It takes a lot to make grown men cry.
Like losing their college football team.
On Sunday, teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision awaited the announcement of postseason pairings. But fans, coaches and players at the University of Alabama-Birmingham remained in mourning over their recently-departed program, killed last week by school president Ray Watts.
One final indignity was ahead: Bowl-eligible for the first time in a decade, the Blazers were left at home, going 0-for-38 in possible invites. The team has played its last game, compiling a 6-6 record in its 19th and final season.
Watts claims he had his reasons – 20 million of them. But there’s also cause to question UAB’s suitability as a case study for mid-majors weighing football’s costs.
UAB and the University of Alabama share a board of trustees, and that governing body leans heavily toward the Crimson Tide’s interests. Alabama has made life miserable for its little sibling ever since the latter decided to start a football program. One trustee in particular, Paul “Little Bear” Bryant Jr., son of the legendary coach, is thought to carry a grudge that his father had against UAB.
The board in 2011 killed UAB’s proposal for a 30,000-seat, on-campus stadium. Five years earlier, trustees nixed a deal for UAB to hire Jimbo Fisher, who’s currently shooting for back-to-back national titles with Florida State.
So it’s understandable why the Alabama Media Group wrote in an editorial, “We don’t trust the process that ended UAB football.” Making a call on the decision is too difficult given the circumstances and a lack of transparency from Watts.
However, regardless of the route UAB took, the destination undoubtedly will be considered by other schools facing financial challenges.
“The danger in one school dropping it is you never know what kind of domino effect that will have on other programs that may be struggling,” University of Texas-San Antonio athletic director Lynn Hickey told the Associated Press. “It’s human nature that when someone opens the door, makes a big step, a big decision like that, sometimes that eases the pressure on other people who want to do that.”
Finances such as UAB’s dictate taking a look at football’s feasibility. Including student fees, the school’s athletic program received more than $18 million in subsidies last year, according to USA Today’s database. Watts presented a study from CarrSports Consulting that said UAB faced a projected five-year deficit of $25.3 million, plus another $22.2 million in capital expenditures to “build and sustain competitiveness” if football were to continue.
Mid-majors and majors both play in the FBS, but there’s no delusion of equality. Schools in the “Power 5” conferences might as well be in a separate division; that’s how far they are from the reality of life in “Group of 5” conferences.
The Alabamas, Texases and Ohio States draw hundreds of thousands of fans, attract tens of millions of viewers and rake in billions of dollar. They spend plenty and make plenty more.
But there’s a reason 23 schools since 1987 jumped from the Football Championship Subdivision to the FBS. The sport carries a cachet that basketball can’t match. Even successful hoops-centric schools like Virginia Commonwealth University have a hole in their appeal that only football could fill.
“Football affects admissions, enrollment and donations,” University of San Francisco sports economics professor Dan Rascher told The New York Times. “It’s hard for schools to wrap their arms around things like this because they don’t necessarily see them on the athletic department’s budget sheet. A few years down the road, UAB could wonder why it’s not as attractive to students.”
Football at any cost makes no sense, especially if it plays a role in the meteoric increase of college tuition. Education must be the primary focus and No. 1 goal on campuses, not athletic facilities and No. 1 rankings.
However, just like the arts, sports in general and football in particular carry intrinsic value. Students and alumni are bonded in a way that nothing else matches. The school’s name travels across the country in a manner it wouldn’t do otherwise.
And unlike a top academic or music program, folks can rally around the football team.
From tiny NAIA programs to behemoth Big 10 powerhouses, schools find a way to make it work. If shuttering the program was absolutely necessary, so be it. But shame on all involved if alternatives existed but lost out for political and underhanded reasons.
Yes, college football has its warts and, yes, it can resemble a monster. But it’s our monster and we love it.
The tears in Birmingham are proof.