Carson: Blazers buried from get-go
Alex Carson | Wednesday, December 3, 2014
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football program was killed Tuesday. It was 23.
Perhaps saying the program died would be incorrect — the Blazers went 6-6 this season to become bowl eligible for the first time in 10 years. The players will have the final say — if the team is invited to a bowl game — whether or not they go. So technically, the program is not dead yet; rather, it has been placed in a coma it will never recover from, simply being kept alive so that all its family can gather for one final time before the plug is pulled.
UAB football is a victim of a new age, one in which collegiate sports care more about dollars and cents, rather than players and coaches; an age where a university’s bottom line is paramount and one where the Power-Five conference’s autonomy continues to grow.
When did collegiate sports come to this? Was it when the NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma ruled in the 1980s that schools could control their own television contracts? Was it when the Bowl Championship Series was formed in the late 1990s? Was it when conference realignment uprooted teams like Nebraska and Maryland or Missouri and Texas A&M from their traditional homes and placed them into new leagues, simply in search of more television money?
Regardless of when it happened, at some point in time it did.
But from the financial side of things, UAB’s program was never given a chance to succeed.
For every year of their existence, the Blazers played at Birmingham’s Legion Field. In the early 1990s when the program began, the stadium was more than adequate. Alabama played at least three home games a season in Birmingham for most of the 20th century, rather than on-campus in Tuscaloosa — including Iron Bowls — and the stadium was the site of the first two SEC championship games in 1992 and 1993.
But after the Tide started moving all of their games back to campus, Legion Field fell into disrepair. A stadium that was always far too big for the Blazers was now crumbling — the “Football Capital of the South” disintegrated in front of their very eyes.
And then there was the fact that the University of Alabama Board of Trustees never allowed the Blazers to play the team from its Tuscaloosa campus. The Tide’s history of playing in Birmingham did not matter. The trustees wanted to ensure that the Blazers could never rival the Crimson Tide — a proposition that is as absurd as it is unlikely. An annual series between the two? It would have provided Alabama with an opportunity to play at Legion Field every other year and might have given the Blazers a fighting chance at the ticket gate.
Of course, like any good tale, this one has a villain; a man by the name of Paul Bryant, Jr.
Now, you might have heard of his dad, though most called him “Bear,” the man that built Crimson Tide football into the behemoth that it is. But his son — “Little Bear” — more than anybody, continually sucked the life out of UAB’s program.
Take a trip back to 2006. The Blazers were on the cusp of hiring Jimbo Fisher — now a national-championship-winning head coach at Florida State — to take over the reins of the program. A salary that would be partially funded by outside donors was agreed upon between the two parties, and all that remained was approval from the Board of Trustees.
Except the trustees, led by “Little Bear,” blocked the move. Instead, the Blazers hired Neil Callaway, the then-Georgia offensive coordinator that was sought after by nobody. He went 18-42 in Birmingham.
And now, “Little Bear” has successfully killed off the Blazers program. Many think that the younger Bryant has been in a quest to end the program thanks to Gene Bartow — UAB’s first athletic director — getting on his father’s bad side. Others speculate that he wanted to ensure the team in Tuscaloosa remained at the top of the food chain for eternity. But most agree that it’s no coincidence this decision came down right before Bryant will retire from the Board of Trustees.
Saturday, the Crimson Tide will play for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, the richest prize ever in collegiate sports. At the same time, the Blazers will decide whether to play one more game as a family or if they would rather just simply pull the plug move on.
It is unfortunate they were never given a chance to truly determine their own fate.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.