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#FreeUAB Worked. Would #FreeBU Have, Too?

By all accounts what happened at UAB was extraordinary.

Last November, football at UAB was essentially abolished by the University of Alabama's Board of Trustees and confirmed by president Ray Watts.  The decision was made secretly, in the middle of the season, with an entire press release written up - but since it didn't "look good", Watts kept up with the fiction that there still was a decision to be made.

After the season concluded, Watts announced the termination of the program, saying that "was not about finances... but planning for excellence in the future for everything we do."

You probably know the rest of the story.  It was immediately apparent to all (but apparently not Watts, or the CarrSports Consultants who were commissioned the data to help make that decision) that UAB's termination of football would almost certainly cost them membership in Conference USA, which was one of several factors that helped set ablaze students, alumni, and most importantly important boosters and community sponsors who mobilized immediately to save football (and bowling and women's rifle, the two other programs that were cut in the same move).

#FreeUAB was a hashtag that never really went away from December 2014 to June 1st, 2015, when the Alabama Board of Trustees and Watts stunningly reversed their decision, saying that they would be reinstating football and remain members of Conference USA.

So much at UAB echoes what happened at other schools that shuttered their football programs, too, but nowhere does it echo more strongly than what happened at Boston University in October of 1997.

It makes me wish Twitter, and some variation of a #FreeBU hashtag, existed back then.

When I just re-read Watts' statement about "planning for excellence in the future for everything we do," I paused.  I had heard that before.

Recently, I was reading the Kindle version of the book Terrier Memoirs: Our Legacy Behind Boston University Football, written by a former Boston University football athlete, WR T.J. Hartford.

The book is a compilation of Boston University football history, personal anecdotes, and filled with a treasure trove of articles dating from the heyday of the program in the 1930s to the death of the program in 1997.

Hartford, who was also the leader of BTUFF, a Boston University alumni group dedicated to bringing football back, seems to have emptied out his notebook in his 366 page tome detailing all sorts of interesting information about the program that he compiled pretty much the moment Silber killed football at BU in 1997.

Of all the treasures in his book, though, nothing compares to a letter on a Boston University letterhead to a longtime Boston University booster.

Leon Spivack, A Guy You Ought To Know
Leon Spivack was a former Boston University quarterback who has the exact sort of football story that should be shouted from the rooftops.

He got into Boston University on a football scholarship in 1934, and struggled academically his first year.  A football star and captain that got interviewed by the local papers, he would turn his academic life around and make the deans' list at BU for three years running, which would lead to a lifetime of learning.

His amazing story was headlined by this amazing profile of the 98 year old Spivack last year, where it was revealed he was still auditing courses at Fairfield University.

But back when the Terriers were still a I-AA football team, Spivack and then-Boston University president John Silber didn't see eye to eye about football.

As a football fan, Spivack was upset.  In 1992, the Terriers went 3-8 under then-coach Dan Allen, a year before Boston University found success in the Yankee Conference and I-AA playoffs, upsetting Northern Iowa in a home playoff game in 1993 and again making the playoffs in 1994.

Later it would be discovered that Silber had actually reduced the number of scholarships available to the football program at this time - which were rapidly reinstated with the success of 1993.

But Spivack was upset, and wrote the President's office calling the performance of the football team "a disaster and an embarassment".

Spivack got a reply signed by Silber himself.

"I understand your saying, as a former coach, that this is 'a disaster and an embarrassment'," he wrote.  "but your view in this regard may be based more on nostalgia rather than facts."

"The disaster is not a losing team but the expenditure of close to $2 million a year on a program that brings no benefit to the University," Silber continued.  "As far as embarrassment is concerned, I don't understand.  How can the University be embarrassed by its football teams' performance when average attendance of the game is less than 2,500?  Those who do attend I expect have a fairly clear ideas about what they will see.  When expectation and reality are closely matched, there is no opportunity for embarrassment."

It's difficult to imagine such a incendiary letter in the era of Twitter surviving in obscurity for long.

The full letter, published in the book, is a window into the perverted logic that Silber used to justify the execution of a football program he didn't want.

"No Benefit To University," According To Silber
The idea that spending $2 million provided 'no benefit' to the University - the vast majority of which would have been spent on giving football players an opportunity to attend Boston University for free - was one of many tropes that Silber tirelessly forwarded in an effort to undermine his own program.

But one line in his letter really stood out to me.

"No University is excellent at everything," Silber wrote in the same letter.  "My aim for Boston University is to have it achieve excellence in the areas where we choose to concentrate their efforts."

It's a page cut out of Watts' playbook for the justification of killing UAB football in 2015.

The similarities between the debacle at UAB and the execution at BU don't end there.

Why is it, at both UAB and BU, administrators and presidents cut resources and consistently prevented even small improvements to the program?

Silber didn't make any effort to make any improvements to BU's home stadium, Nickerson Field, for the fans or players.  With no upgrades to the stadium,  he then would try to claim, when performance on the field was less than spectacular and the fan atmosphere was bad, that the interest wasn't there.

Something similar happened at UAB, though it pre-dates Watts' presidency.

Blazer donors and boosters for years had been pushing for a modern on-campus stadium, trying to get away from rental costs in using aging Legion Field in Birmingham as their home field.

But Alabama's board of trustees in 2011 rejected the proposal before it could get off the ground.
Dr. Luc Frenette, a longtime UAB booster who was one of the 27 individuals or corporations that made the five-year, $100,000 commitment for a suite, said it will be difficult for the football program to reach its potential without building a stadium to use in place of Legion Field. 
"It's the chicken and the egg," Frenette said. "How do we know how good we can be if you don't build the stadium? We had the money. The system is supposed to help UAB, not put us down, and they don't help us."
UAB's Board of Trustees seemed to learn from BU: don't build it, and they won't come.

