UAB football’s return great, but bad publicity will last forever

While it's encouraging that UAB is reinstating its football program, it's sad that the school reached this point in the first place.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

By Mike Craven

UAB football has risen from the dead, but the corpse still stinks of rot and an ill-fated demise that could have been prevented with responsible oversight and competence. Less than six months ago, UAB president Ray Watts cut the football, bowling and rifle programs at the University of Alabama-Birmingham after a school-sanctioned report concluded it would cost too much money to field a competitive football program.

It is amazing what some bad publicity can do to change minds. Countless stories have outlined the reasons for Watts’ change of heart. The outcry over the decision to cut the sports produced the most attention UAB athletics may have ever achieved. If Watts wasn’t so inept, it’d almost be genius. His self-serving decision and rhetoric caused a groundswell of support from across the nation and introduced the #FreeUAB hashtag into the timelines of many who would never think twice about UAB football.

In a news conference this week, Watts said, “The biggest single difference is that we now have tangible commitment for additional support we never had before.” Translation: We found a way for other people to foot the bill so we can ditch this program again in a few years if we don’t make any money off of its success or failures.

Wiping your hands clean of consequences isn’t a rare occurrence in college athletics, but the blatant destruction of a program is not the norm. UAB became the first FBS football program to cut football this century, and the argument hinged largely on a skewed study conducted by the very people who wanted to rid the Alabama Board of Regents of the gnat that is UAB football.

But, again, that bad publicity wouldn’t go away. The depressing part of the story involves the players and, to a lesser degree, the coaching staff. A majority of the UAB football players either graduated thinking the program they worked so hard for over four to five years was dead while the ones with remaining eligibility scattered across the country looking for a place to fulfill their dreams. They were uprooted from the college they had originally chosen to pursue an education and the dream of playing college athletics.

It is easy to celebrate the minor victory of Watts succumbing to the pressure of a community and the onlookers across the nation, but the trial is just getting started. The current state of UAB football could be cast members of the next season of “The Walking Dead.” A depleted roster makes it impossible to compete in 2015. Without a huge recruiting class full of early enrollee JUCO players and high school prospects in the 2016 class, it is unlikely that UAB could even compete in Conference USA in 2016.

Watts and his cronies essentially took two years of life away from a program that wasn’t in worse shape than most power five football programs. Politics has no place in college athletics, but we’d be fooling ourselves to pretend like it doesn’t exist. And like most issues in politics, the ones affected the most are never the ones who get to make decisions.

I’m happy for UAB. I’m happy for the former players who don’t have to live with the fact that they played for a dying program. I’m happy for the future players at UAB who can turn this travesty into an underdog story that we love to root for in this country. However, I’m not glad we ever had to cross the bridge in the first place.

It could have been prevented. That should be Watts’ legacy, and I hope he doesn’t get to be around when UAB officially makes its return to the football field.

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