UAB deserves better from Birmingham

UAB MascotWhen our Chamber of Commerce (BBA) visited Charlotte in 2004, we were greeted by the President of the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

Charlotte’s a city on fire, but the first words out the President’s mouth were, “We don’t have anything like UAB.”

Can you believe a great city like Charlotte is jealous of us?

But it appears by recent events we may be taking UAB for granted.

It’s been a few weeks since UAB decided to retain its football program, so I thought it might be healthy to take a moment to reflect.

UAB’s decision to terminate football, how that decision was implemented, and how it was communicated was a complete and total disaster.  In fact, it could be a Harvard case study on how to totally screw up the implantation of a business decision.

But let’s take a moment to drag ourselves away from the topic of football or even UAB’s administration.

We’re going to discuss UAB’s relationship with our Birmingham community and what we’ve learned that could propel Birmingham and UAB forward.

Birmingham could not exist without UAB and UAB could not exist without Birmingham. Take away UAB’s 100 square blocks, 23,000 employees, and 18,000 students–and Birmingham would be irrelevant.

UAB and Birmingham are friends who are totally and completely dependent upon one another.

Good friends support one another during good times and bad.  Cities and people are imperfect and will make mistakes.  It’s how you treat your friends during difficult times that prove your friendship.

UAB made a misstep and some in our community went crazy.  Social media ran wild and traditional media piled on. It was ugly and mean spirited.

UAB is a lot more than football.  Where were the voices of support for UAB–our friend?

A decision was made by UAB or indirectly by the UA Board of Trustees.  Maybe it was right—maybe it wrong, but I promise it wasn’t 100% one way or the other.  But our Birmingham community left UAB hanging.

You couldn’t tell from the Internet or from the media, but there were many people who thought UAB made a rational decision.  Of course, no one would speak out for fear of being overrun by a mob that would not tolerate an open discussion.

One of several private e-mails I received during the controversy followed this line of thinking…

“Historically, UAB has generated a 14x (NOT 14%) return on its investments in research.  If we were to invest the approximately $10,000,000 a year savings from athletics that is projected in the CarrSports report, into research, and earn our historical return, it might generate $140,000,000 a year that would be invested in our community.  Imagine the impact on our economy that would accrue from hiring world class researchers to highly paid teams to Birmingham and for them to buy houses, food and clothes, go to movies, and eat in our restaurants?

Or we could spend $10,000,000 a year to provide pretty decent but not great football for the less than 1,000 students who bought tickets to attend our last home game.  I am baffled.  Why isn’t the Rochester community boycotting the Mayo clinic for not having a football team?”

UAB supporters claimed that 55 cities voted to reinstate UAB football.  I bet none of them except the City of Birmingham will actually cough up money.  It has been announced that the Birmingham City Council has promised $500,000 a year to Blazer football—but I hear there may be some second thoughts.

It’s critical that UAB football prosper.  It’s important to Birmingham and it’s important to everyone who put their heart and soul into keeping it alive.

Amazingly, however, everyone got what they wanted–and we may likely have a happy ending.

Blazer supporters got football reinstated and UAB got an unexpected bonus—the opportunity to revive football with others paying for it.

But, most importantly, we in Birmingham learned a valuable lesson.

Lesson for Birmingham

No one ever thought UAB would resurrect its football program—but a group of highly committed UAB supporters and donors did the unimaginable.

Next time someone tells you we as individuals are powerless, please remember what was accomplished.

We in Birmingham have the power—if we care enough to fight for our future.

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, a division of Intermark Group, and co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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18 thoughts on “UAB deserves better from Birmingham”

  1. Wow! You still do not understand that this was not about football, do you Mr. Sher. This was about your school, UAT and the system BOT, wanting to suck every damn $$$ they could to prop up the bubble that the BOT/Witt created in Tuscaloosa. They were caught in the nick of time. And you call the response of those who fought it UGLY!!?? GTH, man, GTH.

    1. Albert, I do undertaand that this was just not about football–but it’s also about being respectful. The decision makers at UAB/UA are not murderers, rapists, or wife beaters–but they were treated as such. The total UA System has revenues of $4.5 billion. UAB represents $3 billion. It would be idiotic for the UAB administration or UA Trustees to intentionally harm UAB who produces most of that revenue. I agree they totally screwed up–but now is the time to support Blazer Football, UAB, and Birmingham. I love your passion for UAB and I’m always glad to hear from you.

  2. *Three years ago UAB submitted a rock solid and financially backed proposal to the board of Trustees for approval of construction of an on campus football stadium.  The stadium would have been finished by now and season ticket sales would have hit the thirty thousand mark, including a HUGE INCREASE in student ticket sales.  

