Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Our broadcast signal serving the St. George (93.9) area is operating in low-power mode due to mechanical issues. More info.

UAB Reinstates Football Program But With A Financial Caveat

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

College football is king in the south and perhaps nowhere is it bigger than in Alabama, which made last December's announcement by the University of Alabama at Birmingham all the more surprising. UAB stunned that state's largest city when it said it would cancel its football program because of high costs. After months of protests from government leaders, residents and students, the university reversed itself and said football will come back. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Even before the news became official, people lined up in front of the UAB administration building to celebrate football's return.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Cheering) Woo.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Cheering) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW BELL)

LEWIS: UAB has always lived in the shadow of the University of Alabama, which has won 15 national championships, and Auburn, which got its last title in 2010. So the elimination of an expensive football program that has struggled on the field and in the stands probably seemed like a good idea. When the university made the announcement last December, it shocked people like Jeannie Hill who worried Birmingham would suffer.

JEANNIE HILL: I think it means the life of the city 'cause I think if UAB loses the program, it's going to affect the whole city. I think it would die if UAB dies. I really do.

LEWIS: At the time, the university cited a consultant's report which said UAB would need an extra $49 million to support football as well as two other programs it canceled, the bowling and rifle teams. Yesterday, UAB president, Ray Watts, said the university would bring the programs back but with a caveat. It would cap support at $20 million a year. Others would have to come up with the rest. Already, community leaders have pledged $17 million, and they plan to fundraise for new facilities.

RAY WATTS: We've never seen this level of support. It's been a painful process at times, but it has been a process that's brought us to a new day.

LEWIS: A day that's showed the program was more about civic pride than dollars and cents. Columnist John Archibald writes for al.com.

JOHN ARCHIBALD: It's always been ironic to me that it took the killing of UAB football to make UAB football important, and that's where we stand now. It was killed because it was unimportant. It was revived because it was deemed important, and now will people go?

LEWIS: People did go last year. The team had a new coach, UAB had its best season in a decade, and attendance doubled from the previous year. The last time a school of this size stopped playing football was 20 years ago. When UAB canceled the program, some wondered if other universities would follow as academics and athletics compete for funding. Malcolm Moran directs the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. He says for schools that are not in elite power conferences with lucrative TV contracts, this is a new funding model.

MALCOLM MORAN: The fact that more and more schools are coming to the conclusion that the economic model just can't be sustained and yet there's this enormous emotional pressure to find a way to make it work.

LEWIS: On campus last night, biology junior Candace Adedokun was happy.

CANDACE ADEDOKUN: The big lesson that we can learn from that is that even though we're up against a lot, you know, if we all join together with a unified purpose and we stick to that goal that things can actually happen.

LEWIS: Since the original announcement, some players transferred and some of the coaches left so it's not clear when UAB's football team will start playing again. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.