In the next 18 months, the University of Alabama-Birmingham must raise $13 million in order to resurrect the football program. In December, university president Ray Watt probably got death threats when he grievously disbanded football in the most football-conscious state in America. Earlier this month, the now-embattled Watts announced he would welcome football back on one condition – you gotta’ pay to play.
Watts’ reversal came after alarmed UAB alumni and fans offered unprecedented support to bring football back. Key backers got $17.2 million in commitments from the UAB Football Foundation and the Birmingham City Council. So thus far, $20 million has been raised to reach a $30 million commitment Watts is requiring for the Blazers to play again in probably the 2017 season.
I believe I know an easy way to do that. Convince the state’s Board of Regents, the legislature or whoever to allow the sports teams at UAB to drop the “UA.” In 2000 the folks at UNC-Charlotte convinced the University of North Carolina, which has poured many millions into the Charlotte campus, to drop UNC, making the 49ers simply “Charlotte.” The branding exercise was marvelous.
Several years ago UT-Chattanooga, which will never be able to adequately thank the University of Tennessee for its largesse, was allowed to become simply “Chattanooga” and I have personally witnessed what the identity has meant to everyone connected with the Mocs’ program. There is an unmistakable pride that comes when you see “Chattanooga” roll across the ESPN headlines or read “Chattanooga” in the national rankings of top teams.
Everybody knows what the University of Alabama trustees have meant to UAB, particularly in the medical school and residency programs. You look at UAB’s campus and, like in Charlotte and Chattanooga, just the physical improvements are enormous. My heavens, the new library on UTC’s campus is, in reality, “a field of dreams” and the new dorms, from the one now coming out of the ground on 10th Street to another promised on Vine, leave no argument that merging with the University of Tennessee most likely was the University of Chattanooga’s salvation.
Hatton Smith, the CEO Emeritus of RoyalCup Coffee, is heading the UAB fundraising and the new athletic director Mark Ingram (who was once a long-snapper on the UT football team, not the Heisman winner at Alabama by the same name) is infusing a lot of enthusiasm into the quest for an additional $13 million.
“I’d love it if we could raise all the money by the end of the summer,” Ingram told the Birmingham News. “Some people may call me crazy but I’d rather have an aggressive goal.”
And I’m saying people all across Alabama as well as many successful alumni will write a check a lot faster to “Birmingham Athletics” than UAB.
Ray Watts cancelled UAB football to make the budget balance, pure and simple. He has steadily maintained that he will neither borrow money for athletics nor increase the university’s support but concedes that if the $13 million will provide a new weight room training room, locker room, meeting area, coaches’ offices and artificial turf for the practice field, he’s all in.
The university will pay coaches’ salaries, scholarships and related costs but Watts has warned the booster support has to be raised every year. That’s a delicate bet. If the Blazers win, the money should continue, but have two or three losing seasons and the fickle donors will buy tickets in Tuscaloosa or Auburn.
A lot of universities are now depending on endowments to fund athletics. At Stanford, for instance, there is $500 million endowed where the interest supports The Cardinal sports program. The way endowments work is that if a university has an athletic endowment of $1 million at five percent, that’s $50,000 guaranteed year after year. Imagine what $500 million will return, although it should be noted Stanford is at the top of all athletic endowments in the country.
When Charlotte started football in 2011, a full 50 percent of the cost was absorbed in student activity fees. This spring the UAB student government association announced a $25 increase in student fees, which will bolster the football program with roughly $850,000 every year, but UAB’s huge need is “seed money” to show president Watts UAB backers will indeed “pay to play.”
Now if they can drop the “UA” and spell out “Birmingham” on a football jersey like “Chattanooga” now does, that may be just the trick UAB officials are trying to find.