    DUH!……Try again, David Sher.  Believe me, it was 100% the board of Trustees call to reject UABs proposal for a new on campus stadium and recently when UAB football was dismantled.

    1. Dave, I agree with you 100% and have said so in numerous blogs. If the UABOT’s had approved the on-campus stadium then there never would have been a decision to terminate UAB Football. We now have a fresh start. Let’s make the best of it.

  3. Mr. Sher: You are a very smart person but you are having a difficult time coming to grips with the enemy of B’ham and UAB: It’s YOUR System BOT and it’s 1950’s like leaders.

    By the way, your straw man argument-why why why why they were treated like” murderers and rapists” is patently absurd.I am quite sure some rhetoric was overblown-on both sides, Mr. Sher. You know, UAB was known as an honest, open place UNTIL your UAT/BOT people started getting their greedy, greasy fingers on the controls.


  4. No, the decision makers at UAB/UA are  not murderers, rapists, or wife beaters, or least I see no evidence that they are. However, they are entrusted by the people of Alabama, the tax payers, to run a public institution which generates over $5 billion in business a year and over 61,000 jobs for the state of Alabama. Yet certain members of the UA BOT, who obviously control the Board, used their power to settle old scores and/or willfully damage the athletic program of a university under their care.

    How do we know this – we don’t for sure because secrecy prevails – but all signs point in that direction. We know Watts’ decision was not about money; it was about getting rid of UAB football.  It was not about money because otherwise he would have been transparent from start, following the example of the President of Tulane when that program got into financial trouble.  That would have been the honest and frankly the easiest thing to do.  Instead he tried to keep his decision secret until it was too late for anyone to do anything about it.  In the process he chose to play the part of the evil fool.  Ray Watts is anything but a fool.  He accepted the role because he couldn’t possibly reveal he true motivation  He allowed certain members of the BOT made him into a patsy.  

    However, for a moment let’s say that members of the BOT were not involved.  Let’s assume that it was all Watts’ idea, that he hid his decision from everyone for his own reasons, and that he really was a fool who totally mishandled the situation.  In that case his blunders were more than sufficient to get the President of any university fired.  And yet the members of the BOT supported him through out.  There can be only one reason why Ray Watts is still President of UAB. 

    No, the decision makers at UAB/UA are  not murderers, rapists, or wife beaters, but that doesn’t reduce the gravity of their offenses.  Thankfully the crimes of murderers, rapists, or wife beaters usually affect only a few individuals. The offenses of Watts and his BOT accomplices  affected the lives of thousands and cost UAB $11 million. To set things right hundreds of people had to work countless hours. I was one of them.  Sometimes the magnitude of an offense is not only measured how horrible it is, but by the extent it affects the general population and this is one of those situations.

    1. Albert, please consider that we are both on the same side. I am not the enemy. I did graduate from UA, but I’m a bigger supporter of UAB then UA. I attended many Blazer Basketball games this year–including all the CUSA games–which is more than I can say for many UAB students & other so called supporters. As I said in the blog post, there is nothing more important to Birmingham than UAB. We now have a fresh start. Let’s make the best of it.

    2. Richard, As I stated in the first part of the blog–the process couldn’t have been handled more poorly. That being said, football is being reinstated and the BOT’s have been quiet. It now up to the students and UAB supporters to prove that football is viable. As I said in the above blog, ‘It’s critical that UAB football prosper. It’s important to Birmingham and it’s important to everyone who put their heart and soul into keeping it alive.”

  5. Just so you understand David that the reason that Watts mishandled the entire situation is because the football program was dropped was dropped with malice of forethought.  Watts and the BOT may not be rapist and wife beaters, but we aren’t dealing with choir boys who simply made bad decisions with good intentions.  It was an blatant exhibition of unchecked and unchallengeable power by unscrupulous individuals with dishonorable intentions.  We have every right to call out anyone who dares to defend them.

    1. Richard, I welcome your comments. To create a venue to ‘discuss a better Birmingham’ is the objective of ComebackTown. “I need someone to keep me straight–‘that’s what my wife always tells me.’

  6. With all due respect, the Mayo Clinic doesn’t have decisions impacting it made by fans of Sloan-Kettering.

    THAT is the problem.

  7. *David, I always read your articles with interest, since I appreciate your love of Birmingham.  However, your article above is another in a long line of misinformed opinion pieces about the events at UAB over the last 6-8 months.  For the millionth time, this situation was not just about the loss of UAB football.  The demise of the football program simply served as the last straw following a series of misguided decisions by Dr. Watts.  Football served as the rallying point, but it was far from the only reason the revolt occurred.

