UAB reverses decision to drop football program
Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — After making what was described by UAB president Ray Watts as an agonizing decision to terminate the football program in December, he and the university reversed field and announced Monday that they would reinstate the program, along with bowling and rifle.
Watts, who originally disbanded the three programs based largely on a reported lack of financial solvency, said recent changes in private support through individuals and the business community made the reinstatement possible. An estimated $ 27 million has been raised through the UAB Football Foundation, the city of Birmingham and the UAB Undergraduate Student Government Association.
“The biggest single difference is we now have tangible commitments for additional support that we have never had before,” Watts told reporters. “Without that additional support, we could not have maintained a balanced budget moving forward.”
A timetable for football’s return has not been set, UAB athletic director Mark Ingram said. He said that “our goal is to play as soon as possible,” but stopped short of saying whether that would be the 2016 season.
If UAB’s football program returns for the 2016 season, the Blazers could not play in a bowl until 2017 at the earliest without an NCAA waiver, industry sources told ESPN’s Brett McMurphy.
Conference USA also has not determined whether UAB will be able to compete as a C-USA full football member in its first year back, a league spokeswoman said.
Ingram, who was hired a month ago, described Monday’s announcement as a “launching point.”
As to how the program will go about filling a roster from scratch, Ingram said the school will work with Conference USA and the NCAA for the “most appropriate way to do that within the boundaries of the rules.”
“This will be a continued challenge,” he said.
During Monday’s news conference, Watts largely stayed away from what specific actions will be taken by the university moving forward. He said the school will continue to fund roughly $ 20 million per year to athletics, but that $ 17 million in additional support must come from private donations. That doesn’t include another $ 13 million for improved facilities.
Watts said the plan is to stay with Conference USA and continue to have Bill Clark as the team’s coach.
Clark said he is “thrilled” and that it is an “exciting day for UAB” and “true relief to know there is a future for UAB” football.
As far as his message to the players and coaches who have left UAB, Watts expressed regret for the fallout.
“Of course this was a very difficult decision,” he said. “It broke our hearts to make that decision, and we’re sorry for any consequences of that.
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“But we’re excited today that our community and supporters have come together. I can tell you that had we not made that decision, which was based on sound information, that we wouldn’t be where we are today. We’ve never seen this level of support.”
Six months ago, Watts announced that he would disband the football, rifle and women’s bowling teams after a report from CarrSports Consulting found that UAB athletic expenses would grow to $ 38.5 million by 2019 while revenue would increase by less than $ 1 million. At the time, the university, which said it subsidizes roughly two-thirds of the athletic department’s operating budget, said the difference over the next five years would be an extra $ 49 million with football, including a projected $ 22 million needed for football facilities and upgrades.
UAB became the first major college football program to shut down since Pacific did so in 1995. It came on the heels of the program’s best record in a decade (6-6) under first-year coach Clark and the team’s first taste of bowl eligibility since 2004. Despite a prolonged struggle to gain fan support in a state dominated by Auburn and Alabama football, UAB doubled its average attendance in 2014 to more than 21,000 per game.
But a second report released last month from College Sports Solutions, commissioned by UAB, came to the conclusion that reinstating the three programs and continuing on without them were both “viable options.” The report said the school would operate on an annual $ 3.165 million deficit if it brought back the programs, but noted that a return would “foster much goodwill and stimulate a substantial amount of spiritual and financial support from alumni, donors, ticket holders, friends, students, faculty and the community” in addition to “positive national attention to the University.”
Justin Craft, a former UAB football player and chair of the Task Force Subcommittee for Public/Private Support, said that fundraising for athletics generated more than 600 individual pledges.
“The city has rallied around the program,” Craft told ESPN.com. “It has truly become Birmingham’s team. The first step is the support, but the second step is to invest.”
Since UAB football’s shutdown, several players have transferred. Wideout Jamari Staples landed at Louisville, linebacker Jake Ganus went to Georgia and offensive lineman Victor Salako enrolled at Oklahoma State, among others.
ESPN’s Brett McMurphy and Joe Schad contributed to this report.