The news was just minutes old, the emotional wounds still fresh, as a room full of young men sat there, stunned. The football team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB, for short) had just been delivered the message by school president Ray Watts that the school would be closing down its football program. For reasons nebulously conveyed to the team as "numbers," UAB was getting out of the college football business.
Just like that, dozens of youngsters, many in their late teens, had their entire worlds turned upside down. Rendered athletically and academically homeless, they were left to find scholarship shelter at a program somewhere else, somewhere they had no plans on being when they happily committed to come to UAB.
This news did not sit well with Tristan Henderson. A senior tight end who is an Army veteran and did a tour of duty in Iraq, Henderson, 26, was one of several Blazer players to stand up and voice their displeasure in the meeting in which Watts delivered the soul-crushing news.
In a passionate appeal now made famous by YouTube, an emotional Henderson, his voice at a fever pitch, exclaimed, "My son asked me last night, 'Hey, Daddy, what are they going to do to the program? He looked me dead in my eye and asked me, 'What are they going to do?' My three-year-old...what am I supposed to explain to him?"
When Henderson looked around the amphitheater that evening, he didn't see just teammates. He saw family. Pointing at his football brothers, Henderson screamed, "There's 17-year-olds in here! What are they supposed to do? Some of these cats came from 3,000 miles away and came right here to be a part of this. To be a part of all of this! But you say 'numbers'?"
The numbers that Watts attempted to explain to the team that night are the cold fiscal fallout of the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots (or, at the very least, the have-much-lesses) among FBS (the modern term for "Division 1-A") football programs. Henderson's visceral reaction and the uncertain futures facing dozens of now former UAB football players who need scholarships to attend school are the human carnage.
Those numbers, according to a release from the school, say that maintaining an FBS football program would cost UAB an additional $49 million over the next five years, including more than $20 million in capital expenditures to improve facilities to keep up with other FBS programs. With the athletics department already operating at an annual deficit of nearly $18 million, according to USA TODAY, and despite its most successful year on the field since 2004, UAB chose to punt on football.
Locally, Rice University has been in the same conference with UAB the past several years. Owls athletics director Joe Karlgaard says he didn't expect to hear the news about the Blazers' football program.
"I was surprised; I think most of the ADs in the conference were surprised. I didn't see it coming. I'd spent some time with Brian Mackin (UAB's AD) at a conference recently, and he didn't indicate at all that this was coming down the pike," says Karlgaard. "You hate to see an opportunity taken away from so many student-athletes."
With 85 scholarship players and a mountain of inherent medical, facilities and travel costs, operating an FBS football program is big business. At a Power Five conference school like Texas, Texas A&M or Baylor, those expenses are easily subsidized by massive eight-figure television contracts and packed stadiums.
At schools like Rice and the University of Houston, who, like UAB, reside in a conference in the Group of Five (a dismissive euphemism for "one of the other five conferences that is not a Power Five conference"), subsidizing big-time football requires creativity, an increased financial burden on students and, at most places, a willingness to be tolerant of red ink.
Karlgaard says that, for Rice, competing in today's landscape means marketing its brand harder than ever.
"How do we generate more interest in our program, how do we put more people in the seats, how do we brand ourselves so that when we are on television, people tune in to watch?" Karlgaard asks rhetorically.
"We have to focus on improving across the board, raising our profile and generating more interest," he says. "We have to live our values of academics and integrity. If we do that, we will be well positioned regardless of how the environment changes."
With its unique brand (unique for an FBS school, at least) of "elite academic, private institution" and a wealthy base of alumni, Rice has the resources to play in today's FBS world without putting the school or state taxpayers in harm's way. In other words, Karlgaard is probably not worried about having to deliver the same gloomy message to the football team that UAB's leadership did.
Across town, though, the University of Houston deals with a reality similar to UAB's, one in which, according to that same data from USA TODAY, the Cougars operated their athletics department at an annual deficit of $26.8 million as recently as 2013, the second-highest deficit of any Group of Five school.
However, UH is taking an approach completely opposite to UAB's -- the Coogs are pushing all their football chips into the middle of the metaphorical table, opting to fight speed with speed.
The crown jewel of UH's efforts to keep pace in FBS is the new TDECU Stadium, its $120 million home that's being subsidized by, among other sources, notable increases in student fees. The team just finished up its first season in the new stadium and, disappointingly, was playing to a barely half-full venue by season's end.
In an effort to jump-start interest in the program, UH fired head coach Tony Levine after three seasons, paying him a buyout believed to be in the million-dollar range, and hired Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman as the new head coach at an annual salary of $1.35 million, the highest for any coach in the history of the school.
The message sent by UH through its hiring and firing decisions is clear -- once you're "pot committed" with a $120 million stadium, there's no going back. You either keep chasing and spending, or you play mediocre football in an echo chamber.
It remains to be seen if either approach curtails the financial bleeding involved in running an athletics department in 2015, but the fact that local billionaire Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry's, Inc., was the one leading the Herman hiring press conference proceedings gives an indication as to which approach UH will continue to take.
"We're never ever going to limit ourselves. Our goals, our vision and our dreams are big," says UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades. "I've talked about this athletics program being nationally relevant, and we're not going to stop until our football program, our basketball program, our baseball program, softball program and all of our programs are nationally relevant."
The bigger question, whether locally or nationally, is "Will there be more UABs?" Conference realignment has left Division 1 collegiate sports a jumbled geographical mess, with many schools now absorbing massive travel costs for Olympic sports that generate no revenue. Meanwhile, the NCAA is likely to further empower the Power Five conferences to enact measures to pay their athletes stipends above and beyond their scholarships, putting more pressure on lower FBS schools (like Rice and Houston) to compete.
The storm clouds gather over Conference USA, the American Athletic Conference and the other lower FBS conferences. The stakes rise along with the costs, yet at many places, the resources stagnate or even dwindle. In the middle of it all are 18-year-old kids making life decisions on where to receive their education in a landscape where even the most astute players aren't totally certain where all of this is headed.
"State funding is drying up, and institutions, particularly public institutions, are struggling to make ends meet. I don't mean Texas or Texas A&M, but it's others I worry about," Karlgaard cautions.
"I don't know if UAB is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend."
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.