Trustees give UAB athletic department a cold splash of reality

Posted: Friday, May 03, 2002

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Six years ago, Alabama-Birmingham moved up to college football's top division with hopes of carving a niche in a football-mad state dominated by Auburn and Alabama.

Now, with the football program losing millions and the once-powerful basketball program no longer much of a draw, the trustees have issued an ultimatum to the athletic department: Pay for yourself or close up shop.

''It's either a wakeup call or a death penalty, however they want to handle it,'' said trustee Joe Fine, a lobbyist who sponsored the resolution.

The trustees of the University of Alabama System, who also oversee the more famous Tuscaloosa campus, voted unanimously April 19 to require UAB's athletic program to operate without university money by 2004.

The university's presidential discretionary fund and state money pumped $7.5 million into UAB athletics last fiscal year, about 62.5 percent of the $12 million budget.

The losses were across the board: about $2.5 million for football; $2.8 million for women's sports and more than $300,000 for a basketball program that under Gene Bartow was once the Blazers' pride and joy.

''Obviously what it means is we have to put everything else on the back burner and try to find out the best aggressive move we can make to be able to satisfy them,'' said second-year athletic director Herman Frazier.

Frazier expects his department to trim $1.1 million or $1.2 million from the budget for the fiscal year ending in September, thanks to increased football revenue and fund-raising in football and basketball. He makes no promises about sports becoming self-supportive in time to meet the trustees' mandate.

''What we start with is how we finish up this coming year, which will show that we're moving in the right direction,'' Frazier said. ''Then, what you do is you build on that success and you try to move forward.''

It's not clear if that will be enough.

''Not to say anything's ever written in concrete, but it's been our experience that you can't start compromising until progress has been made and they haven't shown any interest in making progress,'' said Fine, chairman of the board's athletic committee.

''The athletic department at UAB has been losing millions of dollars for some time, and it's been discussed with the administration over and over that this is not acceptable,'' he said. ''They never gave us a firm number until they recently told us (athletics) lost $7.6 million.''

What went wrong?

First, there are plenty of entertainment options in Birmingham.

Plus, the school is 45 minutes from the Tuscaloosa campus and two hours from Auburn.

The Blazers drew a modest 18,536 fans per home football game at Legion Field, a cavernous facility more suited for the big crowds at the twice-a-year Crimson Tide nonconference games still held in Birmingham.

''I remember we had 28,000 or so for one game against Kansas, which was a very nice crowd,'' coach Watson Brown said. ''And yet it still looked like a scrimmage.''

The Blazers were 7-4 and 6-5 the past two years after moving to Division I-A from Division III in 1995, qualifying for bowls but failing to get a bid.

''Thank goodness we have a very good football program,'' Brown said. ''If we hadn't done well, if we were 1-10, 2-9 or 3-8 and just not doing anything, it might well be gone today.

''But because we've got such a strong program, I think people rallied behind it.''

New basketball coach Mike Anderson is also optimistic, even though the funding announcement came only 15 days after he was hired.

The Blazers are coming off the worst basketball season in their 24-year history (13-17).

Coach Murry Bartow, son of the program's founding father, Gene, resigned. The Blazers made the NCAA tournament seven straight years in the 1980s under Gene Bartow.

Last year's team averaged just 3,927 fans per home game.

''We're going to have a team. That question hasn't even arose,'' said Anderson, trying to assemble his first recruiting class amid difficult circumstances.

UAB isn't the only school facing a budget crunch for athletics.

Tennessee's Higher Education Commission has approved a plan to divert $25 million in state funding from athletic departments toward academic programs, leaving the state's colleges scrambling to fill the void.

In Alabama, only the University of Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus and Auburn's athletics programs pay for themselves, largely because of high-profile and big-revenue football teams.

Brown believes stripping football and other sports from UAB would harm the entire university.

Since 1998, overall enrollment is up 18 percent and out-of-state enrollment has jumped 98 percent, which Frazier attributes largely to the athletic program.

The athletic department must present trustees with an analysis showing the program's financial soundness, how it contributes to the campus and its competitiveness by April 2004.

''In a state where football is King Kong, I can't imagine a university really growing and getting people to come to its campus without football -- especially this state,'' he said.

''Maybe you can go to Kentucky and have that not be true. In the state of Alabama, I think it's needed desperately.''

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