By John A. Knox
In the three weeks since UAB President Ray Watts abruptly terminated the football, bowling and rifle programs without due process, I have logged thousands of miles traveling back and forth to the Magic City.
Why go to so much trouble, some ask?
Because mama called.
You might recognize the phrase. It was uttered by my boyhood hero, Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
When he said it in 1958, the Bear meant “mama” in the sense of “alma mater”—his university. Bryant had had great gridiron success as head coach at Kentucky and Texas A&M. But the team at the University of Alabama, where Bryant had starred as an end in the 1930s, had fallen on hard times. Alabama alumnus “Ears” Whitworth had led the Crimson Tide to only four wins in three seasons, including an 0-10 debacle of a season in 1955. The once-great Tide was shut out eleven times in those three years, twice by Auburn. Instead of embracing mediocrity or abandoning football altogether after these lean years, however, the Alabama faithful reached outward and upward, to someone who could take their program and their university to new heights.
Bryant heard mama’s call, accepted it, and the rest is college football history.
Much later, Bryant used the phrase in reference to his deceased mother, in a famous South Central Bell TV ad: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.”
I mean this phrase in the same two senses as my hero.
The mama’s cry I have heard from my university, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), has been muffled. It sounds like a suffocated scream. The dynamic, ambitious university I knew, led by some of the best university administrators I have ever met, is in a chokehold. The dreams and visions I heard, in face-to-face conversations with its leaders from Joe Volker through Ann Reynolds, are being scaled back—drowned in page after page of consultant-speak and stymied in vision and mission statements that carefully omit any mention of the undergraduate part of UAB.
This is not the university that Joe Volker founded, and I loved.
But the fingers around the throat of UAB are not only Watts’s. From all corners of the university, and at a level above the UAB president, the message I hear is that this is not just about football, or about sports. The message is consistent: the very survival of the 11,679-student-strong undergraduate component of UAB as we know it is at stake.
You can’t try to kill off that big a university without a struggle that leaves marks. And the fingerprints on the neck of the “West Side” of UAB—Watts’s contemptuous phrase for the undergraduate part of UAB that he studiously avoids—correspond to those who pull Watts’s strings. We will learn more about them in the coming months.
Even with so many fingers around her neck, mama gasped out a cry. And, as the Bear said back in 1958, “when mama calls, you just have to come runnin’.”
And so I have.
And so have thousands of others: 11,283 UAB supporters comprise one social media page alone, with the total growing daily.
Because, as Alabama proved back in the 1950s, you don’t just fold up the tent and close the tailgate after a few bad seasons. Sometimes you get stuck with an Alabama alum who just can’t coach worth a lick, instead of a national championship-caliber coach. In 24 years of football at UAB, the Blazers never had a year as miserable as Alabama had in 1955 under Ears Whitworth. Not even when UAB was prevented from hiring Jimbo Fisher and ended up with Neil Callaway, an Alabama alum with a worse head coaching record (.300 lifetime winning percentage) than even ol’ Ears himself (.338)! If Alabama could make it through those lean seasons and emerge on top with Bear Bryant, then UAB could do the same.
Unless, that is, those in high places wanted UAB to fail.
But “mama called” is only half of the reason I’m sitting here in Birmingham right now, instead of spending time with relatives far away.
The other reason is my mom, who died four years ago tonight.
My mom grew up in Kentucky, where a young Bear Bryant made his start as a head coach in the 1940s. Our family relocated to Birmingham in the momentous year of 1963, and followed Alabama football religiously while falling in love with a city that had so much potential buried beneath so much baggage. When UAB landed Gene Bartow and began its athletics program, we became instant fans of Birmingham’s team. Mom’s favorite memories were of UAB beating Kentucky in basketball in the NCAAs, more than once. She loved Blazer football, too, and made sure we all had Hawaii Bowl T-shirts. She would have been so excited about the UAB-Kentucky football matchup in 2016 that was slated to happen… that is, until Ray Watts decided to save money by spending millions on broken contracts.
The night she died, Mom listened to the miraculous UAB win over Final Four-bound VCU in Bartow Arena. I still wonder if that breathtaking comeback—UAB was down 19 points with 13:15 to go in the game—stole the very last breaths out of her.
Like the Bear, I sure wish I could call my mom tonight. But I know in my heart what she’d say. She’d say that miracle comebacks are part of the DNA at UAB, and the city of Birmingham, too. A Presbyterian pastor’s wife with Baptist fire in her, and a partner in our family’s newspaper in Kentucky to boot, she’d tell me to fight like hell for UAB.
And I will. Because this isn’t just about football, or sports. It’s about academic integrity, and the autonomy of a university and a city in the clutches of its bitter foes. It’s about dreams deferred.
In the memories of Joe Volker and Dick Hill and Gene Bartow and my mom, I fight.
John Knox is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA and the 2014 CASE/Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Professor of the Year for the state of Georgia. He is a 1988 summa cum laude graduate of UAB in mathematics, with honors in interdisciplinary studies. He earned a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York City.
From SACS Principles of Accreditation:
From SACS Principles of Accreditation: 3.2.11 The institution’s chief executive officer has ultimate responsibility for, and exercises appropriate administrative and fiscal control over, the institution’s intercollegiate athletics program. (Control of intercollegiate athletics)