Ray Watts: A good man at the wrong place at the wrong time

Dr. Ray Watts, President UAB
Dr. Ray Watts, President UAB

I am dumbfounded by the unfair personal attacks against Dr. Ray Watts and UAB’s decision to shut down football.

We say we want brave leaders who are willing to make unpopular decisions when it’s for the greater good—but that certainly is not how we are responding.

It appears almost everyone—student, public, and media—are unanimously dumping on Dr. Watts.  These are the same folks who had the opportunity for years to support Blazer football, but were missing in action.

No person or organization can do everything well.  If you want to be successful in life you have to set priorities and make difficult decisions.

If you want great football, you have the option of going to Alabama or Auburn.

If you want state-of-the-art medical care, stay here in Birmingham at UAB.  UAB saved my wife’s life from breast cancer and may one day very well save your Mom’s mind from Alzheimer’s.

You can conjecture all you want–but none of us have all the facts.

Dr. Watts had the information and context to make a very painful decision.

In an article in the New York Times this week titled, “It’s a game of spiraling costs…” referencing UAB football–“David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University, based on a study to be published in the Journal of Sport… calculated that in 2012-13, Mid –American Conference students spent on average more than $300 per semester subsidizing athletics. During a time of mounting student debt, that is nearly $2,500 over four years.”

Though Dr. Watts graciously took full responsibility for the decision to shut down UAB football—the UA Board of Trustees continually made decisions to undermine it.  Dr. Watts is dealing with the hand he was dealt.

Dr. Watts graduated from West End High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering at UAB, and graduated from Washington University School of Medicine as valedictorian. He then completed a neurology residency, medical internship, and clinical fellowships at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Watts is one of the smartest–most visionary leaders I’ve ever met….and he’s willing to make tough unpopular decisions.

Do we really want to second-guess him?

Editors Note:  Edits made to this post 12.7.14 based on information received after date of  original publication.

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising Agency and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP). 

(Visited 198 times, 1 visits today)

35 thoughts on “Ray Watts: A good man at the wrong place at the wrong time”

  1. Difficult decisions require transparency to minimize concerns and questions.  This was especially important around such a highly charged issue.  The lack of transparency raises concerns about leadership qualities.  Will President Watts follow a similar opaque process when he decides to cancel an academic program in the future?  The concern is not much about football, but about the process.

  2. It would be one thing  of the was solely about football and if transparency was provided throughout the process. This is obviously not the case. As Birmingham residents we should not limit the possibilities of UAB to solely that of a medical center. Why compartmentalizations our states education into “the medical school” and the “capstone.” This is surely not what the Board of Trustees is charged with. Instead, they are supposed to work for the betterment of our state educational system as a whole. Not every student can, or wants to, attend Alabama or Auburn. Unfortunately, you and many others suggest that UAB should stick to medicine and not concern themselves with any other form of education. Is this truthfully what we want of our academic administrators? Instead, we should strive to make UAB a better university as a whole. Birmingham is the largest city and economic engine of the state and it deserves a viable public university. Part of maintaining a public university in the South is having a football team. Therefore, David, I respectfully disagree with your assessment. We in Birmingham (The Comeback Town?) should not be celebrating any form of destruction of Birmingham fabric. UAB provides Birmingham with well educated jobs and encourages the small business development to support university campus. We need not think about what UAB (and Birmingham for that matter) is, but what it should be. That does not start with the gradual dismantling of an undergraduate campus.

  3. *this must be a joke. nothing could have been handled worse. it is clear he was paid the 11th highest salary in the country to do this. He may be the dumbest man i have ever seen. if this was business he would be fired for cause. please bring carol garrison back!

  4. *Thank you everyone for your well thought out comments.  The objective of ComebackTown is to begin a discussion about a better Birmingham.  I certainly don’t have all the answers and I learn from every commenter.  Your feedback is always welcome–whether you agree with me or not.

  5. A*Unilateral decision of an issue so important without allowing input from students, faculty and civic leaders leaves a sour taste. Watts has blown his credibility with many and I have never seen such contempt for a school leader. 

    He will not be an effective leader as the campus is scarred from the process. Don’t see anything but division and taking sides as long as he stays. I will discontinue my contributions and will consider reinstating when he is gone as deep scars are allowed to heal. Might be the right decision but not handled well. He has been preparing his whole life to lead and he failed his school at the precise time they needed a guiding hand. Epic Failure. 

