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A Brush With Death Saved UAB Football. Should Other Schools Try It Out?

Four years ago, UAB football closed up shop. Two years ago, it came back and quickly rose to the top of its league. Could other moribund programs borrow from the Blazers' strategy?

Semper in absentes felicior aestus amantes, the Roman poet Sextius Propertius had it—“Passion is always warmer toward absent lovers.” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 28 years ago in “(Just Like) Starting Over”, put it this way: “It’s been too long since we took the time; no one’s to blame; I know time flies, so quickly.” We must ask, after an 11–3 season and a win in Tuesday’s Boca Raton Bowl, has the resurgent University of Alabama at Birmingham stumbled upon a plan other teams should follow?

Back in December 2014, after a 6–6 season, university president Ray Watts announced that the football program would close down. It wasn’t that there was something wrong with Blazer football, exactly. There just wasn’t nearly enough right with it. The team played in decaying, cavernous Legion Field before small crowds. Its practice facilities were considered some of Division I’s shabbiest. That 6–6 finish was the team’s best in a decade. 

A review of the athletic department’s future budgets suggested that the school could save $50 million over five years by ditching its so-so Conference USA squad. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable,” Watts said at the time. This wasn’t an empty threat: The school fired its athletic director, and players transferred out en masse.

At another university, the decision might have been hailed as shrewd and even progressive, a gesture of independence from the major-college-sports arms race. But at UAB, it served as a challenge. Fans, faculty and locals claimed that the university system had long had it in for the Blazers—you may be aware that the University of Alabama system fields another pretty good football team—and that the budget projections Watts had obtained were needlessly pessimistic. Donors grumbled that they had not even been asked to make up the shortfall. Watts empaneled a task force to review the original projections and to solicit pledges to fund the football program. He had punted the ball back to the pro-Blazer bunch, but they were pinned deep in their own territory.

The stunning campaign that followed was covered by Ray Glier on Monday for the New York Times: Local businesses and alumni pledged millions, and 84% of the student body voted to increase each semester’s fees by $25. The city council committed $500,000 annually. Still it wasn’t enough, so in May 2015, with an ejection from the conference looming, head coach Bill Clark, Watts and new athletic director Mark Ingram pitched once more to a handful of Birmingham’s business leaders. In just that one meeting, they raised $5.2 million, bringing the total haul to a program-saving $17.2 million. The Blazers would be back in 2017, with a new headquarters and a renewed sense of purpose.

The hiatus and all the hubbub surrounding the effort to save the program prompted the city to look at the team with fresh eyes. When UAB kicked off against Alabama A&M at Legion Field on Sept. 2, 2017, on hand were 45,212 fans, 18,000 more than had turned out for the opener three years prior. And Clark, who had no easy task trying to fill out his staff and roster, fielded a team that rewarded the new interest.

The 2017 squad posted an 8–4 regular season before losing to Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl; this year’s team won the C-USA title, and Clark was named Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year. Whatever happens Tuesday, further progress awaits: The university, city, county and state reached a deal this year to build a new stadium downtown to open in 2021.

There’s something here, isn’t there? Think of all the third-rate programs just waiting to be invigorated by a brush with death. Are you listening, Rutgers? Kansas, which last fielded an interesting team a decade ago, bet last month on Les Miles at a $2.775 million annual salary—a hiatus would have been cheaper. If fans can find themselves fighting to preserve a program that didn’t begin play until 1991, surely there’s hope for the Columbia Lions, who began play in 1870.

Yes, there’s risk in pausing a sport. There’s also risk in plodding along forever, hoping for change when there’s nothing to incite it. The years the Blazers spent on the shelf may prove the most pivotal in the program’s history. They’re from a city that made its name off steel and iron—but do you see any rust?