    You ask “where were the voices of support for UAB- our friend”?  You seem to be making the mistake of confusing Dr. Watts for UAB.  He made a series of ill-advised decisions (without input from any of the stakeholders at UAB) that ultimately led to votes of no confidence from the faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, and alumni. Shouldn’t the real people that make UAB a great institution have a say?  That is what shared governance is, and Ray Watts completely ignored them all.  

    A president at any other institution that lost the confidence of these four constituency groups would have long since been replaced, but it didn’t happen here.  Why?  Some would say this is proof of a sinister plot by the UA system Board of Trustees (BOT).  Perhaps that’s true (or perhaps not).  However, the BOT’s refusal to listen to the unified voices of the faculty, students and alumni is damning in itself.  

    The UA System BOT needs to be reformed so a board that truly cares about UAB can finally govern our institution.  Now THAT would be a huge first step toward making UAB great.  An opinion piece that berates us for being mean to Ray Watts seems like a joke, but we’re not laughing.  This situation is much too serious for those that love UAB.

  8. *

    David, I agree with you one hundred percent that the
    rhetoric needs to be toned down.  Civil
    discourse and anonymous comments on news sites do not go hand in hand.  However, with all business and institutions,
    we always need to be asking why.  Why do
    we have multiple forms of government? 
    Why does UAB matter to Birmingham? 
    Why is it governed the way in which it is?  Why are we investing in football as opposed
    to bio pharma research?  These questions have
    profound importance on how we live in our Birmingham community.  On UAB, the community partnership should not
    be one of blind love, and hopefully as we go about bringing back a football
    program, productive answers can be found.  
    If we have one takeaway from the six month debate on football, it is
    that we care- passionately at times- about UAB and Birmingham.  We need to tap into that to reach the greatness
    that our community is and will be.

  9. *David – Thanks for the post.  I agree with your comments and believe the UAB – Birmingham relationship is critically important.  While the relationship most certainly isn’t and shouldn’t be just about football, the loss of football did serve to awaken and rally the Birmingham community to support UAB.  The apparent conclusion is that the cost of having football for UAB is less than the cost of not having football.  The ability to garner financial support from individuals and the business community was severely hampered after the decision to eliminate the football (and other sports) programs.  UAB had to respond favorably to the reinstate football and could not ignore the momentum of the community to put their money where their mouth was and financially support not only football, but more importantly, the UAB institution.  Hopefully, that support will grow and not diminish and the surrounding cities will join in financially with the City of Birmingham to help build a stadium.  We have seen the benefits of Regions Field and the economic development that was generated not just from a real estate development perspective but in the ability to bring more people downtown, to encourage other businesses to grow and invest and to generate civic pride.  That opportunity with UAB now exists in abundance and as you said, we need to take advantage of this momentum and make the best of it.  As a community, we will lose if we keep arguing over who did what versus taking the opportunity to get behind UAB globally and not just for football.  UAB is an incredible institution and our greatest asset.  I think the reinstatement of football is a great STARTING point for the new UAB – Birmingham (MSA) relationship.

  10. David, I think this is a good post. Was I disappointed when Dr. Watts cancelled 3 sports programs, including UAB football – Yes. But that was not what made me angry. I think you nailed the real problem when you wrote – “Of course, no one would speak out for fear of being overrun by a mob that would not tolerate an open discussion.” 

    There was no open discussion. In fact it turned out there was a lot of secrecy, some outright lies and complete lack of integrity. Not just Dr. Watts, he was simply the designated spear catcher. Many of the UABOT members are more guilty of lacking integrity than Dr. Watts. And that is what upsets me to this day.

    We have men and women helping to shape a future generation of leaders. What they see is a group of people that lack integrity and honesty all in the name of having their own way. I cannot refer to them as leaders because a leader, first and foremost, has to have integrity. You cannot have integrity and at the same time not tell the truth. You cannot lead if those who are supposed to follow do not trust you.

    I think it is past time to separate the BOT for UA, UAB and UAH. Each board’s sole responsibility would be to make each university better. Then there would be no favoritism. This situation would not occur again.

  11. *Like almost any emotional topic, the rhetoric got extreme very quickly.  Shutting down a football program that 90% of the students of the University did not support is NOT the same thing as striking a mortal blow to the foundation of Western civilization.  Sometimes the anger and vitriol just get silly.  

  12. Ah, so, Mr. Martin, it reverts back to football? Did you even follow the lies, distortions and possible violations of the law perped by the BOT/Watts cabal since April, 2014?

    Once again, sir, this was NEVER about football. Never. And your number 90% is done from your rigorous, green eye shade study paid for by yourself? Of course, that statement you made that 90% don’t care is not rhetoric, is it?

    It’s people like you who will destroy the foundations of Western Civ..

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