The University of Alabama at Birmingham may drop its football program:

“I think it’s going to happen,” said Clark, who led UAB to a 6-6 record in his first season at the school. “Unless something changes before the weekend ends, I think it’s over. I think the odds are very high it ends this week. To shut the doors? That’s sad.”

Clark has been in contact with school and Conference USA officials as recently as Sunday. UAB commissioned a university-wide strategic planning initiative to evaluate things like fiscal feasibility.

Discussions have also taken place between athletic director Brian Mackin and the school on a separation agreement, sources told ESPN.

This is looking far less speculative than the situation at Hawaii that I wrote about previously. This looks like it’s actually going to happen.

I tend to be skeptical of predictions that the football teams in the lesser five conferences of the FBS are going to hang up their spurs. There are, however, exceptions. Hawaii was one, and UAB is another. Not even due to their historically dreadful attendance issues, or the fact that they have twelve wins in the last four seasons or haven’t been to a bowl in a decade. That all may matter a little bit, or it may not. UAB is vulnerable for a specific reason that other, similarly troubled programs aren’t: The decision isn’t the university’s.

San Jose State made the decision not to terminate its football program, and didn’t. Tulane and Rice did the same thing. Eastern Michigan has considered it and has not, as of yet, made that decision. No FBS program has folded in almost two decades. But UAB’s program will be shut down not by UAB, but essentially by The University of Alabama:

Part of the problem, according to UAB football supporters and former players, is that the university doesn’t have its own board of trustees and is controlled by the University of Alabama System board, which oversees campuses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.

Thirteen of the 15 trustees received undergraduate or law degrees from the University of Alabama, including Paul W. Bryant Jr., the son of legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Only three board members have academic ties to UAB. One of them, Barbara Humphrey, is the wife of former Crimson Tide star running back Bobby Humphrey.

There is actually a long history of friction ranging from indifference to animosity between the Tuscaloosa-dominated Board of Trustees and the Birmingham university. In 2011, the university was looking at building their own stadium instead of playing in the dilapidated Legion Field, and it was shot down by the Board. Fair enough, though, because committing the program to a $70-million project demands prudence. But in 2006, they had planned to hire a well-regarded coach named Jimbo Fisher, whose name may sound familiar because last year he won the national championship as Florida State’s head coach. Despite the fact that they’d already made a handshake deal, they’d already lined up the money to pay him, the Board didn’t let them do it. In 2004, UAB had a blockbuster season defeating Baylor, TCU, and Mississippi State on their way to a bowl game and right after the potentially program-building season ended… the Board made noises about reviewing whether UAB needed a football program. And here we are in 2014, UAB has had an amazing year and doubled their attendance, and this may be the last year they play football.

Notably, while the presidency at the University of Alabama at Huntsville was vacant, the Trustees dropped the school’s championship hockey program. It was shortly thereafter revived when money was independently raised to save it.

Will the same happen here? Some reports are suggesting that the football program would continue to 2016, which is how far out their present commitments run (coach’s contract, scheduled games), though most suggest that it would be ending immediately. If you’re sunsetting your program, it’s almost better to do it immediately because you’re never going to be able to recruit athletes for a program that’s going away. On the other hand, if the university can just postpone it to 2016, that would give them time to do whatever they could to make it not happen.

I have no special loyalty to the UAB program. Because of their unique situation, I am not the least bit worried that they will set off a chain reaction that will prove my long-running predictions wrong. They are a not-large commuter school that has struggled on the field, off the field, and in the stands.

At the same time, the manner in which this is occurring is strange. Alabama is over-extended in football, but it should not be UAB that is most vulnerable. UAB fans have complained for years and years that Tuscaloosa “has it in” for them, and this is providing a degree of justification for that view. It’s hard to figure out why, though, making me think it is probably more likely that Bama fans – like many fans of the big programs – can’t understand what the point of having a program at UAB’s level is (especially when you’re sharing a state with Bama).

