A year ago, Rodarius Houston was preparing for his first year of FBS football. An Anniston native, Houston moved to Birmingham in spring 2012 to be close to his father and brother. He joined the UAB Blazers as a walk-on wide receiver the next spring, after taking a semester at Jefferson State Community College.
Now, after a year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Houston will have to move elsewhere. He was in the room in December when UAB President Ray Watts told players he was cutting football, bowling and rifle for financial reasons, leaving Houston and the other players without a team.
“It was pretty devastating,” Houston said.
Watts is expected to announce by Monday whether he will reinstate the three sports, and Houston, like many others in football-obsessed Alabama, is waiting on the verdict.
Without UAB, there are 17 colleges and universities in Alabama fielding football teams at various levels, many of them spending multiple millions of dollars on the sport. If Watts decides not to reinstate the program, UAB would be the only university of its size in the state without a football team.
But why does it matter? Why should a university like UAB, focused on medicine and research, need a football team? Why does any school, other than the big two in Tuscaloosa and Auburn?
More than money
The decision to cut football at UAB was said to be a monetary one, but most programs across the country lose money.
And that’s OK, according to Steve DeMedicis, the owner of Iron City, a restaurant and music venue in downtown Birmingham. DeMedicis, a major financial contributor to UAB athletics, has been in Birmingham for 40 years, he said. He wants to see the Birmingham and the Blazers thrive, he said.
“Nowhere is it written down that you can’t have sports unless they turn a profit,” he said. “And they shouldn’t have to, no more than the band has to turn a profit, or the debate team.”
To DeMedicis, and others throughout the state, football is about more than just money. UAB fans argue that football gives students and alumni something to cheer for and to rally around.
That’s true at Jacksonville State, too.
“Football is something that’s just a way of life here,” said Jamie “Red” Etheredge, a former member of the JSU board of trustees. “A lot of kids don’t want to go to a school if they don’t have a football team. Consequently, universities have to spend a dollar.”
In the 2013 fiscal year, JSU spent $4.3 million on football, according to annual financial reports, with about $2 million of that coming directly from the university’s general fund. At UAB, the football program was almost twice as expensive, according to the Department of Education, which shows the school spent around $7 million on the sport in fiscal year 2013. Published reports indicate that UAB paid about $2.5 million of that figure from its general fund.
A report by the consulting firm Carr Sports Associates, which Watts used in his initial decision to cut football, rifle and bowling, said those costs are likely to rise if UAB wants to stay competitive in Conference USA.
For some, it’s worth spending whatever it takes to keep football around.
“People always ask me who I pull for, Alabama or Auburn,” said Fran Blanchard. “I tell them neither.”
Blanchard is a former wide receiver at Jacksonville State. His son played quarterback for the Gamecocks, and his daughter attends the university now. Blanchard roots for his alma mater and doesn’t care much for the other schools in the state.
Blanchard, a self-described homer, called JSU football a “staple.”
“I couldn’t imagine the university without it,” he said. “Football Saturdays to me, in Jacksonville, are just amazing.”
Running the other way
Other Alabama schools have done the opposite of UAB in recent years.
Joe Dean is the director of athletics at Birmingham-Southern College, which began playing NCAA Division III football in 2007, after not fielding a team in almost 70 years.
“I’ve been on BSC’s campus for over 20 years, and the football program has been the greatest thing to happen to our campus in a long, long time,” he said.
According to Dean, Birmingham-Southern’s student body was about 60 percent women before football. Since then, it’s closer to 50-50, he said. Enrollment now is about 1,100. That’s about 100 students higher than before the team was formed, Dean said.
“At a small, liberal-arts college, enrollment is everything for us,” he said.
The University of South Alabama in Mobile, like UAB, was organized in the 1960s. Both schools have between 11,000 and 12,000 undergraduate students, and both student bodies are made up of around 42-43 percent men. Until last year, both schools competed at the FBS level.
Even their stadiums are similar: Both are more than 60 years old and both are off-campus, city-owned stadiums.
South Alabama started playing football for the first time as an unclassified team in 2009, and transitioned to full FBS membership in 2013.
Joel Erdmann, the school’s athletic director, said there had been discussions about starting a team for a long time, but the process really got rolling when the student body made a push in 2007 and 2008. The students endorsed a student fee that would help pay for football there, something UAB’s SGA has said they are willing to do, as well.
“I think the football program has made our department better,” Erdmann said. “It has helped every team we have. It has enhanced the visibility and notoriety of the university, which brings people’s attention to the university.
“It’s provided for a sense of unity and pride for our alumni and our fans,” he said. “It has provided for another avenue of exposure for the city of Mobile and region that we serve.”
Football can be a path to college for some students. The College Sports Solutions study on UAB found that the removal of football can have a negative effect on undergraduate enrollment at a university, especially among males and African-American students.
According to the study, 12 percent of African American males attending UAB over the past several years have been members of the football team.
Rodarius Houston won’t play at UAB even if the team comes back, but dreams about being able to come back to watch a game as an alumnus.
Houston graduated this spring with a major in kinesiology. When the football team was cut, he continued to work out and stay determined, he said. He had planned on going to Berry College in Georgia, but wound up with a scholarship offer to Tennessee-Martin, an Ohio Valley Conference rival to Jacksonville State.
“I knew the hard work would pay off eventually,” he said. “I stayed committed; I stayed dedicated.”
Anniston High School football coach Eddie Bullock, who coached Houston, wants to know whether Watts will allow the three sports to return.
To Bullock, the loss of Blazer football means the loss of scholarships for Alabama students.
“You hate to see kids lose scholarships,” he said. “Any time you cut out a program like that it hurts the kids. It cuts out their chance to get an education. … It’s devastating for all of them.”
The December decision to end UAB’s program sparked a movement among fans calling for the Blazers’ return. Many supporters have pledged to help pay for that revival.
“There has been tremendous support here in Birmingham to bring the team back,” DeMedicis said. “The city of Birmingham, businesses, local leaders.”
Fundraising efforts to reinstate the three sports last week reached nearly $20 million, he said.
“So if Watts hung his hat on the fact that UAB had to kill football for financial reasons, that reason has been taken away from him,” he said.
The city of Birmingham has also pledged to help, according to Mayor William Bell. Bell said the City Council passed a resolution to double its support of the program to a sum of around $1.3 million. The source of those funds hasn’t been determined, he said.
“But we’ll raise it,” he said. Like many in the city, he backs UAB, which would have a long road ahead if it were to reinstate the three sports.
“I’m looking to support UAB in all its endeavors,” he said. “Sports are the common denominator for all classes and races in our community. … I think the reinstatement of UAB football would be a rallying cry for the city.”
Birmingham, the state, and the rest of the football-loving world will have to be patient until Watts makes his announcement Monday. That includes Houston.
“For now I’m just waiting just like everyone else,” he said.