To borrow from the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘to be or be or not to UAB, that is the question’ for the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s football program.
College football’s most vitriolic rivalry within the Cotton State isn’t being waged between Charles Barkley and Demarcus Cousins or at the Iron Bowl on Nov. 29, but has been burning in Birmingham for the last two decades. Soon the flames may consume the UAB Blazers.
Once coined the Football Capitol of the South by former civic leader and Crimson Tide great Fred Sington, Birmingham has gripped on tight to that title with the relentlessness of a Manhattan window washer clinging to a dangling scaffold’s rails after his safety rope snaps.
Birmingham has already lost the three games a year Auburn used to schedule there, the Iron Bowl packed its bags in the 90s, the World Football League is ashes in the winds of time and the USFL folded like a pair of Wrangler jeans, Bear Bryant allegedly scared the NFL away and now it may lose its only college football program.
For two decades, D-I football has been perceived to be the golden goose for athletic programs around the country. The blue bloods which have been pitching the pigskin around since the leather helmets and pre-scholarship eras have used their football DNAs to slingshot their universities into some of the most well-funded and prestigious in the United States.
However, for programs being conceived at the height of college football’s success or making the D-I transition around the 21st century’s dawn, the entry price is much steeper, the risk is higher and the reward often takes years to ferment.
Five years after its debut as a D-III afterthought during the 1991 season, UAB made its move like James Brown to the D-I firmament. Yet, UAB’s football program teetering on the ledge has more to do with a petty decades old beef than it does a struggling college football program.
In 2011, the Indianapolis Business Journal's published a study by an Indiana finance professor which determined the value of every program as if it were a for-sale business. Fortunately, UAB was considered too economically viable to be considered one of the 21 schools given a $0 valuation or the eight schools bestowed with negative valuations. Out of 71 teams given a positive valuation, UAB was on the brink at 67th for $2.6 million. It’s not ideal, but UAB football has a pulse.
However, board member Paul Bryant Jr., who once referred to UAB as the Vanderbilt of Conference USA (because of their reputation as an elite medical research institution and football infirmary) is determined to see the light snuffed out on football in Birmingham.
The son of the Crimson Tide’s houndstooth hat-wearing football maestro holds a grudge because of a letter penned by former basketball coach-turned athletic director Gene Bartow and sent to the NCAA in 1991 which accused Bear Bryant of cheating.
For their D-I transition, UAB hired Mack Brown’s brother Watson. Bizarro Mack Brown led UAB to its first and only bowl victory, but departed for Tennessee Tech with a 62-74 record, and has since cemented himself as the cellar-dwelling coach with the most losses in college football history.
In 2006, UAB moved on from Brown, aimed for the skies and hit the moon. LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher negotiated a $600,000 deal that would have named him head coach of the UAB Blazers. It was nixed by the Alabama Board of Trustees. Speculation was that the Alabama Board of Trustees sought to divert Fisher away from UA and towards the vacancy left behind by Mike Shula at Alabama.
Instead, the Blazers opened their 2007 season – against Florida State—with their second-stringer Neil Callaway.
In five seasons, Callaway went 18-42.
Callaway was replaced by Garrick McGhee.
In 2012, the Board yaked the rug out from underneath UAB by shooting down a proposal for an on-campus $75-million, 30,000-seat stadium to replace the delapidated Legion Field.
After accumulating 19 losses in two years, McGee resigned and the school found a diamond in the rough after Jacksonville head coach and Alabama native Bill Clark left a program that set 49 school records, 13 OVC records, three NCAA records and is currently ranked third in the FCS rankings because he believed UAB football could triumph as an FBS program.
On Saturday, UAB could become bowl-eligible for the second-time in school history, but the occasion will be bittersweet. For the second time, UAB’s football program will be on trial as the football program nears its historical peak.
Although, there has been no proclamation that UAB’s football ship is sinking, all signs point to the annihilation of UAB football coming in 2016.
UAB is the only FBS program which has not scheduled games past the 2016 season and head coach Bill Clark's contract is set to expire in 2016. A petition is being circulated around campus and online, but because of the Alabama Board of Trustees’ interference, UAB has been stuck in quicksand for nearly two decades.
