The room felt tired. The beige paint on its walls, where the dragon logo once heaved fire, had lost its vitality years earlier under the fluorescent lights. The players, too, were haggard as they sat with hands on their knees, bowing their heads or staring, arms folded, with bitter gazes, watching their futures grow uncertain.
The gray-haired man who led this university stood before them in a charcoal suit and gold tie, explaining why the University of Alabama at Birmingham needed to close its football program. Ray Watts, the school president, spoke in a reassuring tone. The athletics department was losing money — lots of money. For 10 years, it had overspent its budget, and the level of financial assistance from the university kept growing. Cutting football, once an unthinkable suggestion in this city — the top college football television market in America — was, to Watts, the responsible decision.
The Blazers' film room, where the team gathered on this December afternoon in 2014, reflected that struggle. Where other Football Bowl Subdivision programs had theater seating and plush chairs, UAB provided cafeteria-style seats under dim lights. The questionable practice field surface sloped 10 feet from end to end and trapped water with ShamWow efficiency. Only that year had they escaped their old locker room, which was losing parts of its ceiling, and moved to a recycled room in a half-century-old football center. Ending the struggle of a program that had survived in athletics poverty for years seemed a rational choice.
"We will honor everyone's scholarship," Watts said in a scene a football player posted on YouTube. "We want to help you as much as we can. And believe it or not, the most important thing you will obtain is, hopefully, a world-class education."
The words were, perhaps, the best available for the situation. But players grumbled. They sniffled. They hid their faces in their hands.
"These are people," said senior Ty Long, his voice breaking and tears swelling as he pounded his fist into his palm. "It's bigger than what you think. It's not about numbers. It's about family."
"The whole state is going to feel it," junior Bobby Baker scolded. "Everybody."
"Some of (these players) came 3,000 miles to be a part of this. What are they supposed to do?"
Then Tristan Henderson, 26, a lean 6-foot-4, 265-pound tight end, spoke. He sat in the front row, fewer than 15 feet from Watts, and looked to the ceiling as he searched for words. He recounted an Army experience in Iraq — how one day, during a patrol on the streets of Mosul, terrorists ambushed his troop. Shooters popped out over waist-high walls, firing from every direction. Henderson saw two of his fellow soldiers gunned down that day. The soldiers relied on one another to get through that battle and others that followed, forging an unbreakable bond.
That bond was lost when he came home. His best friend from the Army committed suicide. Henderson turned to drinking, partying and irresponsible spending to combat his own pain. His wife finally issued an ultimatum: Clean up your life or leave. Henderson turned to college to start anew, and to football because it was medicine for his combat-hardened scars, allowing him to hit people as hard and as often as he wanted. Football, perhaps, saved him. And throughout that fall, the Blazers had stiff-armed their 2-10 record from the previous season to reach bowl eligibility. Finally, Henderson knew brotherhood once again.
Now, in the somber film room, he and his brothers faced a different type of ambush.
How was he supposed to explain this to his 3-year-old son, Ayden, who had overheard discussions about the program closing and asked, "Why?" The idea of explaining the decision to someone who viewed the game in the simplest terms only inflated the pain.
What about the students who were years younger than he was? The brothers who had toiled in workouts and weight sessions, who prepared for exams and games simultaneously, believing they were part of something special? "Some of them came 3,000 miles to be a part of this," Henderson cried as he stood, fanning his arms. "What are they supposed to do?
"And you tell us it's because the numbers didn't look right?"
No, the numbers didn't look right.
By the time Watts decided to shut down the football program, the Blazers athletics department was pulling a nearly $20 million annual subsidy from the school — two-thirds of the department's overall budget. They weren't the worst-case example: that year, 49 Division I athletics departments drew larger payments from their schools' general fund than UAB's did, and 150 drew a larger percentage of their budgets from school subsidies. But Watts felt strongly that UAB's subsidy was high enough. Critics of college sports spending would call Watts' decision responsible. They say the rising cost of coaching salaries and facilities — particularly in football, in which the median spending rose 119 percent from 2004 to 2015 — pushes beyond what schools can afford.
And what was UAB getting for its money? When Watts began his review of the athletics budget in 2014, football had just emerged from its ninth consecutive losing season. In 2013, it drew fewer than 10,000 fans to three of its five home games. Three different head coaches led the program between 2011 and 2014. What type of experience was this program providing student-athletes? Was football even beneficial to UAB?