  6. *I certainly hope this is satire. I find it hard to believe that someone that supposedly believes in Birmingham so much would write something that lacks that much vision. The day that Ray Watts is no longer the president at UAB will be a great day for Birmingham.

  7. For heaven’s sake…Dr. Watts redirected $49 million dollars that would be spent on a football program that our local community did not support in attendance and is investing that money in the EDUCATION of the students who attend UAB.  In my opinion, he is saying education is more important than football, that took real courage and I applaud him for facing facts and actually doing something about it.  The Blazers are not going anywhere…they have a kick butt Basketball program.  I challenge all those complaining to buy a basketball ticket and go support your Blazers!  Will I see you at Bartow Arena?

    1. *Sue, you have obviously been misinformed. No money currently being spent on athletics will be redirected to education. It will simply be re-allocated across other sports.

      Also, UAB has not “saved” $47M. This is hypothetical money that was never spent. I guess since I didn’t consume 4,000 steaks tonight for dinner that I should be losing weight in no time since I didn’t consume those calories. This is the same silly logic.

      1. Much better to not eat the steaks than consume them unnecessarily and wastefully thereby leavsueing those steaks to be used much more wisely and fairly by all of those that “hunger” for a top notch “steak”.

  8. *Wow, David with friends like you Birmingham does not need enemies.The decision to cut football was made before this study even came out. Did you think what is going to happen to the other sports at UAB ? I do have one idea why don’t you move to Tuscaloosa and UAB keep football.

  9. *president Watts met with several of the larger contributors to UAB academics and athletics. He said the plan was coming and an evaluation would be made. The question was ask that when finished that the stake holders would have a chance to review and try to make it work. He then cancelled football without any inclusion of any input. His numbers are a farce. Football made a profit of over $100,000 last year if you charge the cost of scholarships at a net cost as all other university ‘s do. All Coach Clark wanted was a covered practice field costing around $ 6 to 10 million. The city agreed to build it. Watts  $46,000,000 is the cost of infrastructure that we haven ‘t built over the last 12 years per the report. His subterfuge is enormous and the reason I feel he did not meet with stakeholders was he could not defend the numbers when actual facts were allowed to be examined by seasoned business veterans . I say Watts needs to be gone as he has proven to be a tool of others hiding behind education comes first which plays well to the uninformed public. The money was raised to cover any shortage and he would not discuss or entertain any thoughts or ideas on how to make this work. Not a leader .

  10. I am really disappointed in you David.  Hopefully you have not been
    paying enough attention to know just how poorly and disgracefully Dr.Watts has
    handled this situation. The problem is not som much what he did, but how he went about doing it.  He has created a national public relations
    nightmare and has inflicted real damage on a great university. He needs
    to step down immediately for the good of of everyone involved.   If you are fully aware of the situation and still indorsed Ray Watts’ conduct, including the telling of out right lies to the public and members of his administration (of this there is undeniable proof), then you should be ashamed of yourself.

  11. David, I usually agree with your opinions. But this piece is totally, utterly off the mark. 

    First of all, this isn’t just about football. Let’s make that crystal clear. This is about the brand of UAB. A university is more than classrooms and libraries. A university is about the student experience and all that it entails. UAB historically struggled to attract undergraduates due to its clearcut lack of a campus experience and student activities. 

    This is what the bean counters don’t understand. Yet even in accounting, there is the intangible known as goodwill, where the reputation and other attributes contribute to the worth of an institution, whether public or private. UAB football was just the most visible portion of the goodwill equation, and one that was more immediately relevant to the high school senior choosing his college. 

    In that sense, UAB’s football program isn’t much different than the large majority of Division I football programs. Most of them lose money. Yes, Auburn and Alabama make profits, but they are rarities in the sport. But when you consider that UAB realized $2.5 billion in revenue in 2013, a $2 million shortfall in football before subsidies is chump change. 

    What’s more, with the new coach, excitement for the program had grown. Remember 2004? Watson Brown beat teams such as Mississippi State, TCU, and Baylor and took the Blazers to a bowl. During that season, UAB had average attendance well over 20,000 — comparable to most mid-level programs. So when a quality team takes the field, the crowds follow. 

    Here’s the deal. What’s good for UAB is good for Birmingham. The fate of the two is intertwined. And the overwhelming outcry in the community is a recognition of that. I’m surprised that we have to point out this fact to you. 

