On December 4, 2014, I did something I had never done before and have never had to do again.
On that day, as publisher of ComebackTown, I published a column which I naively titled, “UAB lucky to have Ray Watts as President.”
Two days earlier Dr. Watts had announced the cancellation of UAB Blazer football.
The response was immediate, ugly, and personal.
Social and local media aggressively blasted Dr. Watts.
I was ambivalent about UAB football, but I thought it was unfair to attack Dr. Watts so shamelessly.
Saying that UAB was lucky to have Dr. Watts two days after the football program was cancelled was a bit insensitive.
It was like throwing kerosene on a fire—but at the time I didn’t understand the scope of the outrage.
Not surprisingly I became the subject of some of the venom directed towards Dr. Watts.
I immediately took the column off-line, softened the content, changed the title to Ray Watts: A good man at the wrong place at the wrong time and republished it.
I have felt guilty ever since for caving in to the pressure.
The negative reaction to ComebackTown thankfully evaporated, but the animosity towards Dr. Watts went on for months.
But what has happened since is truly remarkable.
Where is UAB Football now?
For those who have an interest in Blazer Football, I could simply say…
- June 1, 2015, Dr. Watts announced that football would return.
- September 2, 2017, UAB played first game since shutdown.
- October 2 of this year Protective Stadium opened.
- Three weeks later, UAB was asked to join the American Athletic Association.
What about UAB hospital?
This month it was announced that UAB is now the 8th largest hospital in America.–moving up three spots from last year alone.
And the school?
Enrollment has grown by 4,000 students since 2013, the year. Watts became president.
Football and athletics are thriving
UAB was Conference USA West Division Football Champions in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (C-USA Record). Conference USA Champions in 2018 and 2020 (first two conference championships in program history).
The Blazers were Top 10 nationally in total defense in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (currently ranked No. 15 in 2021).
UAB has been bowl eligible every year under the direction of Head Coach Bill Clark and beat nationally ranked BYU in 2021 in the Independence Bowl.
During Dr. Watts’ tenure UAB has built or improved other athletic facilities: an on-campus Football Operations Center, a new track and field facility, an enhanced PNC Field for soccer (formerly BBVA Field), and renovated the basketball practice facilities.
Men’s UAB Basketball is making a comeback under Coach Andy Kennedy.
Other key accomplishments under Watts’ leadership
- UAB is Alabama’s largest single-site employer with more than 26,000 employees—an increase of about 3,000 since President Watts became president.
- New, state-of-the-art buildings erected — including the Collat School of Business, an Information Technologies building, the new Hill Student Center, Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, two residence halls, University Hall for the College of Arts and Sciences, and Police and Public Safety headquarters.
- Work on several new buildings is underway, including a new Science and Engineering Complex and the Altec Styslinger Genomic Medicine and Data Sciences Building.
- Forbes named UAB America’s Best Large Employer this year and named the institution the No. 4 Best Employers for Diversity (No. 1 among colleges and universities) and America’s No. 4 Best Employer for New Graduates.
- Record year for research funding — $849 million — an 85% increase over five years.
And this doesn’t even touch upon UAB’s initiatives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, work to move Alabama out of the ranks of the worst states for healthcare outcomes, and to help save rural hospitals across the state through affiliations that improve patient care.
Very few men would have had the tenacity and persistence to survive, much less thrive, through the hail storm endured by Dr. Watts.
Dr. Watts is a man of great leadership and vision.
I, for one, am grateful and thank him for all he has done for UAB, Birmingham and beyond.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.