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UAB football drama shows deep love of the game in Alabama

It was life-affirming when Alabama Birmingham did an about-face and brought back football and two other sports

Tony Barnhart was asked to speak at a charity event in Mobile, Ala., a couple of weeks ago but faced a conflict.

The veteran sportswriter from Georgia, author of "Southern Fried Football," was scheduled to be in Florida to cover the annual Southeastern Conference meetings.

No problem. The folks from Mobile sent a private plane for Barnhart and provided a police escort from the airport to the event.

Barnhart spoke to 800 college football fans — remember, the season was still months away — then jumped on the plane and was back in Florida by 10 p.m.

"Things are different in the South," Barnhart deadpanned.

Alabama being in the heart of the football-crazed South, it was shocking last December when Alabama Birmingham announced it was dropping football, along with rifle and bowling, for financial reasons.

UAB has long been viewed as the football stepchild to the powerhouse in Tuscaloosa. Still, the notion of dropping football anywhere in Alabama seemed anathema to the state's DNA, an honor-code violation where there is an uncompromising love of the game.

Imagine Starbucks dropping decaf latte from its menu.

UAB became the first university to drop major-level football since Pacific in 1995. On the macho-meter, Alabama would prefer not to be a bookend to California, which may lead the nation in defunct programs — at least eight in Southern California alone.

So, it was life-affirming this month when UAB did an about-face and announced it was bringing football and the other two sports back.

The sport was dead for six months, with university President Ray Watts reversing field based on "broad-based support never before seen."

That's the Alabama we've come to know: a no-pro-sport state that forwarded either Alabama or Auburn into the college football national title game for five straight seasons starting in 2009.

Behind the reversal were outraged and organized fans, a few deep-pocketed boosters and one plugged-in politician, Alabama state Rep. Jack Williams, a longtime FOP (friend of program) who helped foment a movement known as "Free UAB."

The "support never before seen" Watts referred to were pledges totaling $17.2 million for the return of football. (An additional $13 million is still being sought to pay for various program upgrades.)

Best case is that the Blazers will play again in 2016. Next season was abandoned because most of last season's players left, as did several assistants from Coach Bill Clark's staff.

That hasn't stopped the victory parade. Williams said school president Watts grossly misread the political winds.

"You're in Los Angeles and you know about this story," Williams said in a phone interview while he was casting a vote in Montgomery. "They don't want this kind of publicity again. I think we have secured the future of UAB football. We demonstrated we are willing to fight for it."

Williams said the undermining of UAB goes back years and that, "It was widely known that the board was not crazy about UAB football."

He contends the UA Board of Trustees, which overseas Alabama, Alabama Birmingham and Alabama Huntsville, did not want UAB to become a football threat to its sister school in Tuscaloosa.

If true, the plan worked beautifully. UAB has enjoyed only sporadic success and doesn't come close to filling Legion Field in Birmingham, capacity 71,594. The Blazers had a solid-for-them 6-6 season in 2014 and still averaged only 21,841 fans in six home games.

"Even 25,000 looks like nobody's there," Williams said.

The board's animus toward UAB may in part be connected to the late Gene Bartow, the school's longtime men's basketball coach and athletic director who died in 2012. A 1993 Los Angeles Times story by investigative reporter Danny Robbins made public a letter Bartow had written to NCAA enforcement that was critical of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant.

Bartow, who followed another legendary coach, John Wooden, at UCLA, wanted the NCAA to investigate Crimson Tide basketball and football programs with coaches who were "trained" by Bryant.

Bartow issued an immediate public apology but the damage was done.

It probably didn't help UAB's cause that Bryant's son, Paul W. Bryant Jr., remains a powerful behind-the-scenes force and trustee board member. However, Watts said the board had nothing to do with the decision to drop UAB football last December.

The plan to jettison the sports was based on an economic report commissioned by UAB that lowballed what the school received from the first College Football Playoff payout and failed to consider the school would not be allowed to remain in Conference USA without fielding a football team.

A subsequent report painted a rosier financial picture and, before you knew it, UAB football was back in business.

"This created a great deal of embarrassment for folks," Williams said.

Southern Californians, historically, have reacted with far less emotion.

Football was dropped at Cal State Northridge in 2001, Cal State Fullerton in 1992, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara in 1991, Cal Poly Pomona in 1985, Cal State Los Angeles in 1977, UC Riverside in 1975 and Pepperdine in 1961.

Fullerton killed its program shortly after constructing a new stadium, which is now mostly used for soccer.

David Lamm, a former Fullerton football player,

says the difficulty in drumming up football interest beyond the powerhouse college programs of UCLA and USC is illustrated in the fact the region "hasn't had pro football for 20 years now."

Lamm concedes even football in a lower division can be prohibitively expensive.

The bottom line: don't make football assumptions based on anything going on in Alabama; it's best to watch that circus from the grandstands.

What other place sends a private plane to fetch a sportswriter?

UAB wouldn't stand a snowball's chance isolated in the drought-plagued heart of Orange or San Bernardino counties.

In Alabama, though, where there is a political pigskin will, there is a political pigskin way.

"No question …if this had just been about rifle and bowling it may not have happened," Williams said.

Y'all think?

Football cuts to the bone.

"We touched a nerve," Williams said. "We didn't let go."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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