  12. *One more thing. You mention the Alabama BoT as continually undermining the program.

    To me, it really begs the question of whether UAB should be part of the University of Alabama system anymore. When you realize that only two members of the BoT come from Birmingham metro area, it becomes clear quite quickly that 13 voting members are not taking the metro area’s interest to heart when making decisions. 

    So, sure, football seems like a trivial reason to separate UAB from the University of Alabama system. But the Stamp Act was a pretty trivial thing in 1765, too. 

  13. *Everyone–thanks for your comments.  I’m sorry I don’t have the time  to respond to each one individually, but I do read every word and gain insight from each one.

    I want to make it clear that I never said that Dr. Watts made the ‘right’
    decision.  I don’t have all the
    facts.  I only said that Dr. Watts is a
    good, well-meaning man who made the decision he thought was best for UAB.

    In my opinion the end result lays at the feet for UA BOT’s. 

    Keep in mind The Board of Trustees chose Dr. Watts for the
    Presidency.  Dr. Watts is a medical
    man.  The BOT wanted an emphasis on
    medicine—or they would have picked a ‘college president’ type.  It’s probably redundant, but the BOT would
    not hire Jimbo Fisher, would not build an on-campus stadium, and would not play
    UAB.  They never were going to allow UAB
    to excel. 

    Dr. Watts may have an important role, but he’s just an employee of the
    BOT’s.  BOT’s fire people all the time.

    I’ve published almost 200 blogs to help begin a discussion about a
    better Birmingham.  I make folks angry
    with something I say in every blog.  I
    figure in another year there won’t be anyone talking to me.

    I’m sorry many of you don’t agree with me on this one issue.  I respect your opinion.

    I appreciate the fact that we all have a passion for Birmingham.

    Thanks for your comments.  I’m
    always glad to hear from you.

  14. David, you couldn’t be more wrong on this subject.  Did you discuss any of this with faculty and staff at UAB?  Did you get their opinions of Dr. Watts?  You won’t find a lot of supporters among the faculty.

    And, after this week, you’ll find NO supporters among the students at UAB.  Do you think he’s treated them fairly?  Do you think he’s been a president for the entire university, including the undergrads?  He ignored their pep rallies, refused to look them in the eye, and callously told the football student-athletes that he loved more UAB more than they do.  “I’ve been here 42 years,” he said.  His math skills are a bit rusty — he was at UAB from 1972-76 as an undergrad, and returned in 2001.  That doesn’t add up to 42.

    Stop playing this as a decision between football and curing cancer.  Dr. Watts tried to do that too, and it’s a false equivalency.  Killing the football program isn’t going to earn the CCC any new NIH grants.

    Not sure if you’re personal friends with Watts, or he paid you to write this, or what.  But you need to read the articles by Jon Solomon, by Kevin Scarbinsky, by John Archibald, and many others that show what a dishonest, unfair decision this was.  It isn’t about football — it’s about how a decision with long-ranging impacts on the University was made in a shoddy, secretive, and money-wasting manner.

    His credibility with faculty, staff, students and alumni is permanently destroyed after the way he’s mishandled this decision.  His outright obnoxiousness to the football players has made national news, and the longer he remains president, the worse UAB’s brand becomes.  With or without football.

  15. *This would be more convincing (that it was a good move), if Watts had bold leadership and a track record of improving organizations he was associated with.  Unfortunately, his previous leadership as Chair of the Department of Neurology and Dean of the School of Medicine left both divisions in a worse state than they were in when he took over.  UAB too frequently promotes poor administrators, as long as they agree to go along with their superiors.  That may have happened again in Watts’ case.

  16. You know what is really interesting? I have yet to see almost anyone that does not have close ties to either Watts or the UA Board of Trustees defend this decision, and especially the way it was handled. What Mr. Sher left out of this article is the fact that Sher, Ray Watts, and John D. Johns are all on the Board of Directors for the Birmingham BBA. And that’s just the easiest connection I could find with a 30 second internet search, so I would imagine there are more. 

    Another thing this article does not address is how badly UAB’s Medical School has suffered while Watts has been in charge. Look at the national rankings from right before Watts took over the Medical School leadership and the rankings now. 

