Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What UAB's football death means to UNC Charlotte

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and University of Alabama-Birmingham have often been seen as sister schools, at least athletically. The former Conference USA mates have metro campuses in their state's largest city, and each has fought the commuter school image. Both have also experienced athletic success - mostly in basketball - but they defer in popularity and influence to their state's flagship universities.

Tuesday was a hard day at UAB. College president Ray Watts announced that the school's football program would be shuttered at the end of this season. It was a sad, emotional day, as grieving and angry football players confronted Watts and collapsed in the arms of a school chaplain.

Why did it happen? Students and alumni point to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, which has long been less than supportive of UAB football. Many are convinced that one of those trustees, Paul Bryant, Jr., was getting payback for a 1991 letter that then-UAB athletic director Gene Bartow wrote to the NCAA about investigating the Alabama basketball program.

All of which could very well be true. But there also were financial causes for the football program's death. Like many universities and colleges - including some of the largest - the UAB football program needed the school's help to make the bottom line work. In an era of tighter academic funding, the school was forced to weigh football against other places the money could go, Watts said.

At UNC Charlotte, football is a new, very different thing right now. It's a valuable recruiting tool, an important part of student and alumni life. The football Niners are on an upward trajectory, with the Football Bowl Subdivision in the near-term plans and big victories in the long-term dreams.

UAB had some of those big victories once, but the death of the program is a reminder of the other possibilities out there for schools that don't reside in big-time athletic conferences. We could be seeing more UABs in the coming years, more college administrators looking at a tough budget landscape and calculating what value their football program brings.

That calculation is about to get less friendly for football. In August, the NCAA Board of Directors passed a measure that would allow the five biggest conferences - including the ACC and SEC - to change rules in recruiting, expenses, financial aid and other areas. The changes will likely allow these Power 5 schools to pay some student-athletes a stipend on top of their scholarships.

Non-Power 5 conferences can adopt the same changes, and many probably will at the start, because saying no would also mean saying goodbye to all the TV revenue that the big conferences bring for everyone. But going along with the changes will place an even greater burden on smaller schools with smaller athletic budgets.

It's inevitable that more schools will bow out of the football arms race. Some will compete on a lesser level, which is considerably less sexy than having a big-time college football program. That will bring about a whole new round of is-it-worth-it calculations.

Used to be that the answer was "Yes, of course it's worth it" - at least if you wanted to be seen as offering students the complete college experience. That's a lot of what drove UNC Charlotte's entry into football. But that entry also came with the prospect of big stadiums filled with big crowds for big Saturday games. As that reality becomes less accessible for many schools, leaders will have more justification to weigh the expense and hassle of football against its payoff. That's hard to imagine at UNC Charlotte, where football is all about possibilities right now. But that also was true - not so long ago - at UAB. 

Peter St. Onge


Rick said...
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Rick said...

You make very valid points when it comes to the expense side of it. What you failed to mention is the political vendetta the UA BOT had against UAB. The wheels were set in motion many years ago when they blocked UAB from hiring Jimbo Fisher. Then again when an on-campus stadium was denied. It's amazing that the BOT can sit there and pay Saban $7M a year and then close down UAB football. On top of that, the UAB president is the 11th highest paid university president in the US aka the BOT's puppet.

James Foster
'07 UNC Charlotte Alum

Rboggs81 said...

You forgot to mention when comparing that UAB played in an old, decrepit, off campus stadium while Charlotte plays in a new, on campus stadium built to spec so it could easily expand to 40k or 60k.

Also, another difference is Charlotte will be better connected to the community with the light rail expansion which will make it far easier for people to attend school as well as the athletic events on campus.

Not to mention, Charlotte is a top 25 metro area by population, where as Birmingham is barely top 50 (49 according to Wikipedia). Larger population, including a large alumni base in the Charlotte area, equals a much greater chance of long term viability.

btango said...

Do not compare UAB to Alabama. Alabama's football program is a profit maker and a huge donation driver. Saban's pay does not come out of the university general fund, it is 100% covered by the profit of the program he runs.

btango said...

When Charlotte announced plans for a football team I was for it if they built an on campus stadium that would allow the students to have easy access to games. Going downtown to play would have been a no go for me. Birmingham's Legion Field is a dump in the wrong area of town.

Marti said...

Just to connect some of your dots--exactly the same thing as big box industry driving mom and pop places out of business. All about the bucks!

The Observer Editorial Board said...

Hi James,

I did mention the dynamics between the UA BOT and UAB, including the Bartow letter that some feel led to this all.


The Observer Editorial Board said...


Yes, Legion Field was definitely an obstacle for UAB, and the Board of Trustees blocked attempts at a new stadium in Birmingham. I don't want to give the impression that UNCC is heading down the same road. No one knows yet how it's going to go. But UAB's financial situation was difficult even without the Legion Field albatross, and it's only going to get tougher for smaller-budget schools moving forward.



daniel said...

