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Proposal Would End Football At University Of Alabama-Birmingham


People in Alabama are talking about college football today and not just the University of Alabama's win over Auburn. They're also talking about an effort to end football at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, the decision is full of political intrigue and gamesmanship.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Football in Alabama is a big deal. Strangers, after they ask you what church you attend, then want to know who you root for on Saturday, which makes it all the more baffling for local fans when it looks like the football program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is about to be shut down. This past Saturday, UAB qualified to play in a bowl game for the first time in a decade. You'd think that's a reason to celebrate, but outside UAB's football offices this morning, everyone looked glum, including Darius Powell, a junior wide receiver.

DARIUS POWELL: It's really - demoralizing is really the only word that comes to mind.

LEWIS: It's been a great season for UAB. The new coach guided the team to a six-and-six finish after winning just two games last year. Attendance has doubled, and fans were excited.


LEWIS: These cheers on campus were not a pep rally, but chants of anger. Hundreds of students turned out to protest. The crowd marched down Birmingham's busiest downtown street during rush hour, blocking traffic.

They ended up at UAB's administration building, where they camped out for hours, again stopping traffic. The crowd grew, demanding answers, but no one from the university would speak to them or the media. Senior Ethan Tibbs says it's very strange.

ETHAN TIBBS: It's incredibly suspicious that they're talking about canceling the program now, especially after all the success that we've had here recently. And I mean, it's not just success on the field, too. The atmosphere's been a lot better. I mean, a year ago, you couldn't get all these people to come out here and support the football program, but now it's - it happened in a matter of hours.

LEWIS: UAB is governed by the board of trustees at the University of Alabama, the perennial football powerhouse. It's always in the hunt for the national championship and competes for star recruits and money. One of the board trustees is the son of legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. A spokeswoman for the trustees declined to be interviewed today, and that left folks on sports radio to guess what was going on.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is The Opening Drive with Jay Barker, Al Del Greco...

LEWIS: On Birmingham's Jox FM, everyone had a theory, including USA Today national football reporter Dan Wolken.


DAN WOLKEN: It sounds like, from what I've gathered, there's - it's more than just sports. There's maybe some larger issues tied in there. But - yeah, but why? I mean, I can't answer that. I don't know.

LEWIS: The last time a school of this size stopped playing football was 19 years ago. Now universities - many smaller than UAB - have added football programs in recent years. Its prestigious and helps recruit students, despite the cost. Local communities also benefit. Birmingham city council president Jonathan Austin is upset. He calls it an attack on Birmingham.

JONATHAN AUSTIN: When you go and do something that gets these type of headlines that you're talking about - canceling a division one football program in the heart of the largest city in the state of Alabama, the economic engine - that's a direct indictment on the city of Birmingham.

LEWIS: UAB has made no official announcement about the program's future, but it's expected later this week. Protests, rallies and marches are planned to continue, as well. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.