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UAB Football Is Dead: Great Leaders Make Great Enemies

In case you missed it, UAB Football is dead.  

Technically, the UAB President and the university made the decision to shut down the Division 1 FBS program, which went 6-6 this year and is bowl eligible.

Reasons provided by the leadership of UAB state that the program lost too much money and wasn't sustainable, but most people think it is a power play by the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System.

For those of you outside the state, the University of Alabama System, which includes campuses in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville, is controlled by the same board.  The University of Alabama you Billboardknow is the one in Tuscaloosa (Roll Tide - hard for me to write that, but it's the best identifier for those outside the state I can provide).  But the campus in Birmingham is thriving and is the 2nd biggest employer in the state of Alabama. 

The people who believe the Board of Trustees made the call say they're doing it to keep UAB down - to ensure UAB always plays second fiddle to the flagship campus in Tuscaloosa.  

Me?  I think that's true, but the bigger lesson is that the Board of Trustees made the call because they were influenced by a time tested truth - Great Leaders make Big Enemies.  

Allow me to explain.

The UAB athletic program was founded in 1977 when Gene Bartow was hired as UAB's first athletics director and men's basketball coach. They started from scratch.  For those of you that don't know, Gene Bartow is now in the basketball Hall of Fame - a big deal.  Bartow was well regarded enough that he was the guy that replaced John Wooden at UCLA when Wooden retired - that's also kind of a big deal.  Lucky for UAB, Bartow was shocked by the booster scene in SoCal, the expectations created by Wooden's historical success at UCLA and more.  He knew that he wasn't long for that job and was in play, available to be recruited away for the right opportunity.

The fact that Bartow left UCLA to found an athletic program and basketball program from scratch says a lot about who he was.  He had some rebel in him.  That became an important part of the UAB story, and contributed to the death of the UAB Football program this week, which I'll explain as we roll along.

Leaders aren't scared of creating something from scratch.  Bartow obviously was a leader in that sense.

UAB athletics, and specifically UAB Men's Basketball, shot up the chart.  They drew 15,000 to their first men's basketball game and advanced to the Final 8 of the NCAA Tournament 6 years after the start of the program.  They were on fire.

Leaders get great organizational results in a short period of time.  Bartow did this better at UAB than anyone else in the history of Division 1 athletics.  

My first job out of undergraduate was being a part of the UAB coaching staff from 1991 to 1994.  It was a Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 10.25.57 AM great time and introduced me to the city I now consider home - Birmingham.  Check out the pic to the right of this post and you'll see the gang from that time at UAB.  Young KD is suited up, first guy on the second row.   Working with Coach Bartow was more complex than I expected.  That's OK - I was just getting exposed to the world of work and thought things should be a lot simpler than I now know they can be.  

From the start, Bartow was ready to fight to grow his program if he had to.  Enter the natural enemy - the University of Alabama (Flagship Tuscaloosa Location).  

Leaders pick fights as necessary to grow their program.  Bartow did this - it was in his DNA.

Bartow's view of the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) was negatively influenced by his view of the aforementioned Board of Trustees structure.  Like today, the board was dominated by Tuscaloosa supporters, and he had paranoia about that.  How's the paranoid saying go?  "You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you."  In addition to the board structure and everything that means, Bartow was routinely fired up by recruiting wars with Wimp Sanderson at Alabama.  Bartow had multiple recruits that were flipped and ended up playing for Sanderson in Tuscaloosa, and of course, Bartow felt there was foul play including money changing hands, etc.

I've since met Coach Sanderson and he seems like a great guy.  And if there's anything I'll say about recruiting, it's complex and complicated everywhere - including UAB.

Through the years, Bartow became increasingly vocal about his views of Tuscaloosa.  If he would have lived and particpated in today's social media world, I'm not sure he would have survived the fallout from his views and enjoyed the same long career that he did at UAB.

Leaders make big enemies because their vision is big and they have incredible drive.

When I think about the death of UAB Football, I have to think about Gene Bartow.  First up, he was obviously the type of leader that could build something great from scratch.  He wasn't perfect, but what he built in a short period of time was incredible.  A basketball school in Birmingham?  Are you kidding me?  As a hoops-first guy, he was way ahead of this time in understanding that he needed football to get to/stay in the big time world of college athletics.

So he gave birth to a football program, and nurtured it from club, to D3, to D1 status.  Tuscaloosa seethed as that was built.  He didn't care.  Leaders that matter rarely care who gets their feelings hurt if the greater good is served.

Leaders eventually fade away and enemies kill their familes if they don't have the right successor.  

As I look back at the history of Gene Bartow, he built something that's hard to find anywhere else.  It came from the ground up, and was unapologetic in it's ambition and purpose.  Unfortunately, the vision of leaders burns hot and enemies are created.  UAB never had a successor in multiple leadership positions who had the same passion for what was built - a fact that's evidenced in a new president's willingness to kill the football program and neuter the vision of UAB Athletics.  As a result, UAB will downgrade their conference affiliation (involuntarily - it takes football to play with the big boys, or even the medium-sized boys) and all sports will be negatively impacted.

UAB's going back to a conference like the Sun Belt.  Which is perfect for Tuscaloosa - UAB wil never be a major threat in any sport due to the conference downgrade.  This wasn't always the case - just look at the history of UAB Basketball (beating the Tide in 1993 in the only head to head match up, arranged by the NIT) and the fact that the football program has had some great moments (beating Nick Saban when he was at LSU, etc.).

At the end of the day, killing UAB Football goes back to Gene Bartow.  Great leaders make great enemies.

Would I change anything that Bartow did?  Hell no.  I would change the succession plan that followed him.  

The void allowed the enemies created by the growth process to come in and kill a family member (football) and disable the rest (all other sports due to the conference downgrade that's coming).

You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.  RIP UAB as a player in big time Division 1 athletics.  Your founder willed you to prominence.  The successors weren't strong enough to keep the wolves at bay.


Dawn Burke

This. is. so GOOD!! SPOT ON KD. As a Bham resident, and Southerm Miss Fan - who are considered UAB's rivals in C-USA, this situation has hit home. Bo (my husband) was trying to explain this history to me last night and it really is compelling to study the evolution and downfall based on these dynamics.

Bravo, great post, sad situation. But since the dye has been cast, my alum Southern Miss #goUSM will GLADLY recruit the UAB players who have been effected.

Bo, will also be stoked that your first job out of college was working for UAB basketball's coaching staff -- I don't know if I knew that!!!


You can apply the same analogy to the "gang of nine" in the tech sector. Where are the major players now? Compaq? Gone. AST? Gone. Packard Bell? Etc. etc.

IBM laptops are Lenovo now, Apple is still standing, and HP? Well who's bought an HP Pc or laptop? Hell even Dell is not the same.

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