So Watts shut the sport down, along with bowling and rifle. With a solid basketball tradition already in place, UAB would model Wichita State: Make men's basketball the marquee sport, redistribute some of the money saved to make other sports competitive, and embrace life as a leaner, focused department. His was a rational plan.
Yet in the realm of college sports, where fandom and community beget budgets and bills, business decisions aren't always convincing. Victories always seem within reach, given the right motivation and talent. And when a high-visibility sport is suddenly gone, a jarring sense of loss fills the void. The absence is felt not only by the students who couldn't play football, but also by a school trying to grow, a community trying to repair its reputation — and everyone touched by both.
Eliminating football was just one outcome of Watts' comprehensive plan for the university.
When Watts was dean of the medical school, his initiative to make the medical program — UAB's premier department — into a nationally notable school yielded new faculty, programs to accelerate research and drug discovery, and a third regional campus in the state capital, Montgomery.
As president, Watts envisioned a similar strategic plan for the university. Already the state's largest employer, the school made a $5 billion annual economic impact on the city of Birmingham. Watts believed his plan could fuel more growth but expected it also would require campus leaders to make sacrifices and difficult decisions.
Watts hired a consultant to review athletics operations and the financial viability of football. Soon, the problem was clear: Athletics had overspent its budget each year for the previous 10 years, and each time, its budget grew to account for the overage. What started as a $10 million annual subsidy in 2004 grew to $20 million by 2014. Meanwhile, the national recession caused UAB's revenue from the state and federal government to plunge: The school's appropriation from Alabama dropped nearly 30 percent in 2008, from $350 million per year to $250 million.
"We can't sustain this," Watts thought. Yet the numbers were only part of the bleak picture. The football offices, locker room and weight room occupied decades-old buildings, and none was designed to serve athletics. The sloping practice field was encircled by a square — yes, square — track, which blocked the water's escape each time it rained and left the field soggy for days.
Legion Field, the Blazers' home stadium, had outlived its glory days of hosting the annual Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. Its 70,000 seats were tired and rusting, its battleship-gray husk exposed when, at times, only a few thousand fans occupied the stands.
Improving that situation with adequate practice facilities and equipment could require $49 million over the next five years, the analysis showed. Watts already had asked other leaders to make sacrifices and tough decisions. Other departments were expected to balance their budgets, and he would not hold athletics to a different standard. Watts made the decision: The football program would be suspended at the end of the season.
"That was an agonizing decision," he said. "It wasn't something that I've ever wanted or dreamed of doing, but I felt like, at that point, it was my responsibility."
From his wheelchair in the back of the Blazers' film room, Timothy Alexander watched Watts step in to deliver the news. With each statement from the president, Alexander posted in capital letters to his Twitter account, letting the world know.
"PRESIDENT WATTS JUST SAID WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE DON'T KNOW!"
Two minutes later: "WATTS SAID IT WAS NOT IN THE BUDGET!"
Alexander listened to pained testimonials from his teammates. Some spoke of the impoverished neighborhoods football helped them escape. They told of how the sport provided stability in unstable lives, guiding them on a responsible path. Now that path had hit a dead end. Alexander felt the sting personally: Without UAB football, where would he be?
Eight years earlier, Alexander had been a top high school tight end in Alabama. During his senior season, a friend was driving him to the annual football game between Alabama A&M and Alabama State, when both men fell asleep. The car struck a telephone pole and rolled down an embankment. The accident left Alexander paralyzed from the waist down.
His life transformed in that moment from football prospect to brain injury patient. He couldn't read or write. His insurance coverage hit its lifetime maximum in a year. Doctors predicted he would never walk again. Alexander grew depressed, considered suicide. He rooted for football teams to lose because he wanted others to feel his pain.
Then, after a dream about playing football, he bought a pair of cleats, enrolled at UAB and networked his way into a meeting with Blazers coach Garrick McGee. "Coach," he told him, "I had this dream that I was going to be one of the greatest tight ends ever to come to UAB and play."
It was a crazy leap of faith — a paralyzed man trying out for an FBS football team. McGee sized him up: "Well, if you're serious about it, I want to see you tomorrow morning at 5 a.m. for workouts."
