It’s Not Illegal, But It’s Certainly Criminal
By Paul Myerberg // Nov 4, 2011
A meeting of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees is currently in session, with a slate of topics ranging from the establishment of another medical institute at U.A.B. to construction of a Digital Media Center at the state’s flagship university in Tuscaloosa to the even more mundane, such as considering tenure for various professors in the university system. There’s even a section — Header G, Part 2, Section A — devoted to construction projects on tap for approval or disapproval at U.A.B.: four items, in fact, four projects that the Board of Trustees deem vital to the further growth of the university system as a whole.
Not one of the four items up for debate involves the construction of an on-campus football stadium, a project near and dear to the hearts of U.A.B. and its loyal but suffering — long-suffering, perhaps — fan base.
Instead, the projects under deliberation involve adding two floors to the U.A.B. School of Health Professions; authorizing execution of a contract for a Digital Arts Center; renovating the school’s Advanced Imaging Facility; and renovating the U.A.B. School of Dentistry.
No football stadium. See, that topic had already been decided by the board, which issued a public release earlier this week stating that a majority of the trustees found that “an on-campus football stadium is not in the best interest of U.A.B., the university system or the state.”
Case closed. But in closing their case, making a final decision outside of an official board meeting, the trustees opened up a wealth of issues and concerns that go far beyond the mere construction of a stadium, as important as that structure may be for the future of U.A.B. football.
In performing what seems like an informal straw poll, one done outside the board’s normal confines and outside of the public arena, the trustees added another tally to a growing list of slights aimed at keeping U.A.B. well in the background of Alabama athletics, not merely behind the state’s flagship university but so far out of the conversation as to be the personification of an afterthought. U.A.B. is the fly, the Board of Trustees the windshield — splat.
The deadline to submit items for consideration at this week’s board meeting was Oct. 7, meaning any subjects put forth after that date would not be considered by the board until its next meeting, during the first week of February 2012. As of a week ago, the stadium proposal was still up for debate; as of yesterday, when the board began its two-day meeting, the proposal had been removed from the agenda.
The board did not meet as it should have: in an official meeting with the stadium proposal listed as part of the agenda. That it did not, opting instead to hold an informal vote — if that’s even what occurred — reeks of the sort of duplicity and underhandedness that this board has practiced in regard to U.A.B. football since the program’s birth 20 years ago.
So what is this Board of Trustees — more importantly, who sits on this Board of Trustees? It’s a 14-member group whose principle aim, according to its mission statement, is “to ensure the effective leadership, management and control over the activities of the three doctoral research universities” in the state’s university system; the third school references Alabama-Hunstville.
In theory, the board holds three members from the Tuscaloosa Congressional district while the remaining members are pulled from the state’s other six districts; the board does follow this rule to the letter, it should be said. But the board circumvents any attempt at neutrality by not only selecting its own members — a process run by Paul Bryant, Jr., son of the legendary Alabama coach — but by selecting trustees with deep ties to the Tuscaloosa campus.
Bryant holds a degree from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, of course. So does Karen Brooks. And Angus Cooper. And John England, a judge on the state’s Sixth Judicial Court. And Joseph Espy, Ronald Gray, Vanessa Leonard, Wallace Malone, Finis St. John, Britt Sexton, James Wilson III and John Malone, Jr.
In all, 12 of the board’s 14 permanent members — Gov. Robert Bentley and the state superintendent of education are ex-officio members — are graduates of the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus. The two trustees with degrees from U.A.B. are Marietta Urquhart and Andria Scott Hurst; there are no trustees holding a degree from Alabama-Huntsville, though it is the youngest of the three institutions.
This is a board that divvies up the university system’s pie. When 12 of the 14 members hold the old Crimson and White dear, when the vast majority of the board cares little about the athletic welfare of any state school outside of Tuscaloosa, when Bryant-Denny Stadium has its own expansion plans to consider…
Well, how small a slice of pie is left for U.A.B.?