    1. Brian, I do know Dr. Watts and Johnny Johns, but not from the BBA Board. I believe the BBA Board has about 120 members? I could be wrong–but there are a lot of folks. Am I not allowed to write about Dr. Watts because I know him and like him?

  17. David,  I enjoy reading your blog. I’m glad you do not shy away from topics due to public opinion. I agree that personal attacks on Dr. Watts are inappropriate, but I believe you may have missed the mark with this post. 

    One of your comments hints at what I believe is the true problem:

    “Dr. Watts is a medical man.  The BOT wanted an emphasis on medicine—or they would have picked a ‘college president’ type.  It’s probably redundant, but the BOT would not hire Jimbo Fisher, would not build an on-campus stadium, and would not play UAB.  They never were going to allow UAB to excel.”

    The interests of UA are well represented within the BOT; the Tuscaloosa campus and UA School of Medicine will be taken care of. It is the undergrad and various programs at UAB and UAH that need better preservation/incubation. Therefore, Birmingham and Huntsville both need leaders who are willing to stand up to Paul Bryant Jr. et al and truly promote the best interests of these campuses on behalf of the under-represented students and alumni. That is why people are calling for Dr. Watts to be fired. He is clearly not the man to do that particular job. The board made his bed, and he seemingly lied in it with no pushback whatsoever, due to his own biases. We need a president with more courage than that. 

    But, the issue is cyclical since the BOT handpicked the president, and that is why it will take a bigger change. Which I pray comes to fruition. My hometown deserves better. My alma matter deserves better. Your friend, Ray Watts, deserved better, but now he deserves only what may come. 

  18. *David,

    Birmingham needs UAB athletics. Think of all the nights and meals traveling athletes and fans will use when visiting. Football needs an on campus stadium. That is the decision that should have been made by Watts. 

  19. *Your words visionary? How can you call this guy a visionary? This is the same guy who knew that football would be shutdown while about a hundred would be football players at UAB stood on the football field at the Marshal game by invitation these kids could  have been somewhere else trying to get a possible scholarship. Most were lower income above average football players and the Birmingham area. So when one of these kids breaks into your car or worse. Are you still going to call him a visionary? I call him blind as a bat…

    1. John, you and many others are upset and understandably so. And I know that anything that I say isn’t going to change your feelings–nor should it. I promise Dr. Watts has a strong vision for UAB that obviously doesn’t include football. But as I indicated in my piece–and most people agree–he didn’t make the decision to shut down UAB football. The UA Board of Trustees made that decision for him. If the BOT’s had allowed UAB to build an on-campus football stadium, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today. It’s generally accepted that Dr. Garrsion, the previous UAB President, was relieved of her duties because she faught too hard for the stadium and football.

      UAB and Dr. Watts totally screwed up on communicating that decision to the public. I understand that the media broke the story before they were prepared and the consequences were ugly. It’s a shame for everyone concerned.

      I very much appreciate your comments.

  20. If a comprehensive group of board members, university leaders, professors, students and community leaders, after careful study, developed a strategic plan to dramatically improve the education standing of UAB, and that plan involved increasing resources in those areas and decreasing resources in others, most reasonable citizens would support an effort that was widely communicated.

    We don’t know that any of those things are true or actually happened. Dr Watts, as president, must take responsibility for those failures. While I do not condone some of the nasty personal attacks, anyone in such a public position understands that they go with the territory.

     Adding fuel to the fire is the now public awareness of how grossly overpaid Dr Watts is in relation to leaders of other similar institutions, as well as his personal choice to interact and communicate only with other leaders having virtually no interaction with citizens, faculty and students.  This isolation alone calls into question his fitness to be a university president.

    Michael

  21. *David,

    Thanks for standing by a friend who has made an incredibly unpopular decision.  Like you, I don’t know all of the facts, but I do know this. Making high level decisions with consequences that extend beyond ones self is an ominous responsibility. 

    Watts may have blundered, but he is the coach on the field. At best, we are high in the bleachers, and many who are lambasting him are not even in the stadium.

    This comment is not in support of Watts.  I don’t have the facts.  It is in support of you. While not necessarily agreeing with his decision, you are setting an example by standing by a friend in a most difficult time. Good for you.

  22. David, I have a question. You have stated multiple times that the UA BoT made the decision to end football and other athletic programs. Yet, Dr. Watts has repeatedly said that he made the decision independent of the BoT.

