When I first came to UAB, I found myself slowly going to more and more Blazer athletic functions. I remember wishing there were more students involved. The events had the feel of a commuter school more times than not.
I found myself drawn to a wild and crazy fan I started seeing at basketball games; his name was Mitchell Miller. Mitch was the only student that stood out at games with his crazy antics, even researching things about our opponents. Soon I found myself standing beside Mitch.
Together we enjoyed making life as difficult as possible for the Blazer opponents at Bartow Arena, Legion Field, or any time there was a Blazer event taking place. While the student section sometimes showed up and showed out, it never really reached the level we wanted. Soon we both finished as students at the school and found other ways to promote the teams.
During our time promoting the teams in media and trying to develop ideas for the student sections, we tried many things to help. We were invited to meetings to create new ways of promoting student involvement. No matter how hard we tried, everything always felt forced.
Nothing felt like a true tradition. Nothing was organic.
When Mitch formed BlazerTV, we tried to promote UAB and the Blazer teams through a dedicated website. No matter how hard we tried, the views and sponsors never were what we needed. There was an apathy for the school, but it wasn't because of the school.
The apathy was a result of three things. The first was the constant way we were treated by the Board of Trustees (BOT). UAB was never allowed to thrive or have the tools it needed. The Blazers were not even allowed to have an on-campus stadium or choose their own football coach.
The result was a loyal but snake-bitten fanbase that never saw a ray of hope. This created a struggle to recruit new fans as the program moved further away from its founding father Gene Bartow. After Bartow retired, nobody could move UAB the way he had. Blazer athletics were slowly fading away.
The second reason is the local media. Many in Birmingham never embraced UAB as one of their own; they seemed to enjoy making fun of UAB athletics.
Local radio shows and writers would ignore UAB or simply make hurtful remarks about them. There were a few members of the media who fairly reported on UAB and even tried to show the truth about why the Blazers were not succeeding.
Those people were few in number even this season, after UAB's opening win over Troy to start the Bill Clark era. I tried calling in to a local show to talk about the win and the nice attendance to the Round Table mid-day show. After a few nice remarks, I hung up.
No sooner had I hung up than local radio personality Lance Taylor stated "Yeah but I still saw areas you could throw a hand grenade in the stands and nobody would get hurt."
Nevermind that nearly 30,000 fans was great for a C-USA program. The same show also stated this week that any player at UAB's level of football would have offers to play somewhere else now that the program was disbanding.
Blazer running back Jordan Howard already has offers from double digit schools for next season, including Big Ten, ACC & SEC schools. The only offer Howard had out of high school was at UAB. The majority of the media has never cared about the facts surrounding the programs at UAB.
The third was the commuter feel of the student body on the undergraduate side of campus. The BoT has often capped how many undergraduate students could attend UAB, and even delayed the building of new dorms. The graduate side of campus was made to feel like an entirely different entity; this led to those students not attending or supporting UAB functions outside of their classes and internships. Add those things together, and you'll find it's difficult to create a unified fan base within the student body.
I stated earlier that UAB fans never had a ray of hope. That now has changed.
The ray of hope has ironically been President Ray Watts.
Dr. Watts' handling of shuttering the football, bowling, and rifle teams at UAB has united this campus like never before. The unity that Mitchell, myself, and countless UAB alumni have sought to create has finally been formed. The best part is that it has been created organically. This was not the intention of Dr. Watts, but it has formed in place of his lack of leadership over the past few weeks.
When Watts failed to control the rumors that the football program might disband after their best season in a decade, he forced a coaching staff and student athletes to play out the last month of their season in limbo, never once showing any care for their feelings or emotions.
By not speaking on the matter, UAB has received the most positive press both locally and nationally in the athletic program's history. Reporters who werealways fair to UAB finally have an audience that is listening to the corruption the program has dealt with, and national media outlets are shedding light on the subject as well.
A once weary fan base is finally being allowed to tell their story and be heard. With Watts refusing to make any clarifying remarks on the matter, he has allowed the UAB women's coaches to have a voice. They were told to be quiet, but instead risked their jobs and drafted a letter in support of the football program. They became heroes as a result.
When Watts finally did disband the football team he gave UAB the last ammunition it needed to become what it always could be. The way Watts spoke to the players and coaches showed someone who truly didn't care about the pain they had gone through over the last month.
The Blazer football team has produced numerous people who are now viewed as UAB representatives after the month-long wait they endured for the announcement, and the way Watts treated them in the team meeting.
As a result of Watt's lack of leadership, many things are occurring at UAB. Student-led protests are happening almost every day. The last UAB men's basketball game had as many students in attendance as some Blazer fans had ever seen, students who stormed the court after the Blazers; win.
Now the medical side of campus has started uniting with the undergrad side in defiance of Watts.
As a result of Ray Watts' lack of leadership, UAB has transformed in these past few weeks.
The UAB I once knew is gone and a better school is rising out of the ashes: no longer a commuter school and united as one for the first time.
One that takes pride in itself and has embraced the family concept needed at any great university. A university that has the support of local businesses and media like never before. A media that is showing what a farce the report is that Watts is using to eliminate programs across campus. Now Watts is walking around with security teams and scheduling secret meetings to win alumni and faculty back to his side. Nothing Watts is doing seems to be slowing down the #FreeUAB movement he inadvertently & single handedly re-energized.
All these changes probably never happen without Ray Watts.
So for all this I say the following to the UAB president: thanks for your help in uniting this campus. The unity you've created is finally pushing UAB to the university it was always destined to be.