For the next three seasons, Alexander did his pushups with his teammates in rain and sunshine. He memorized the playbook and barked at his teammates. "You my legs; you my spine," he shouted. "You gotta' play for me." He was often found in the weight room, turning his football training into the rehab benefit his insurance wouldn't provide. By fall 2014, he was close to standing unassisted.
As the muscles rebuilt in his thighs, hope swelled in his heart. He was close to walking again.
Then came the day in the film room.
Watts, unable to speak above the shouts, walked out of the football offices. Alexander didn't hesitate. He wheeled out of the film room and into a mob of furious fans, who had been alerted by Twitter and were already at the program's doorstep. They flew UAB flags, flipped profane gestures and shouted obscenities at Watts. A half-dozen police officers surrounded the president and guided him to a black SUV.
Alexander wheeled into the crowd, finding comfort among the aggrieved.
In the following weeks, the football offices felt like a condemned factory. Coach Bill Clark made one phone call after another, trying to pitch his players to other coaches. He used to make calls to persuade high school kids to play for him. Now he was trying to convince other college coaches that his grown men could contribute.
Clark had wanted this life since childhood, when his father coached Alabama high school football. While his mom played piano in church, Clark drew up plays in the pews. Each week, he witnessed the camaraderie of coaches who gathered at his house to review 16-millimeter clips of games.
But this — nobody ever drew him a counterplay for closing a program. Not even a year earlier, Clark had stood in front of these players and sold them on a vision of success when they didn't even have the confidence to look him in the eye. An 8-28 record and two coaching changes in three years had beaten the belief from them. Clark felt sorry for them. He felt a little sorry for himself.
And yet, as spring practices turned into fall drills, the desire to win was unmistakable. By the first game, a 48-10 battering of Troy, the Blazers looked different. The next week, they surprised Mississippi State by staying competitive, taking a 20-19 lead at one point in the second quarter, outgaining the Bulldogs offense and scoring on three passes of 75 or more yards. In the final game of the season, with a bowl bid on the line and rumors of their program closing, the Blazers rolled over Southern Mississippi in a 45-24 victory to finish the year 6-6 — their first nonlosing season since 2004. Attendance more than doubled from the previous season.
Then, after Watts' announcement, opposing coaches wandered the halls, sizing up the UAB talent. Jordan Howard, with 1,587 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014, left for Indiana, where he would become a fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. Jamari Staples left for Louisville, where he would play with a Heisman-winning quarterback and make 73 receptions over two years. Jake Ganus, with 70 tackles and six sacks as a junior, headed to Georgia, where he would lead the Bulldogs in tackles.
Seven players left to compete for Clark's old program at South Alabama. Six more transferred to Georgia State. Clark kept making calls, breaking apart his team. "Can he really play?" coaches would ask.
"Yeah," Clark would respond, a bit offended, "he can play."
Emotions roiled on the UAB campus for months after the announcement. Protesters gathered on the campus green almost daily, chanting "We want football!" or simply demanding the president's firing. In the six weeks after the announcement, both the UAB Faculty Senate and the student government issued votes of no confidence in Watts' leadership.
Amid the chaos in mid-December, Brad Hardekopf, UAB's associate athletics director for development, opened an envelope and found a dollar bill, a letter printed in scrawled green marker and a picture of a 5-year-old boy in a blue soccer jersey. It was accompanied by a second letter from the boy's parents.
His name was Bennett Williams. He lived in Ohio and loved UAB — or, more specifically, its fire-breathing dragon logo. Bennett also loved football. On a recent day, Bennett had asked his parents: Why was UAB losing its football team?
His parents explained that the program didn't have enough money. Bennett thought of the dollar he had earned for scoring a goal in his youth soccer game.
"Dear UAB," he wrote. "My name is Bennett. I love Ohio State, but I think you should have football too. Here is one dollar to help!"
Timothy Alexander looked ready for practice, dressed in his green UAB warmups in late January 2015 as he pulled his wheelchair next to a walnut-stained podium before the City Council in Clay, Alabama.
Meetings like this were now Alexander's game days, where he preached like a coach delivering a pregame speech.
The day of Watts' announcement, Alexander sat before a crowd of protesters, thanked them for their support and held up his cleats. "These cleats, man," he said, voice quivering, "I wanted to wear at this school."
Two nights later, he assembled 100 UAB students, all wearing black T-shirts and chanting against Watts. They marched to the men's basketball game and took their protest into the stands. In the months that followed, Alexander created a social media hashtag, #freeUAB, as the movement's hub. He printed T-shirts with the same slogan. ESPN picked up his story, as did Sports Illustrated and National Public Radio.
And he took the story of UAB football to the community. He explained that shutting the program would hurt future generations. What would happen to the young kids in Clay and other Alabama cities? A Division I football program provides 85 full-ride scholarships every year, enough to give every junior, senior and 31 of the 36 sophomores on the Clay-Chalkville High School football team a free ride through school. What would replace those opportunities? "It's about the young community, the young guys, that don't want to go away from home," Alexander said.
That night, Alexander asked the Clay City Council to pass a resolution supporting UAB's canceled programs. He already had made similar pleas in Birmingham and the surrounding area.
By summer 2015, 56 municipalities would pass resolutions supporting a revival of UAB football.
Justin Craft could feel an opportunity slipping away.
For months, he had worked behind the scenes as a member of the UAB task force's fundraising subcommittee, searching for money to save the program. Watts already had hired a second company to re-examine athletics finances, and he announced he would consider reinstating the sport if organizers raised $17.2 million — enough to cover football expenses at the existing level. In five months, Craft and his team pulled off what amounted to a miracle: $12 million raised through different sources, four times the athletics department's previous annual fundraising average.
But by May 2015, time was their enemy. Conference USA required its members to sponsor football. UAB needed to decide by June 1 whether to reinstate the program or face finding a new conference, too. If the school couldn't close the gap by then, the whole effort might be lost.
Craft had felt a tight connection to UAB and football since joining the team in 1994. Through the school, he met the man who hired him after college, Charlie Nowlin, the founder of a local wealth management firm, Nowlin & Associates. Craft rose to become the company's president. Now an involved alum, Craft could see what was at stake.
UAB's enrollment for fall 2015 was dropping for the first time in a decade. Could the absence of football have played a role? When Craft researched schools that invested in football — a high-visibility sport that contributes to student social life — he found they had seen significant enrollment increases, suggesting a correlation. And economic data gathered by the Birmingham Business Alliance was sobering: While UAB already had a $5 billion annual impact on Birmingham's economy, every 1,000 students it added translated to a $50 million boost to local businesses.
Saving football was a means to an end they already believed in. But they needed help.
If enrollment contracted, all of Birmingham could suffer.
In his office, Craft explained those findings to Nowlin.
"We're kinda hitting a wall," he said. "I really need the business community — the big business community — more involved."
Craft didn't have those contacts. But Nowlin did.
A Birmingham resident and successful businessman for 41 years, Nowlin had worked directly with business owners in the area and made some successful friends in the process. "Let me set up a breakfast," Nowlin said. "I have a few people that I know that are UAB fans, and Birmingham fans, that might want to hear this."
Like the men joining him May 19, 2015, at the Birmingham Country Club breakfast table, Tommy Brigham had lived in the city for most of his life. As a kid, he had played with Hatton Smith, the CEO emeritus of Royal Cup Coffee and Tea, who was sitting at the table with him. Birmingham had been good to Brigham's business: His latest company, ARC Realty, was growing into a Birmingham real estate power player.
He hadn't attended UAB. Nor had the five other businessmen called to the breakfast — including Smith, Craft O'Neal, the chairman and CEO of O'Neal Industries, and Mike Goodrich Jr., the principal of First Avenue Ventures. Brigham was a regular at basketball events and understood the university's impact on the community, but he was reluctant to listen to the case for football.
Yet when Nowlin invited him, he came to the table to listen to a pitch that was less about the significance of fans in the stands and more about a business case — for Birmingham.
The city's reputation had remained stained since the civil rights movement. Brigham knew outsiders pictured it through images of fire hoses on protesters, police dogs charging young African-Americans, and a church bombing that killed four young girls. The city had tried for decades to escape the gravity of that past, watching while progressive Southern cities such as Charlotte, Memphis and Nashville passed it by.