    I believe the UA BoT ended this program. I don’t believe Dr. Watts is being candid about this decision. Here is my question – what does this say about Dr. Watts’ character and integrity?

    Sure he saved his job but he was the minion for the UA BoT and that is disingenuous. I am concerned that Dr. Watts may be like a few managers I had in my career – nice guy, fun to have a drink with, engaging conversationalist – but, he is not a leader I would follow.

    A university needs a leader with a broad vision and the ability to convey that vision to others. If Dr. Watts, is a medical man and his vision is for the medical school – when will he begin to shut down the School of Business and other undergraduate programs? When will he shut down the graduate school programs that are not medical related.

    This is not only a bad decision for UAB but the process by which it was conducted reflects poor leadership skills. UAB needs a president like Carol Garrison. When she left UAB athletics was going to be put on life support and die a slow, agonizing death. 

    Sad day for UA, UAB and the city of Birmingham. We just lost 20 years of progress. 

  23. *Henry, I wish you and our community could get to know Dr. Watts–he’s a brilliant man who is dedicated to helping people.  He is being treated like a criminal.

    The BOT’s made decision after decision that hurt UAB football.  Blazer football was never going to be successful at Legion Field and after a couple of years, Coach Clark, if he continued to excel, would have been offered opportunities that no one in their right mind would turn down.  I believe he was earning $600,000 a year at UAB. Will Muschamp was just offered $1.6 million to be an ‘assistant’ coach at Auburn.

    Many people have told me that the reason Dr. Garrison is no longer President of UAB is that she pushed the BOT”s too hard for Blazer football and the on-campus stadium.

    There’s no way in the world UAB is going to discontue their undergraduate program. Pacific, the last college to discontinue to their football program has seen an increase in enrolement. 

    Birmingham is nothing without UAB.  When we talk negatively about UAB, we are hurting ourselves.

    Dr. Watts and UAB totally screwed up the communications.  Okay– so he’s human.  Aren’t we all?  That doesn’t make him a bad person.

  24. David, I respect you and almost always agree with your position. But with all due respect, Dr. Watts may be brilliant, maybe even helpful to a select group of students and people. But if he took a job knowing he was the designated Dragon Slayer of UAB football – shame on him. He is neither the leader or man of integrity that I would want to follow.

    Yes, we are all human and make mistakes. But I would hope most of us would never take a job or any other position, under any circumstance that would require us to mis-represent our mission. 

    Most of the people close to this situation and those who have followed it are reasonably certain this decision was mandated by the BoT. Why would Dr. Watts say he made this decision solely on his own. Sorry, but I don’t believe him.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the repercussions of this terribly bad decision and poor communication have ended. The worst may be yet too come.

  25. Nearly six weeks later, this op-ed has not aged well at all, unless it is taken as satire.

    “Gracious”?  “Visionary”?  Ray Watts has made national news as anything but that–he’s the poster child for tone-deaf, mantra-mumbling “leadership.”  

    “Do we really want to second-guess him?”  Yes–the undergraduates have, the graduate students have, the alumni have (nearly 300 strong at Monday night’s meeting; ignore the NAS leadership, they are bought and paid for and will be moving on soon enough), and now the UAB Faculty Senate has.  It’s hard to find anyone outside of the NAS Board or the BBA who doesn’t second-guess him on key aspects of his decisions and decision-making style, also known as the Blue Water Bottle of Death.

    You and Claude Bennett can go drown Ray’s sorrows in Callaway Blue at Woodward House under heavy guard.  The rest of us will be working to do something Ray says about 15 times a minute, but means not a word of: moving UAB forward.

    #FreeUAB #FireRayWatts #EndUABOTulism

  26. *So what do you think of Ray Watts now? “Good Man, Wrong place, Wrong time” After what Rep Williams presented it looks like this “good” man chose the place and chose the time. The only question now is around the “good”. I guess that will sort out also. A good man would not stick around where he was not wanted. A bad man would ignore what his subordinates and constituants had mandated and stick around. Thus, tearing down what was once a respected University but now is the laughing stock of the nation. See ESPN, USA today, etc… A “good” reporter would admit error and revise or recant his previous statements.

  27. *John, I wrote this piece on December 4th.  A lot of information has been disclosed since then.  Dr. Watt’s boss, Dr. Robert Witt, Chancellor of the UA System,–said yesterday that he supports Dr. Watts completely. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you a robot? Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.