The decision to end the University of Alabama-Birmingham football program was one of simple numbers for school president Ray Watts.
An FBS football program receiving only $2 million a year in private donations could not sustain the sport in the face of a $50 million price tag incurred over the next several years. And with that, Watts announced the cancellation of the UAB football program, along with its rifle and bowling teams.
To the players, however, numbers didn't begin to tell the story. The Blazers had a chance to respond to Watts on Tuesday, and the emotionally charged feedback was intense:
"I would like to begin by saying that the University of Alabama-Birmingham and their football program provided me an opportunity and many others the opportunity to further our education while continuing to play the game of football. UAB was the school that gave me a chance to play college football and ultimately provided me an opportunity to play in the NFL. "I am hurting for those kids that were members of that UAB football team. I am hurting for those coaches that did a great job of getting the team Bowl eligible this year, and I am hurting for the UAB community. The football program was a big part of that community, and the people in that area made great impacts on the lives of those young men, including myself. I know those players are going through a lot of emotions right now, but I want them to know that you have an opportunity to continue playing college football and continue to work towards your degree. Do not allow this decision to derail your dreams. Again, I am appreciative of my time and experience at UAB, but I am saddened that there will no longer be football there."
There was no shortage of blame and finger-pointing, from lagging attendance at games to administrative apathy. Dozens of FBS programs are reportedly in more dire financial straits than those UAB faced. But Watts said the school could not afford to cover the shortfall by taking away from its other "mission pillars." Watts insisted the decision was made strictly within the university, though media speculation is that the decision was made under pressure from the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees.
UAB will owe its future non-conference opponents buy-out fees to break those contracts, including a reported $925,000 to Tennessee for a game that was scheduled for next season. UAB will also keep players on scholarship who want to remain enrolled. Yet, despite those expenses, Watts said the decision will take the school's athletic program from a $27 million deficit to a $1.8 million surplus over a five-year period. More than likely, UAB men's basketball -- once an NCAA Tournament regular -- will become the school's flagship athletic program. But as Conference USA requires all its members to play football, UAB will have to find its remaining athletic programs a new conference home.
One root of the frustration is the improvement the program made on the field in its first and only season under coach Bill Clark. The Blazers became bowl-eligible Saturday with a win over Southern Miss. That doesn't guarantee a bowl bid, but could give the team -- and Clark -- one more opportunity to close the football program with a victory. Whether UAB has played its last game, or second-to-last game, the players will essentially become free agents, in search of a scholarship program that will accept them, soon enough.
But clearly enough, they're not happy about it.