In recent years, the city had invested $25 million in the new 19-acre Railroad Park and built a new minor-league ballpark. It had revived the Lyric, its 100-year-old vaudeville theater that had gone largely unused since 1958. While other cities lost their historic buildings to failed urban renewal projects, Birmingham still had many of its pre-World War II landmarks. Residents and tourists, discovering new restaurants and amenities, were excited.
Craft spoke of football's impact on enrollment numbers. What would another 1,000 students mean to the local economy? How about another 8,000 — the number Watts' strategic plan targeted for 2020?
Brigham could see this dilemma was about more than a sport. It was about more than UAB. It was about Birmingham.
The business leaders at the table shared a vision. Saving football was a means to an end they already believed in.
But they needed help.One week into his job as the UAB athletics director, Mark Ingram took a seat in the UAB boardroom at a table the size of a bowling lane and knew the names of very few of the men seated with him. He knew, though, that each was a name to know.
This meeting, pulled together by the men at the country club breakfast, almost certainly would determine what kind of athletics department Ingram would lead.
The group assembled with five days left to save football and still more than $5 million remaining in the fundraising goal. More than 20 men sat in the leather executive chairs in the walnut-paneled room. The school estimated they represented 40 percent of Birmingham's privately held wealth. "This is a magnificent group of leaders," Shirley Salloway Kahn, UAB's vice president for advancement, told Ingram outside the room. "This group runs this town."
And yet these men likely had never been in the same room at the same time for the same cause — until now.
Watts and his staff knew which points to make. They discussed the numbers, explaining to the men assembled what was currently pledged, what it was funding, and why $17.2 million was necessary just to revive the sport, much less make it competitive. Then, having shown their cards, they leaned in inquisitively.
"So what do ya'll think we oughta' do?"
As the conversation started, Ingram could sense positive momentum.
"We've got to fix this," said one of the businessmen.
"Let's come together," said another.
The group exchanged ideas. They mentioned others who might help.
Then, just as Ingram thought the deal was close, one man nearly wrecked it. "I just can't hold my tongue, Dr. Watts," he said. "None of this matters if we don't build a stadium."
Replacing 88-year-old Legion Field would costs hundreds of millions of dollars. It came with financial and land development complications that couldn't be settled in five days. Ingram felt the air escaping the room and the conversation turning sour. "We were this close," he thought to himself.
Then Ingram heard Mike Goodrich Sr., in a chair behind him, trying to get Watts' attention. The room went quiet as 68-year-old Goodrich spoke. He'd been a Birmingham resident his whole life, rising to CEO of a booming engineering and construction business that eventually sold for $550 million. Now he and his wife, Gillian, were giving back through their foundation, which in that year alone would donate nearly $4 million to 103 groups across Alabama.
"Dr. Watts, I'll tell you what, I don't really like sports," Ingram heard Goodrich say. "I don't think I've ever been to a game. Maybe I've been to a couple basketball games, but I don't think I've ever been to a football game."
Goodrich laughed a little, then continued. "But I've seen what this has done to our city, and how it's dismantled and fractured all of us here. UAB is the most important thing to the state of Alabama. It's the largest employer in the state of Alabama inside the largest city in Alabama. We gotta fix it.
"I'm in for a million."
The moment struck like lightning — swift and startling.
"Me, too," said another person almost instantly.
From chair to chair, the pledges rolled in. The deficit plunged from $5.2 million to $1.8 million in what seemed like minutes.
Hatton Smith, the gregarious coffee titan whose face had forgotten how to frown years earlier, stood then, sensing the moment. "Could we have the UAB folks step out of the room for a moment?"
After the UAB staff left the boardroom, Smith rallied the fundraising effort to a close. Each leader at the table agreed to cover the final deficit. O'Neal wrote their agreement, and each man signed his name.
Darious Williams was loading a flower delivery into his work van in early June 2015 when a co-worker shocked him with unbelievable news.
"UAB football is back!" the man said.
Williams had no patience for the suggestion.
"No, it's not," he retorted. "It just quit. What are you talking about?"
When Williams joined the UAB football team as a sophomore in 2014, he felt he finally fit with a coach and teammates. Before, he had struggled for years with coaches, though he admits his own attitude contributed to the tension. He tried playing at a Division III school, but that lasted only a year. A friend suggested he try walking on to UAB's team.
