts and UAB were essentially making a personal choice about whether they wanted to field a major-college football team, said that the reinstatement “would foster much good will and stimulate a substantial amount of spiritual and financial support from alumni, donors, ticket holders, friends, students, faculty and the community. It could create a unique opportunity, not only through that support, but also through unprecedented positive national attention to the University…“
This, really, is the bottom line. This is the question every school is asking itself all the time, when debating whether or not major-college athletics is worth it. A cynic might argue that Watts, intentionally or not, essentially conned the community into supporting a program that became more popular in death than it was in life; a cynic might argue that the UAB administration, wittingly or unwittingly, wound up fostering that “spiritual and financial support” through a tortured process of death and resurrection.
Either way, UAB football is back again, and if the program someday succeeds, people in my profession will indeed shower unprecedented positive attention on the Blazers for rising from the ashes. It’s a unique opportunity, all right, but hell, this is college sports we’re talking about, so the cynicism feels like a standard part of the process.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb