If reports are correct, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees will set the course to shut down the football program at its Birmingham campus, or UAB.
The argument is that since its inception in 1991 as a fledgling Division III program, it has been a drain on resources and serves no useful purpose within the University of Alabama system.
But that seems to be more of a justification for something the powerbrokers around Tuscaloosa have long wanted to do.
There’s no question Alabama’s football program is one of the centerpieces of the University of Alabama. And for good reason: It’s one of the most successful collegiate sports programs in history.
The 1926 Rose Bowl, which Alabama defeated the Washington Huskies 20-19, was something that not only the state of Alabama, but also the entire South could rally around — as Dixie still felt the lingering effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction even six decades later.
Since then, from generation to generation, Alabama football (with the exception of a few precincts around Lee County) has been something very important to the state. That importance, whether it was under the leadership of Paul “Bear” Bryant or currently under head coach Nick Saban, has been reflected on the field.
While the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s football program is not a threat to the main campus’ football program directly, the sentiment among some within the institution seems to be, why allocate resources that could be put toward improving the University of Alabama?
UAB may compete on the margins for some recruits, advertising, etc. But the two haven’t faced one another on the field. In fact, the only time the two schools competed in a major sport was in 1993 in a chance meeting in the NIT Tournament. UAB beat Alabama that day, which could be the one of the greatest moments in that school’s history.
The middle brother of the University of Alabama system— which includes campuses in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville — is however, likely going to have to stick to basketball as its sport of prominence.
This seems to have been a long-standing policy of the University of Alabama, which is not just relegated to within the university, but the entire state. As an institution, Alabama has gone out of its way to avoid any in-state competition, which arguably seems to be motivated by a sense that competing with lesser institutions would be as if Alabama’s recognition would be lending them some sort of credibility. And that credibility, especially if it results in an upset, would do damage to the university’s athletic ambitions.
The history speaks for itself.
It took 41 years and a threat from the state legislature for Alabama and Auburn to resume the storied Iron Bowl rivalry in 1948, after discontinuing it in 1907 after a 6-6 tie over per diem and officiating. During that 41 years, Alabama football thrived as the Auburn program never came close to matching that success.
Beyond a handful of games against Samford, Birmingham-Southern and Spring Hill College in the early part of the 20th century, beyond Auburn, the University of Alabama has not played an in-state opponent – not even one for an easy home win.
So much for keeping those dollars in the state of Alabama.
It was not until after the 2007 death of Mayer Mitchell that the ball really got rolling on a football program at the University of South Alabama — a program still in its infancy.
Mitchell was a major donor to the University of South Alabama and was partially responsible for the growth of that institution and its major role in the local economy. But he and former President Gordon Moulton were also rumored to have wanted to wait until the school was “ready” to add football.
There are some interesting politics at play tied to the University of Alabama and its football program. Since the school is a state institution, it’s directly tied to politicians in state government. The governor, Robert Bentley, served in the state legislature as a representative for parts of Tuscaloosa. And as governor, he is a member of the university’s board of trustees, as he is with all the state-funded institutions in Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine Bentley would speak out on UAB’s behalf, especially if elimination of the football program at UAB is seen as a move that can only strengthen the effort at the Capstone.
On the other hand, there could be an ugly racial component Birmingham officials could play, which is a predominantly white board of trustees acts against a predominantly black community’s largest employer.
Birmingham is having some hard times and UAB football has given a dilapidated Legion Field a tenant, for now. One would think that if cost were the issue, there a number of things within a university that don’t turn a profit and are much less of a powder keg for the trustees to take aim.
On the other hand, should UAB football go down, it might be a prime opportunity for the University of South Alabama. It could mean a promotion from the Sun Belt Conference to a slightly more prestigious Conference USA. It would also mean one less competitor in the state for recruiting — a state where the bulk of talent goes to Alabama or Auburn.
USA in a bigger conference could mean more attendance at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which may ultimately translate to improvements, which would benefit the entire city.
One thing is clear: Despite a win for Alabama over Auburn last week, this move will make Alabama a more hated institution in the eyes of UAB fans than Auburn fans, least for the time being.