UAB supporters showed president the money, got football back

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) When Justin Craft and other UAB supporters met with university President Ray Watts last fall, they were told that donations to the athletic department were welcome but to hold off on pledging money to save the football program.

A few weeks later, Watts shut down football - and now, he's brought it back.

But Craft and others might have been in position to help avoid the embarrassing perception of flip-flopping by all those involved.

''I think we could have done some good things, but that wasn't the cards we were dealt,'' said Craft, a former UAB player who runs a financial planning firm. ''I think the community has been able to take this adversity and turn it into what I think now is a great story and a great opportunity.''

True, now that money earmarked for football is more than welcome.

The burgeoning vocal and monetary support for UAB football during the next six months after it was shut down changed Watts' tune - and saved the program.

Craft is taking the high road, declining Tuesday to say whether Watts could have avoided the firestorm of criticism and ultimately the daunting task of resurrecting football.

Craft helped lead the quest for donors as chairman of the task force's fundraising committee. He said that endeavor became increasingly easier as public sentiment swayed more toward bringing football back. The result was $28 million in pledges over a four-week span, including the $17 million to cover a projected operational deficit over the next five years plus some money toward a turf practice field and new field house and commitments to help build an on-campus stadium if that becomes a possibility.

Craft said about 700 people donated.

''The last four weeks when we really hit the ground on these pledge forms and really getting community support, there wasn't a door that I walked in where people were not receptive,'' he said. ''Frankly, what's been amazing is it wasn't just me. There are hundreds of volunteers out there spreading the word, and people wanted to help.''

Athletic director Mark Ingram said the pledged donations ranged up to $1 million.

Though Watts is bringing back football, along with bowling and rifle, it's not clear if football will be restarted in time to fill a roster for the 2016 season.

The president deflected questions on whether organized efforts like the athletics task force he eventually formed could have kept the program alive in the first place.

''We're moving forward and we're moving forward together,'' Watts said at a news conference Monday. ''We wouldn't be here and we would never have seen this level of support until we made the decision that we could no longer afford to do this in a responsible way.''

The support was dubbed the ''Free UAB'' movement and State Rep. Jack Williams was probably its most visible figure. He estimates he averaged nearly two media interviews a day over the last four or five months.

''We tapped into the frustration our community felt and their concerns about not controlling their own fate and destiny,'' said Williams, who runs a Web site covering UAB sports. ''Now, there's an opportunity for us to do great things. If we fail, it's on us.''

Fans may not have to go it alone.

Watts said it's up to the city and business leaders to build a stadium to get UAB out of aging Legion Field. Longtime UAB supporter Jimmy Filler said that's vital for the program, but said the other upgrades are pressing needs, too.

''The coaches' office looked like a dentist's office,'' Filler said. ''It was terrible. UAB football never really had a chance. A lot of coaches came here and tried their best but they couldn't get the university ever to commit to any upgrade to the facilities. We have antiquated Legion Field, which we still have to go back to the next 2 to 3 years until we have a new place to play UAB football. Hopefully it will be an on-campus stadium.''

Filler and several other donors guaranteed Watts in recent weeks that they would give $7.5 million toward an on-campus stadium.

''Jimmy was a rock,'' Williams said. ''He got fired up early on. He's a major supporter and donor and he was just unyielding in saying, `You've got to protect football and you've got to invest in facilities if you want me to be a part of what you're doing.'''

Craft said the support had been growing not fading.

''It was not going to go away until people had a fair opportunity to show that they cared about this program,'' he said. ''Unless there was a change of direction and we did not want to have undergraduate athletic programs, then there was absolutely no reason not to have a football team.''

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