College football administrators like to say that college athletics are designed for the athletes, that they are altruistically providing opportunities for students to get scholarships and continue playing games that they love. The reality is that it is all about funneling money toward power bases, padding the athletic department coffers at some places while trying to reduce the number of opportunities available.
Reports indicate that the board of trustees of the University of Alabama System have voted to shut down the football program at UAB. For the first time since Pacific ended their involvement in NCAA football in 1996, spelling the eventual demise of the Big West Conference, a I-A program is about to stop playing football. A program that was born out of a grassroots student-led club team that first took the field in 1991 and reached the I-A ranks five years later is now about to be terminated due to politics.
The athletic director is already apparently out the door, and the end of the program could come as early as this week according to reports from CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated. A board of trustees that controls the universities in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville as well as Birmingham is citing money as the primary reason for disbanding the Blazers. But the board, which is heavily weighted toward the flagship school in the state, has been gunning for the head of the UAB program for far longer than this season.
On his way into retirement after this year, Paul Bryant Jr. — son of the legendary Crimson Tide coach — has long had the desire to disband a program even though it does nothing to threaten the bottom line of Nick Saban’s juggernaut. Because of a feud between Papa Bear and the godfather of UAB athletics, Gene Bartow, the younger Bryant has tried at every turn to destroy the athletic department in Birmingham. With a limited time remaining to pull off his vindictive plan, Bryant appears to finally be getting his way before he rides off into the sunset.
He previously was instrumental in blocking the hiring of Jimbo Fisher, then LSU’s defensive coordinator, in 2006. Fisher went to Florida State instead, taking over for Bobby Bowden and leading the Seminoles to the final BCS title last season. Bryant also helped kill the proposal to build an on-campus football stadium at UAB three years ago. With Tuscaloosa dictating the terms of the arrangement and scuttling any attempts at improving Blazer football, the program has been left to languish with a string of overmatched coaching staffs and forced to play far from campus at crumbling Legion Field.
The past two decades of college football history have been skewed toward entrenching power of the sport in the hands of a cabal of influential players. Mid-majors had to fight during the entirety of the BCS era for access to the big-money bowl games that can make or break the athletic department budgets of these smaller schools. Wheelers and dealers like Bryant have been there at every turn to throw up roadblocks to improved access.
UAB seemed to turn the corner this season under first-year head coach Bill Clark. The Blazers more than doubled attendance at Legion Field in Clark’s first season, averaging 21,841 fans per game in Birmingham compared to 10,548 in 2013. They also qualified for the team’s first bowl game in a decade, finishing with a 6-6 record in the regular season and playing tight contests against Mississippi State and Marshall along the way. Now that momentum seems to have been energy wasted, as even participation in a bowl game is now in doubt.
The UAB athletic department operates at a $17.5 million deficit, but that is more a reality of the escalating costs of maintaining a college football program, the inequitable division of resources among the 128 FBS schools, and the funny accounting that is utilized to continue justifying the tax-exempt status of these departments.
The Power Five programs love having cupcake opponents to schedule, but it isn’t an interest that extends toward sharing the glut of resources flowing into the sport. If the mission was truly to preserve unique academic and athletic opportunities for young men, a program like UAB football wouldn’t be allowed to founder at every turn even when it is trying in earnest to improve its lot.
As a result, not just the fate of 85 scholarship players and their coaches are up in the air. The other programs within the department will likely be left scrambling for a new conference affiliation, as Conference USA is unlikely to allow UAB to remain in the conference without a football team to balance their divisions. Instead of taking into consideration the best interests of hundreds of student-athletes, the vindictive machinations of a bitter old man and his cronies are allowed once again to dictate what will happen at a school for which they have neither an attachment nor an affinity.