UAB Freed

Jun 2, 2015

News that the University of Alabama in Birmingham would reinstate the UAB Blazers football team allowed fans to breathe a sigh of relief. Now the fine print is sinking in. As APR’s MacKenzie Bates takes a look at the price tag of saving the UAB Blazers from the perspective of someone who’s seen the team from the inside out…

“Given the broad base of support never before seen, as of today, we are taking steps to reinstate the football, rifle and bowling programs.”

What a difference six months can make. UAB President Ray Watts announced he was changing his mind on the fate of the Blazer’s football program as well as the rifle and bowling teams. It was an about face from what he told the school and its supporters on December 2nd that he was killing all three teams…

“This decision, has been driven significantly by financial realities.  I want you to know that we take this personally, very deeply and as others are disappointed that we will transition away from these athletic programs, so are we.”

Back then, the news did not go over well.

“And you’re telling me because the numbers didn’t look right?  Because the numbers didn’t look right?

That’s former Blazers tight end, Tristan Henderson.  He expressed his outrage to Doctor Watts after he told the team about his decision.

“These are 18 year olds in here.  17 year olds.  What are they supposed to do?  Some of these guys came from 3,000 miles away to play here.  To be a part of this!”

Henderson’s frustration didn’t change things. But, promises of financial support from the public did. UAB released a consultant’s report late last year. It says the school would need an extra $49 million to support all three programs. After months of protests by fans, community and state leaders, Watts did a 180 degree turn—but there would be a catch…

“We will maintain, but not exceed our institutional support for athletics at its current level. To do otherwise, would requires us to take additional funds dollars from our academic and health care missions, which we will not do.”

In other words, supporters of UAB can put up or shut up. Watts says the University will pledge $20 million a year to help the programs, but the fans and the community will have to foot the rest of the bill.  Luckily, the Blazer faithful have pledged $17.2 million and plan to raise more to build new facilities. One man watching this process is Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.

"The last six months for everyone has been tumultuous.  But now we have an opportunity for healing and have an opportunity to build back better than before.”

Maddox played football for UAB in the mid 1990’s.  He was also a graduate assistant for the program.  He was upset when the program was canceled, but Monday’s decision has him more optimistic about the direction the Blazers are in.

“I know first-hand that universities drive your community and the growth of those universities can do amazing things for your city.  So I commend Doctor Watts for taking a step back and giving the community an opportunity to invest.”

UAB had its best season in a decade, going 6-6.  Attendance doubled from the same time a year ago.  When the program was disassembled, players transferred and coaches left.  Doctor Watts says coach Bill Clark will be back on the Blazers sideline.

That’s welcome news to Maddox.

"When we were breaking our bones and getting bruises for UAB, we did it because we felt one day we could play at the highest levels and this year under Coach Clark, we showed some success.  And it felt like that momentum was taken away.”

Clark released a statement following Monday’s announcement saying this is a critical first step toward UAB football’s new path.

Clark has his own challenges as the Blazers rebuild, and so does UAB’s new Director of Athletics Mark Ingram. He inherited this issue says he welcomes this challenge to help push the department forward. As for returning to the gridiron?  Ingram says that could take some time.

“We’ll be working with Conference USA as we have been in that process.  Some of those details are yet to be determined. What our interest is, is to make sure we maintain our FBS level as we make progress.”

UAB President Ray Watts says there will be a specific fundraising timetable that supporters of the Blazers will have to meet, assuming the team will get a second on the gridiron.