There, Williams flourished. He started five of UAB's last seven games at cornerback and returned his only interception of the year for a touchdown in his first start. He believed in Bill Clark and thrived under his discipline.
And then, in an instant, it was gone.
Georgia State, Georgia Southern and several Conference USA schools reached out, but Williams didn't want another football family. He returned home to Jacksonville, Florida, and took a job as a delivery driver. Perhaps he would enroll at a community college. But football? That was his past.
His co-worker pulled up the UAB news on his phone. Williams saw Watts announcing the program's reinstatement. "We're in a different position," the president said. "Given the broad base of support never before seen, we are taking steps to reinstate football, rifle and bowling."
Seven months earlier, the future Williams envisioned was shattered by a Watts announcement. Now the president's words were redrawing the picture again.
Williams' phone rang. It was Blazers defensive coordinator Duwan Walker.
"UAB football is back," Walker told him. "You ready to come down?"
Williams didn't hesitate: "I'm on my way."
Alexander wanted to celebrate a final victory.
It was Sept. 30, 2015, nearly four months after the reinstatement. UAB students had voted that day to approve a $25 student fee to provide $3.5 million over the next five years to support football, bowling and rifle. More than 84 percent of the participating students voted in favor. To Alexander, the students were now investors in the athletics program.
To celebrate, he found his way to the 10th floor of the administrative building and sought out the man he had agitated for the past 10 months. Alexander and his protesters had chanted for Ray Watts to be fired. Many of them had questioned his integrity. They had shouted profanities at him. But that day, Alexander entered Watts' office.
They took a picture together, smiling broadly, Alexander's arm around the president.
The animation playing on a monitor next to Clark's desk shows a vision: a football center with a pavilion-covered practice field, a game room, a fire pit, and even a nutrition station with smoothies and shakes. Such luxuries were fantasy three years ago. But on this day, as the spring 2017 practices wrap up, the vision is a rising steel-and-stone reality.
UAB conducted workouts this spring on a new artificial turf field adjacent to the Blazers' old pit-filled pasture. And that notorious old surface? It's now a construction site. When fall practices begin, the animated dream will be their home — a monument to change.
It didn't come easy. When Watts agreed to reconsider football, he had one requirement: UAB wouldn't bring it back in its previous state. It had to be done right, with proper facilities and equipment.
Games are won in the 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/NSPdwzXLaF— UAB Football (@UAB_FB) August 1, 2017
So even after the business leaders pulled off a miracle in the boardroom, the work continued. Every other week, in the back room of Another Broken Egg Cafe, Smith, Craft, O'Neal and four others — a group that received the name "The Gang of Seven" — gathered to plan the next phase. Over the next two years, they led a new UAB Athletics Campaign Committee that included many of the businessmen responsible for saving UAB football, and took the fundraising efforts to dizzying dimensions. By spring 2017, the campaign had raised $43 million.
All of UAB seems to be feeling the effects. Gifts have provided a new softball stadium, a women's basketball locker room and a new basketball weight room. UAB renovated its academic center and refreshed its Olympic-sport weight room. And while the football team still calls Legion Field home, Birmingham is engaged in serious discussions to build a multipurpose stadium. Construction of the new facilities is expected to inject $300 million into the local economy.
And the university? The faculty and student groups that once cast no-confidence votes against Watts now publicly support him. And after enrollment dipped in 2015, it increased by 1,202 students in fall 2016 to a record 19,535.
"There's just so much about the tie and the connection between sports and feeling good about your university," Clark says. "Now you see everybody in UAB gear. They're proud of it, and they're excited, and … they're part of it, you know? And all of that goes back to athletics. It's not more important than academics, but it's pretty important."
Tristan Henderson, the Army veteran-turned-tight end, sits in the stands on an April afternoon with his son, Ayden, now 6. The current Blazers are on the field for their first spring game in three years. Former Blazers sit near Henderson, reminiscing about what could have been theirs.
They debate how good their 2015 team would have been with a future NFL running back, a defensive end capable of leading Georgia in tackling and others who became impact players on their new teams. They would have had the best team in UAB's meager history, they banter.
They gather as brothers, on an 80-degree spring afternoon, watching a familiar uniform in a familiar stadium. Many finished their careers playing as Jaguars or Eagles or Statesmen. But they are all Blazers.