When Watts came aboard, CarrSports consulting was hired to perform an overview of the entire athletics department - but only a short time into the project, CarrSports was asked to make two different projections about the program - one with football, one without.

Jon Solomon over at CBSSports.Com did a masterful job poking all the holes in CarrSports' report.  Rife with errors and obvious faults, UAB and the Alabama Board of Trustees would have to commission another report - and UAB trustees, miffed about being denied the opportunity to help out by making checks, commissioned a third.

At BU, there was a commission of one - Silber, who, similarly, came up with his own accounting methods and standards for a football program that came to the conclusion he wanted.  Silber invented that part of the "cancelling football" playbook - make up, or preferably have a third party make up, an ephemeral financial "reasoning" for dropping football.

For Silber, it was the statement "the expenditure of close to $2 million a year on a program that brings no benefit to the University," which neglected to mention that the vast majority of that $2 million consisted of football scholarships, which weren't an expenditure at all but an allocation of scholarship funds that would have been spent anyway.

For UAB, it was CarrSports' conclusion that UAB would still be a member of Conference USA and a full revenue-sharing member of the conference - even though a look at the conference rules clearly showed that members of the conference were required to sponsor FBS football.

The critical difference between UAB and BU, though?  Twitter.

When BU decided to cancel football, players and fans took to the press to express their dissatisfaction, the only media outlet they could use.  The announcement was made in October that BU would stop sponsoring football, and angry donors donated plain white jerseys with black numbers for the players to wear.  Some put black tape over BU's logo.

But all that negative local and national press wasn't nearly enough to persuade anyone at BU to change their minds about reinstating.  Even though Silber was called an "arrogant little despot" by Sports Illustrated, nothing really changed, and Silber was able to retire from BU with one of the most outrageous golden parachutes in academic history, including a $6.1 million lump-sum payment, an $800,000 yearly "president emeritus" pay, and free use of a 10 room Brookline home.

Nobody challenged the numbers.  Nobody came forward and said that Silber was flat-out wrong, on either the "expense" of football or its "no benefit to the University".  A few wanted to challenge Silber, like some sutdents and T.J. Hartford and his BTUFF crew, but they didn't have millions of dollars of sponsors lined up behind them - or an anonymous nation of sympathizers.

"Small" Protest
But UAB did.

From the bottom up, UAB football supporters mobilized amazingly quickly when unconfirmed word started leaking out that UAB was going to drop football at the end of the year (and despite Watts' public pronouncements to the contrary, it was indeed the case.)  The donor groups rapidly gathered together the local businessmen of the Birmingham area to get behind them, and they did - publicly showing the financial clout they had.

Student protests were criticized by some as being "small", just was the protests from BU students were criticized as being "small", but the fact remains that the protests did happen from the ground up and students were behind the effort.

Almost immediately the CarrSports review was questioned publicly by interested parties, and the facts of the report were leaked to the conventional media, where, on Twitter, they were scrutinized by thousands (me included).  The criticisms were so vast and so loud, on Twitter and the Birmingham News/, that the heat caused not one but two different reports to be  commissioned that questioned the conclusions of the CarrSports report.

But what also can't be underestimated is the soft support the movement all got from the #FreeUAB hashtag.

People across the country also had an opinion, and expressed it with the #FreeUAB twitter handle.  Now, when future students and basketball recruits were considering applying to UAB, they weren't thinking of the medical program.  They were thinking about how UAB's football program was cut, and in their minds they knew why.

Word started to leak out that Watts was simply acting on behalf on some Alabama board of trustees members holding some deep-seated vendettas against the school, whose goals were to allegedly take down not only the athletics program at UAB but the entire school.  (At BU, too, the grudge of one man - Silber - played a part in the dismantling of their football program.)

UAB didn't reinstate football only because of an alumni group with some heavy-hitting donors.  They didn't reinstate football only because of the #FreeUAB hashtag.  But the combination of both those factors, along with the loss of not-insignificant revenues from Conference USA should they drop football, almost certainly were behind the decision of them to reinstate the sport.

I'm extremely happy for the fans of UAB football.  I'm an FCS guy, but nobody deserves to have their program taken down like that through backroom deals and politics.

But looking at BU with a fresh eye, though, you can't help wondering what might have been had Twitter existed and been able to give more people the tools and megaphones to question Silber's decisions back then.

Perhaps Silber's erroneous ideas about football would have been exposed to the light, and shown, like the CarrSports report, to be just flat-out wrong.

Perhaps the #FreeBU hashtag might have been a thing, rallying a nation of soft support to question Silber's methods and ways of valuing football.  Letters like Mr. Spivack's would have been public for all to see, neatly scanned into a PDF file readable on phones and computers anywhere, not stuck in an attic while waiting for a Kindle book in 2015 to expose it to the world.

Perhaps all this publicity might have rallied a sponsor, say, Dunkin' Donuts, to line up and sponsor BU football at the Yankee Conference level.

At least Silber would have to have been on the record as saying that refusing that million-dollar sponsorship was worthwhile, for some reason.

Maybe it's not worthwhile to think of what might have been at BU, I don't really know.  But what I do know is I can't read and think about the amazing, heartwarming story about the resurrection of football at UAB and not spare a thought about a Terrier football program that deserved the same chance UAB got.



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