And, of course, many would argue that they are right. One of the big reasons I do not predict a large-scale collapse of the lower FBS programs is that regardless of the merits of discontinuing a program, I think there are institutional reasons that schools will only very rarely see it that way. In that sense, one could argue that taking the decision out of their hands and putting it into the hands of a more neutral body is optimal. That, along with having seen some embarrassingly empty stands, is the best argument I can see for this.

Anyhow, so if the trigger is pulled, what happens? This is simpler than the Hawaii situation, because it would involve fewer conferences. UAB would need to be replaced in Conference USA, and C*USA would most likely choose either James Madison University (currently of the FCS Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10 Conferences) or Georgia State (currently of the Sun Belt). If the Sun Belt loses a team, it is probably not replaced.

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20 Responses to UAB to Cancel Football?

  1. Peter says:

    I’ve heard that UAB has the best engineering programs in the state and is very strong in other STEM subjects. It’s even better than Auburn, which is the land grant. It will be interesting to see if the loss of football affects it’s academic reputation, sort of a reverse Flutie Effect.

  2. kirk says:

    As I found out only recently, the University of Tampa used to have a football team. It was around for forty years, and has been gone just as long.

    • trumwill says:

      Yeah, a lot of smaller schools used to have them in the day. I actually only knew of Tampa’s existence when I read about their old football days.

    • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

      Seton Hall also used to have a football team.

      Upsala College, which closed in 1995, also had a football team.

      Since Seton Hall is located in South Orange and Upsala was located in East Orange, the annual game between the schools was known as the Orange Bowl.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    Using your theory, no one but a desperate academic administrator would accept the position of president of UAB. However, there will be other schools that decide to drop football (and maybe the rest of the athletic department) rather than try to sustain a program that draws no interest and loses millions.

    • trumwill says:

      I wouldn’t say desperate, but I would say that it has become a less attractive position relative to UTSA. UAB still has a lot going for it. Having a football program at the second highest level won’t be one of them anymore.

      There are actually some indications that this may be a part of a bigger change for UAB, moving away from being an undergraduate institution and towards focusing on graduate students. (It is already very post-grad heavy.) Losing the football program (and the basketball conference downgrade that would be coming) may hurt a bit less, with that in mind.

      Off the top of my head (outside the service academies) there are only a couple football programs (NMSU, EMU) I would consider potentially vulnerable and a couple more that I could see transitioning down to FCS (Idaho and UMass). If a school that isn’t one of those, or doesn’t have a particularly story, drops their football program that will definitely catch my attention. I’ve heard a comment or two about Florida International, and that would be significant and would weaken (though not at all destroy) the resolve of my prediction.

      I don’t think Troy will. They made the transition to FBS not too long ago. Given that they are a big online school, they arguably have more to gain or lose than their rival in Mobile. When I think about schools that really, really should reconsider FBS football, Troy doesn’t come to mind. Louisiana-Monroe does, though, but they’re actually a good example of a school that should consider it but won’t.

      Which is true of a lot of Sun Belt schools in particular. While the MAC seems to be full of unambitious schools that more or less know where they stand, the Sun Belt is full of poor programs* that are there for no other reason than ambition. Theoretically, some of them should give up at some point, but I’ve actually heard very little noise that any of them are.

      And of course, even if they do, there is a line of schools (even if not the schools they necessary want) waiting to take their place. Liberty is in a situation like Troy, and desperately want up.

      * – As a conference, the Sun Belt is demonstrably worse than at least some FCS conferences. Five, by my count.

    • trumwill says:

      Incidentally, there has actually been a lot more in the way of protests with this than I would have guessed that there’d be. I would have figured online kvetching, but would not have guessed bunches of students (and others) protesting in the streets and on campus.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    It looks like UAB will be looking for a new conference soon since Conference USA requires basketball.

    In wonder how much longer Troy St will have a football team.

    • Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

      You mean football.

      • superdestroyer says:

        You are correct. UAB could fall as far as the Ohio Valley Conference if no one else wants them.

        • trumwill says:

          Ohio Valley would be UAB getting kinda lucky. Worst case is the WAC. Most of the southern conferences want football programs, which is a problem. Also a problem is that this is after realignment, whereas if it had occurred a couple years ago they might have had a couple of options.

