BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Alabama-Birmingham is shutting down the football program after one of the Blazers' stronger seasons.
The university announced the decision Tuesday minutes after President Ray Watts met with the Blazers players and coaches, while several hundred UAB students and fans gathered outside for the third consecutive day in efforts to support the program. UAB made the decision after a campus-wide study conducted by a consulting firm during the past year.
"The fiscal realities we face -- both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint -- are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB," Watts said in a statement released by the university. "As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable."
UAB said in a release that it subsidizes $20 million of the athletic department's operating budget of some $30 million annually, and said both those numbers rank fifth in Conference USA. The university said the difference during the next five years would be an extra $49 million with football, including a projected $22 million needed for football facilities and upgrades.
UAB is the first major college program since Pacific in 1995 to shut down.
Players cried and hugged after leaving the meeting. An emotional coach Bill Clark, who just completed his first season with a 6-6 record, briefly addressed supporters, saying players, families and coaches were all hurting. UAB is eligible for only its second bowl appearance and first since 2004.UAB tight end Brandon Prince, 20, transferred from Austin Peay back to his hometown to help his ailing father. Now, he's not sure where he'll be able to do what he loves most: Play football.
"It's like SMU," Prince said. "We got the death penalty without any NCAA violations."
Eliminating football jeopardizes UAB's membership in Conference USA and associated programs including the school's marching band, though the school said it hopes to remain in the league and Division I. Members of the band and cheerleaders joined in protests on campus.
Conference USA's current bylaws require members to sponsor football. Commissioner Britton Banowsky said the league's board of directors will decide UAB's status.
"We are aware of the study but disappointed with the decision to discontinue the sport of football at UAB, particularly because of its effect on the lives of the student-athletes and coaches that have worked so hard to restore the quality of the program," Banowsky said. "We don't fully understand the decision, nor agree with it, but do respect it and the authority of the UAB administration to make it."
UAB is also cutting bowling and rifle programs.
"We are not looking to reduce the athletic budget, but instead to reallocate our resources to remaining athletic programs," Watts said.
Athletic director Brian Mackin will now serve as special assistant to the president for athletics.
Zac Woodfin, the team's strength coach, also played at the school and said a decision to eliminate the program would hurt not only the 125 players and 50 coaches and support staff but also other sports that could see scholarship reductions, band members and fans.
"The trickle effect is going to be huge in a negative way," said Woodfin.
Playing in the shadows of Southeastern Conference powers Alabama and Auburn and lacking an on-campus stadium, UAB has struggled to develop a fan base and consistent attendance in the nearly two decades since it joined the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Average attendance doubled this year under Clark to more than 20,000 fans per game, but reports circulated that administrators might kill the program even as the Blazers compiled their best record in a decade.
UAB's only FBS postseason game was at the Hawaii Bowl in 2004. The past two coaches, Neil Callaway and Garrick McGee, went a combined 23-61.
Players at other programs turned to social media to support UAB.
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, who is from Birmingham, posted on Twitter: "Gotta keep UAB's football program for sure. Brings athletic competitiveness to the city that I call home."
Ex-Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said on Twitter: "Everybody in the state should stand up for UAB & help keep their football program alive. I wish everybody the best. Keep the Blazers alive."
Players can transfer to other schools and play immediately.