I haven't seen any mention of closing down other sports, which I find a bit peculiar. When football programs are established, Title IX mandates an equivalent amount of money be spent on other athletics, primarily for women. If this were really only about costs, wouldn't we have heard that some of the other sports were also being shuttered?

Daniel - UNCC Class of 99

James Edgar said...

My brother is a UAB grad. He says the Paul Bryant Jr. conspiracy theory is nothing but a tin foil hat. However, the Board of Trustees as a whole has been looking for a good excuse to shut down the program for some time, and Ray Watts is indeed a shill for the BOT.

He does believe UNCC is doing it right, mainly by building the facilities BEFORE starting to play. He also advises that Judy Rose needs to completely abandon her distain for playing Power 5 conference teams, because we will find that the $400k checks are worth getting beat 77-3 a couple times a year. It will help finance the program, our players might get at least 1 game on national TV, and we can still go on to win C-USA titles and decent bowl games.

A better comparison to UAB is Georgia State. They are also a new program, and are just now trying to get an on-campus facility. They're new enough that they might pull it off, but UAB waited too long into their program's existence to do that, and that played a big role in dooming it.

Anonymous said...

Despite the cry that "it could not happen here", it could indeed happen at UNCC. Already we have seen in the second season a drop in student attendance at the games to the extent that fewer seats for students will be reserved next year. Meanwhile tuition fees for students increased in part to fund this program. Thus coupled with the burden of excessive student debt, how many years will UNCC be able to support a program that will at best send a team to a meaningless second rate bowl game without a backlash?

jeff a. taylor said...

Proud of you Peter for a balanced take on an issue the UPoR fumbled for years, primarily due the lamentable Mary Schulken

The models for UNCC athletics have indeed been old SUN BELT foes UAB and VCU -- one with football, one without. And like UNCC, both schools are heavily dependent on student fee subsidies for big time athletics. UAB's implosion should indeed be cause for concern -- not panic mind you, but sober concern among UNCC supporters.

Because to be absolutely clear, the path the Power 5 conferences have in mind with autonomy (especially the SEC with its money-printing network HQd Uptown) is utterly indifferent to the football fates of smaller programs. If they can balance their books and subsist on table scraps, fine. If they cannot, that is fine too. The next three to five years will be very telling, the money the college playoff throws off will be huge, and it almost surely will go to eight teams, creating an even bigger void between the programs with some hope of making the cut and those who cannot.

Just consider for a moment that the future of non Power 5 football might be programs with hundreds of fans in the stands, spending tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Larry said...

Sad we do not have the same attitude with sports in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

We should stop them and only allow them back when the grades warrant them.

Shamash said...

While Birmingham may be a foreboding of Charlotte's future in many ways, UAB football is probably not a good indicator of that.

Alabamians are strongly devoted to Alabama/Auburn rivalry.

Nothing else compares.

Legion Field is a cesspool in a really crappy, run down, ghetto neighborhood.

I know because I used to live nearby some decades ago.

The last "event" I attended at Legion Field was a Pink Floyd concert some 20 years ago.

And it was even crappy back then.

You had to pay thugs to "watch" your car or else face the "threat" (and a not so subtle one at that) that it would be "damaged".

Elyton Village (just down Graymont Ave from Legion Field) is a major criminal breeding ground for the area and has been for the last 50 years or so.

As far as I can tell, nothing much has changed since I was last in the area.

Shamash said...


UAB is also cutting bowling and rifle due to their growing financial burden.

I mean, how much of a "burden" could those two "sports" be?

Man, they must be getting really hard up in the Magic City.

I mean, just when you thought that having your mayor, Larry Langford, sent to the federal slammer was as low as you could go, and then this?

Next thing you know, their sewers will back up and their toilets won't flush.

No, wait, that's a county problem.

But just one of many...

Gee, I wonder why all that happened.

Les Linthicum said...

Football drives college athletic programs. It makes no sense for UAB to drop football and expect that it will not have negative impact on their other sports and overall image of the university.

Shamash said...
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Shamash said...


I can remember a time when UAB didn't have much of a sports program at all in either basketball or football.

And yet, they managed to create quite a good Medical school.

I personally know several doctors who entered and graduated from that program in the 1970's.

The sports program had nothing to do with their education or success in life.

How did THAT happen without fooball?

And on the other hand, I can find you hundreds (if not thousands,if I really cared to search) of HS dropouts living in trailers in Alabama who are simply rabid Alabama or Auburn football fans.

I'm sure their "opinion" of their favorite college football team adds much to the image of those fine institutions of higher learning.

Garth Vader said...

>> At UNC Charlotte, football is a new, very different thing right now. >> It's a valuable recruiting tool, an important part of student and alumni life.

Wow, Pete. How much did Judy Rose and Phil "yada yada" Dubose pay you to write that drivel?

UNCC has played ONE season of football. UNCC's enrollment increased by one percent from 2013 (last year without football) to 2014, the SAME as between 2012 to 2013. NOT "important recruiting tool".