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UAB football is back from the dead. Why it went away, explained in a 2-minute read

The story is political as well as financial.

UAB Blazers v Arkansas Razorbacks Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The football program at UAB makes its return to the field on Saturday. The Blazers are back from a two-year hiatus to host FCS Alabama A&M in their season opener in Birmingham (3 p.m. ET, WatchESPN). Kickoff will mark the next chapter for a program that reappeared almost as suddenly as it went away.

The program shut down in Dec. 2014.

The previous year, UAB’s president, Ray Watts, commissioned an outside firm to review the school’s athletic finances. The firm, CarrSports Consulting, recommended that UAB nix some sports: football, bowling, and rifle. So the football team went away, with Watts letting the team know during a gut-wrenching, angry meeting:

But the report that led to the team’s shutdown might’ve been BS.

A CBS Sports report showed that a lot of it was based on assumptions about future philanthropy patterns.

Some economists who studied the program said UAB football would’ve been slated to make money, not lose it.

Another study found that with football, rifle, and bowling back, the athletic department would work at a deficit of a little more than $3 million annually. That’s not good, but it’s several times better than the projections UAB had been working off publicly.

There’s political context, too.

UAB’s under the control of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, and there’s lots of anecdotal evidence that this group doesn’t care much for the Blazers:

UAB tried to hire future Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, but funds were denied at the 11th hour with no public comment.

UAB played in one of the most decrepit facilities in FBS, city-owned Legion Field. A proposal for a small stadium was denied as "the wrong project at the wrong time."

Coach Bill Clark created a plan for a $10 million practice facility funded substantially through private donations, replacing fields that routinely flooded. The mayor supported the project. The board never approved it, but months after killing football, greenlit a $4.5 million soccer complex.

When a local business arranged to upgrade practice turf at no cost, UA trustee Finis St. John had the project killed, according to an AL.com report.

In 2011, St. John implied publicly that UAB shouldn't have athletics. St. John and others feel the medical school should be UAB's focus, not football. In the state of Alabama.

UAB fans believe the trustees encourage a cycle of defeat in order to preserve focus on the Crimson Tide. When the trustees claimed UAB hadn't built enough support to warrant a stadium, fans used the Fisher denial to argue they never had a chance.

The idea here is that Alabama trustees want to hold down UAB for the benefit of the Crimson Tide. UAB’s Watts made the call to end the program, but the trustees probably had a fair bit of behind-the-scenes influence leading up to it.

In June 2015, after lots of public pressure, the team’s return was announced.

UAB had been the first FBS program to shut down in two decades, which was an embarrassing look for the school.

One player protested by wearing his helmet to graduation:

When the men’s basketball team scored a big March Madness upset in March 2015, the football team’s absence was a looming story line.

There’d been a fundraising push, too, and the school decided the team should come back. Not doing so would’ve been bad PR, not to mention bad policy.

So now UAB’s back, and it’s treated differently than other new teams.

If the Blazers win six games this year, they’re bowl-eligible. They aren’t bowl-banned for a few years while transitioning to FBS, as is custom for teams that join that level.

They’re back in Conference USA, the same league they’d been in since 1999.

The program’s also finally gotten some facility upgrades, including this $22.5 million football building:

The Blazers are probably not going to be good in 2017.

When the program shut down, a bunch of its best players left to go elsewhere. The team missed two recruiting years, basically, and will have an experienced but thin roster.

Returning coach Bill Clark took the team from 2-10 to 6-6 in 2014, his first season on the job and the last one before Watts announced the program’s death. He’s still around and might build something really good, but that will require time and patience.

None of that is really the point, though.

Being back from the dead is.


Hey! UAB is playing in a bowl game a few years after being shut down