On Tuesday, December 2nd, the college football world saw something that hadn’t been seen in almost 20 years, the cancellation of a Division I football program, this time at University of Alabama at Birmingham. The last Division I School to shut down was University of Pacific in 1995.
While the decision has been met with a lot of criticism, it doesn’t come as a complete shock. Since the program’s inception in 1991 the team has a total record of 117-150-2 with only one bowl appearance, which it lost to Hawaii. During that time UAB has cycled through five different head coaches, three in just the last 7 years.
The most surprising was that the decision was announced just one day after the Blazers became eligible for their second bowl game in program history. Although a .500 record isn’t outstanding, under new head coach Bill Clark the program had seen its first season without a losing record in 10 years.
Senior tight end Tristan Henderson gave an emotional response to UAB president Ray Watts after the team heard the news, “You’re telling me because the numbers didn’t look right? … There’s 18-year-old’s in here. 17-year-old’s. What are they supposed to do? Some of these guys came from 3000 miles away to play here and be a part of this. But you say numbers?”
The UAB football program was cancelled not because of violations of NCAA rules, but because of monetary concerns. It wasn’t making enough money to support the program. Additionally, due to Conference USA rules, the Blazers will have to shut down their basketball, bowling and rifle teams.
However, many UAB supporters suspect that the real decision was made due to mistreatment from the Alabama Board of Trustees. The board consists of 15 members from the three schools it governs: UAB, University of Alabama, and University of Alabama at Huntsville. Of the 15 members on the board, 13 of them have academic ties to Alabama, whether undergraduate or law degrees. Not to mention that the president of the board is Paul W. Bryant Junior, son of legendary Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant.
How can a board of trustees not be partial to Alabama when the majority of its members have history at the school? It can’t. The feud between the two schools dates back 23 years when Gene Bartow founded the UAB athletic program in 1991. That year Bartow sent a letter to the NCAA accusing Alabama of cheating, which was never forgiven by Bryant Jr. UAB fans now hold the belief that he has been out to get them ever since, and understandably so.
Throughout its relatively short history the board has consistently denied UAB Athletic Department proposals. In 2006, UAB reached an agreement to hire Jimbo Fisher, but was promptly denied, as Fisher would later leave to coach Florida State. In 2011 UAB applied to build a new 30,000-seat stadium to replace lackluster Legion Field. Again, they were rejected because it was “fiscally irresponsible” to build a stadium of that caliber that wouldn’t be used enough.
But what does all this have to do with Oregon?
The University of Oregon is now governed independently of all other Oregon schools. “Effective July 1, 2014, the University is an independent public body governed by the Board of Trustees.” This means that the UofO board of trustees has the power to set tuition, approve budgets, approve construction, and borrow money, among other responsibilities. Moreover, it means that the University of Oregon controls itself, without interference from a greater organization like that in Alabama.
Oregon now has the luxury of governing on it’s own terms. Not to say that something like this would ever happen to the Oregon Duck football team, but you can never be sure. Obviously the Ducks have had a lot of recent success and there is no question that the football team is making ample amounts of money for the University, but crazier things have happened. No one saw the termination to UAB coming, so who’s to say it couldn’t happen at a larger, more successful school in the future?
It also means that Oregon’s secondary coach, John Neal, will remain a Duck for the time being. From 1995 to 2003 Neal spent eight years as an assistant coach at UAB, including two as defensive coordinator. He helped elevate the program from FCS level to Conference USA. Last Winter Neal had scheduled an interview at UAB for a spot at head coach, but ultimately he decided it was best to stay at Oregon.
When asked a few days ago about the UAB situation he said, ”What happens is when that goes away, it’s all the memories of those players that I coached. That’s what all this ends up becoming about is your relationships, and it’s really sad for the players that played there. It’s almost insulting, trivial. And it wasn’t for them when they were playing there.” While clearly a difficult decision for Neal, those relationships he has built with players and staff here in Eugene were too much to overcome.
It’s always tough to see a team have its football program shut down, especially with no NCAA violations. The penalty comes at a high cost to all of the players and staff, but moreover to the fans, alumni and students as well. That’s probably why it happens so rarely. At least the Ducks can rest easy knowing their future is secure… for now.
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