          On the other hand, UAB does have a good basketball program. That could help them become an exception, or could help them get into a decent conference despite bad geography. Or it could be like New Mexico State (which also has a good basketball program) where other conferences look at them and say “They’re too good and if we take them, they’ll just soak up our automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.”

          The ideal destination would probably be the CAA. If I had to guess, I’d guess the Sun Belt, which is presently sitting at 11 schools. But there’s no obvious destination.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    The Sunbelt is a football conference that needs a 12th football team to make two six school divisions. Adding another basketball only school does not help since they already have two of them.

    Forde at Yahoo Sports noticed that there were no Cinderellas this year. I suspect that the five power conferences will grow in strength and the other five conferences will fade away. The Big 12 is holding two gold tickets that could save two programs but the question is who will get them. Another year or two of no Cinderellas and the power five conferences may truly want to separate. The only thing keeping the ten conference arrangement together is the desire of the power five conferences to all have 7 home games.

    • trumwill says:

      UAB adds more than UTA did. One more non-FB would get them up to 12, which allows for basketball divisions and a clean 16-game conference schedule. Doesn’t solve their football-to-12 issue, though it would add room for them to get there with UMass as FB-only.

      The Power 5 don’t want cinderellas, so I don’t know why a lack of cindarellas would make them want to separate. A cinderella opens up questions about a playoff spot that they don’t want to give up. This is what they want.

      • superdestroyer says:

        The logic on the 64 going their own way is that the conferences will eventually go to nine conference games and require at least one game against another power conference school. That only leaves two (or one for the SEC) game against the other five conferences. The MAC cannot fill their schedules with three or four blow out losses to Big 10 schools. That means less money for losses and lower television money.
        It is better in the long run to be third string at Mississippi State rather than start at Houston, Boise St, or Cincinnati.

        • trumwill says:

          Why one for the SEC?

          The P5 conferences starting to set up requirements for playing other P5 songs is indeed problematic for the G5. Doesn’t affect MAC TV revenues, though. And it doesn’t solve the problem of home games.

          Being third string at Mississippi State instead of first string at Boise State may be better… if you don’t care about actually playing. That’s the basis of the decision student athletes make: A strong chance at starting at a lesser school or a weaker chance at starting at a more prestigious one. Different student athletes make different decisions (and sometimes change their decision and transfer).

          At any rate, none of what you’re talking about requires breaking off into a separate subdivision or bolting from the NCAA.

        • trumwill says:

          FTR, I’m not saying a split won’t occur. I don’t know, and while I don’t think it’s inevitable I actually think there’s a decent chance of it happening at some point down the line (though you haven’t yet hit on why I think it might happen).

          I am far less skeptical of a split forced by the P5 than the G5 simply throwing in the towel due to costs. (Though even in the latter case, I can see some conferences – Sun Belt, MAC – more vulnerable than others.)

  6. superdestroyer says:

    I thought you would have a post about the College football playoff. What is most interesting is whether Baylor and TCU being left out will cause the Big 12 to expand back to 12 or more or whether the other five conferences should start thinking about shutting down their football programs.

    • trumwill says:

      I’d planned to write one prior to the decision being made, but the announcement came out before I did and I didn’t know that I’d had enough of an angle. My basic view is:

      (1) The Big 12 should have taken Cincinnati and Louisville along with West Virginia. Their decision was short-sighted.

      (2) With Louisville gone, there aren’t good enough candidates to justify going to 12. Because

      (3) This was one season where the breaks didn’t go their way. The Big 12 was happy with the 10 because of seasons where having that CCG made things not go there way. So…

      (4) They should do a lot of thinking before they try to get a waiver so that they can have a conference championship game.

      (5) The Big 12 has always been extremely reactive (or overreactive), so I do expect them to go forward with the waiver request.

      (6) I think there’s a decent chance they’ll get it, because the ACC wants to do away with divisions and the Big Ten isn’t particularly attached to having divisions and might prefer the same.

      (7) If they don’t get it, I think they should and will sit tight at 10. Every expansion candidate, except possibly Cincinnati, has some significant issue or another.

      (8) Which doesn’t mean that the other five conferences will shut down their football programs.

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