The arrogance of this board, and of Bryant in particular, is galling to the point of tears. Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News had the chance to ask Bryant some pointed questions about the board’s decision during lulls in last night’s meeting; Bryant’s responses were telling, to put it lightly.
Scarbinsky: “Does an item like this, given its significance, not require an actual formal vote of the board?”
Bryant: “It wasn’t on the agenda.”
Scarbinsky: “Why wasn’t it on the agenda?”
Bryant: “The feeling of everybody, not everybody but a big majority of the room, is it wasn’t going to pass.”
Scarbinsky: “How do you know that?”
Bryant: “Because they all spoke coming out of the (September) meeting the day it was brought up… That’s where the feel was obtained, as far as numbers. It wasn’t an informal vote. It was feedback.”
Feedback? It wasn’t even an informal vote? Let’s get this straight: an enormous decision for U.A.B. wasn’t even decided during a quarterly board meeting, as was planned, but was instead decided months earlier via feedback from the Board of Trustees? Are we sure that Bryant himself didn’t consult a poll of one, deciding on his own time that there was no way on Earth he was going to even forward a proposal for a stadium at this week’s formal meeting?
Scarbinsky: “How could the board members make an informed decision at that time when, in the interim, U.A.B. has completed a feasibility study that includes, for example, pledges to purchase all 27 sky boxes?”
Bryant: “The only things I’ve seen, although they weren’t presented to us until that time (at the September meeting), had been prepared last spring.”
The board made a decision in September for a proposal due to be heard and reviewed in November; there is new, perhaps game-changing information that has come to light since September — the luxury boxes, for example; yet the board remains adamantly behind its informal decision, and will stick to its guns come hell or high water. If the board won’t even re-review the U.A.B. proposal in an official manner with an added information, there’s no way that this stadium is ever, ever getting off the ground.
You begin to understand the life that U.A.B. athletics leads: it’s a feudal — and futile — existence. Alabama is the lord of the manor. The Blazers merely inhabit the same land, toiling away on the same turf year after year while Tuscaloosa, through the Board of Trustees, decides who gets what, who gets how much, who goes where and who plays where.
It’s not illegal, but it’s criminal. No other football program in the country needs to scratch and claw for crumbs quite like U.A.B. does on a yearly basis. Jimbo Fisher? Nope — too expensive. Ignore that the university system, thanks to private donations to the U.A.B. athletic department, would only have to handle $300,000 on Fisher’s contract annually — $75,000 less than Watson Brown, his predecessor, was being paid per season.
Nope, can’t afford it, said the board. Want the most basic necessities, like a football stadium that isn’t falling apart at the seams? Nope, too expensive, said the board. Ignore the fact that the new stadium was due to bring in $5 million a year, or that a strong portion of the $75 million price tag was being paid by private donations.
Sorry, too expensive. But excuse us while we agree to pay more than $100 million to renovate — just renovate — the end zones at Bryant-Denny.
And please, please ignore the fact that U.A.B. as a school, not the athletic department, makes $2 billion a year for the Alabama system. Or that the school in all its forms — undergraduate, graduate, medical — reels in a significant amount of money for Birmingham on a yearly basis. Or that when it comes to nearly everything other than football, U.A.B. rules the roost.
Unfortunately, we’re talking about football. And we’re talking about football in Alabama, where wins and losses — mostly wins — allow one university and an alumni-laden Board of Trustees to decide that nope, U.A.B. football is not worth our time. Or our money. Or even the most respectful discussion of a stadium proposal that may make or break a program’s future.
Or anything. Because through this board, the University of Alabama system has put U.A.B. on the back burner behind the back burner for a generation. Again, it’s not illegal: it’s just absolutely criminal. And this latest slight, informally deciding to not pursue an on-campus stadium in Birmingham, may mean the end of U.A.B. football on the F.B.S. level — if not today or tomorrow, at some point in the near future.
I don’t think the Board of Trustees would lose any sleep over that. In fact, that may very well be what Bryant and the board are looking to achieve through this latest farce.
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