Monday, June 1, 2015

A Second Chance

"At UAB in Birmingham
All hail our players bold
They are the mighty Blazers
Who wear the green and gold..."

It's early June, but it's still a good day for football. A great one, perhaps.

You don't have to be from Birmingham, or step foot on its campus, or know the difference  between Southside and Mountain Brook to raise a toast to the decision by the University of Alabama-Birmingham to reverse a decision to drop football.

Such reversals of fortune are rare in the number-crunching world of college athletics, even more unlilely in the rarified air of I-A football. No I-A school has dropped football in almost 20 years, and no school had brought back football since SMU in 1988. Politics nearly killed football, and politics brought it back.

UAB football began as a Division III independent in 1991, and when 26 other schools made the leap up to I-AA, the Blazers kept going, joining I-A by 1996. With only one bowl bid and a combined record of 106-147 in I-A, no one was confusing the Blazers with the Crimson Tide or War Eagle. But because the school  is the "University of Alabama" at Birmingham, trustees from the flagship began to  make their case--the only football in the Alabama system would be played in Tuscaloosa, not Birmingham.

Led by its chairman, Paul W. Bryant Jr, (son of the most famous Alabama coach of all time),  many locals felt the fix was in. On Dec. 2, with a bowl bid in the balance,  president Ray Watts dropped the program and two other sports. You can't beat city hall, right?

As the Birmingham News relayed on Monday, you beat city hall where it makes a difference--in the wallet.  Nearly $18 million was committed from a cross-section of Birmingham that had little in common for a commuter school--students, alumni, businesses, city leaders. The Crimson Tide is everywhere in the city, but the green and gold would not go quietly.

"Look at what the supporters of a program "nobody cares about" were able to accomplish, wrote columnist Kevin Scarbinsky. "They didn't just overcome the kind of old money and secretive, selfish, self-perpetuating power that's held this entire state back forever. They brought a football program back from the dead, and they gave new life to a university and an entire city...."

"And now, against all odds, with Clark returning to lead the rebirth as head coach, that wrecking ball has a massive crack in it. UAB football, rifle and bowling have new life. There's hope for this university and this city yet."

So UAB lives again. Can it be repeated elsewhere? It's not so easy. The newspaper provided a list of five key factors for the turnaround, something not every school can engineer on such short notice:
  • A former football player who became the face of the #Free UAB movement, driving a sustained fundraising campaign when the money wasn't (yet) there;
  • A state representative, who felt that Tuscaloosa was calling the shots and who worked behind the scenes for financial and organizational support;
  • Two local businessmen who were able to raise neatly $8 million from the Birmingham business community;
  • An interim athletic director whose time on campus was going to be short if he took on the trustees, but kept ties with Conference USA and helped make the case that an exit from football would cost UAB in more ways than one; and 
  • An inspirational student leader who understood the power of social media and galvanized an indifferent commuter population to fight for its identity, not just a team.
Does a Seton Hall, a Pacific, a Santa Clara, or even a George Washington have such leaders at its calling?

The youngest football alumnus at Seton Hall is over 50. The mayor of Stockton or Santa Clara is not going to put his reputation on the line for a college team. Is there a student leader at GW who would even see the need to fight for sports on its concrete campus, or would he shrug his shoulders and worry about his resume?

As an institution, the University of Alabama-Birmingham is just 45 years old. Traditions are hard to come by when you haven't been around that long, and even more challenging when larger schools within the state demand loyalty over all else. The Crimson Tide averaged 98,177 a game, the Blazers just over 21,000.

The school will regroup for football in 2016 even as most of its veterans from 2014 scattered following the announcement. The next few years will be decidedly uphill. UAB plays in a decaying Legion Field, built in 1924 and destined for implosion within the next decade. But amidst it all, UAB football will see another day.

Would that Pirates and Tigers and Broncos and Colonials could say the same.

And this being a Georgetown column, some thoughts: could the revival of UAB football have happened at the Hilltop in 1951? What would Hoya Football be like if it had never left the major college ranks?

Well, of course, it couldn't have happened, and wouldn't have, because the world of Georgetown 1951 is not the world of Birmingham in 2015.

Ray Watts is a political appointment, a university president who answers to trustees confirmed by the state legislature and answerable to the governor. Hunter Guthrie, the "president-rector" of Georgetown circa 1951, acted unilaterally to drop football. The board of directors at Georgetown was comprised solely of members of the Georgetown Jesuit community, none of whom would dare question the decision of the rector. And none did.

The mayor of Birmingham is a UAB grad who knows what a Saturday afternoon in Legion Field could do for his economy. In 1951, DC had no mayor, no elected officials. A three man board ran the capital, and the agenda was set by Congress. Sports meant little in the capital city.

Jimmy Filler and Don Hire raised $17.5 million in less than six months for UAB football. In 1951, Georgetown had no sustained fundraising organization and was some $400,000 short of finishing a gymnasium project in the works for nearly 14 years. A sustained annual fund, driven by alumni and not the school, was still three years away.

Shannon Ealy kept the UAB athletic department aligned when it could have spun out of control and provied a public sign than UAB could support football again. At Georgetown, Guthrie would have fired athletic director Jack Hagerty on the spot if Hagerty had so much whispered about promoting a return to football.

In UAB, the school has found a leader in Timothy Alexander, who will never play football again following a car crash that paralyzed him from the waist down, but whose passion for the game inspired a campus.

In 1951, any student that publicly questioned Rev. Guthrie would find a swift kick out the Healy Gates, never to return. But this is not 1951.

And thankfully for UAB, it's not 2014 anymore.

"Tonight let's fire their golden blaze
The flame of victory
Go, Blazers! Go, Blazers!
Win for UAB!"
Win for UAB!