UAB President Ray L. Watts addressed the issue last Thursday, but essentially skirted around the issue of shuttering the football program. He didn’t need to speak. On Nov. 29, a strategic study of UAB football’s viability will be released, but even if UAB football does get another shot of adrenaline, the Board of Trustees’ subterfuge may result in UAB losing their bright, but increasingly frustrated 45-year-old coach. For the subversive Alabama Board of Trustees, that would be a decent consolation prize.
LIES, DAMN LIES AND HEISMAN STATISTICS
Throw that box score out the door. This ain’t your father’s Heisman list. Our equal opportunity Heisman list is headed for Ellis Island. Women, children and quarterbacks are usually first, but defensive players and offensive linemen are also welcome.
Amari Cooper (WR, Alabama) – If an SEC wideout putting up Air Raid numbers in a humble offense with a former running back isn’t worthy of Heisman consideration then what is?
Dak Prescott (QB, Mississippi State) – Prescott has been just getting by in what should have been stat-stuffing scrimmages against against Kentucky and UT-Martin. Instead, he took a few licks, ended up in a walking boot and coughed up turnovers like it was a bad steak. In recent years, Alabama has been where Heisman winners such as Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel have won the trophy.
Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon) – He's got the stats, the playoff committee's approval and last weekend, he faced off against Utah's pass rush and he remained tall against the pressure.
Melvin Gordon vs. Ameer Abdullah – The Big Ten’s premier running backs would be neck and neck statistically if not for Abdullah’s sprained MCL against Purdue.
UNORTHODOX HEISMAN CANDIDATE – Because colllege football needs Affirmative Action to get defensive players their due during awards season.
Gerod Holliman (S, Louisville) – Holliman is one pick shy of tying the NCAA's single-season record and he couldn't have asked for a better opponent than Everett Golson, who tossed up four picks and lost a fumble against Arizona State. If Holliman hadn't fumbled against Florida State and then held onto his third interception of Jameis Winston, his national profile as the face of a defense that is ninth in points allowed, would be much more prolific.
THE END OF OHIO STATE'S MILLER TIME
If Braxton Miller needs someone to speak with, Urban Meyer should put him in touch with one of his former quarterback projects.
Much like Alex Smith, who completed18 of 19 passes in his final start before getting knocked out by a concussion as Colin Kaepernick permanently squeezed him out of the starter’s job in San Francisco, Miller is phenomenal quarterback–when healthy.When he's not, his team discovered that his backup may be better.
Smith had to watch the final second half of the regular season as Kap scorched the earth en route to the Super Bowl.
Braxton Miller is stuck in a similar purgatory as JT Barrett hits his groove and propels Ohio State towards an unlikely playoff berth.
The Buckeyes quarterback’s glorious senior season hit an interregnum after his surgically-repaired shoulder was reaggravated two weeks before Ohio State kicked off for its season opener.
The substitute quarterback was only supposed to act as a pseudo-substitue teacher, follow the curriculum at best, and at worst, look more out of his place than Arnold Schwazennegger as a Kindergarten Cop.
After the loss in Week 2 against Virginia Tech on the road, in which he sank the offense and committed egregious turnovers—even for a freshman starter.
However, since those humbling beginnings, Barrett has been stonoing opposing defenses.
J.T. Barrett has been lights out since Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech. pic.twitter.com/X31I8OHOf0
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) November 12, 2014
Miller remains the superior big-play run threat, but Barrett’s virtuouso passing performance against Michigan State highlighted an area in which he excels over Miller. Miller’s breathtaking runs can’t be replicated by Barrett, but the freshman does have more upside and takes fewer hits.
He may also be putting a stake through Braxton Miller’s expectations of returning as the Buckeyes starter.
After the Michigan State win Urban Meyer retreated from his preseason proclamation that Miller would return as his starter in 2015 and announced that Barrett and Miller will have to compete for the starting job in 2015.
You can rattle off a slew of schools which would recruit Miller as a grad student, eligible to play immediately in 2015.
Mississippi State, Duke, Florida State and Oregon could be among the frontrunners whose schemes would mesh well with Miller’s attributes and put them over the hump in a national championship derby.
Miller’s fight or flight decision is the heaviest decision for a Braxton since Toni had to choose between Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd.
Miller’s went through this predicament before after Kenny Guiton lit up opposing defenses for 13 touchdowns and one interception while Miller, nursed a knee injury, but this time it feels different. Guiton was a senior nearing the end of his road at Ohio State. Before he returns to Columbus for his senior season, Miller may want to pump his brakes, check the scenery and decide on new coordinates.