Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
The debate over a proposed on-campus football stadium at UAB has been one of the biggest stories in Birmingham over the past two weeks. But the story took a dramatic shift on Friday–and it’s possible that the public does not fully realize it.
Finis St. John, a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, explained his opposition to the stadium proposal in a letter to the UAB National Alumni Society. In the process, St. John inadvertently (we assume) shifted the focus to weak leadership on the UAB campus–and that is a far bigger story than anything involving a football stadium. (See St. John’s full letter at the end of this post.)
It’s a rarity for me to agree with a UA board member on anything, but St. John is right to point a finger at UAB’s current administration and President Carol Garrison. He also is correct to state that UAB has far bigger problems than the venue for its football games. But St. John conveniently ignores this question: Why has the board of trustees sat quietly by while Carol Garrison has run UAB into the ground?
Evidence of Garrison’s incompetence has been visible for years, and we have reported about it frequently on this blog. So why is Finis St. John just now paying attention? After all, St. John and his fellow trustees are Carol Garrison’s boss. They have the power to send her packing. She’s been president for 10 years, and its taken the board that long to realize she isn’t up to the job?
St. John clearly states in his letter that UAB has been deteriorating with Carol Garrison at the controls. In so many words, he trashes Garrison as a leader. But St. John has taken no steps to stop the university’s slide. What does that say about his leadership?
The gist of St. John’s letter is this: The UAB Medical Center is in decline, and alumni should spend their time focusing on that problem rather than worrying about an on-campus football stadium. From St. John’s letter:
UAB is a national and world leader in many fields. The hospital and medical school are points of pride for everyone in our state. But in the last 10 years UAB has faced increasing challenges. In health research funding, UAB’s national ranking has declined significantly over the last 10 years. The cancer and cardiology programs are no longer nationally ranked. Changes in health care funding will require intense focus and leadership to maintain the excellence we expect from UAB. I would hope that everyone who cares about UAB and the people it serves will encourage UAB to make these matters of crucial importance to its students and the state of Alabama its highest priority.”
The section in bold, buried toward the middle of St. John’s letter, is where the rubber meets the proverbial road. He uses a 10-year time frame–Garrison became president in July 2002–and then states that UAB’s biomedical research funding is slipping, and two of its best known health-care programs (cardiology and cancer) no longer are nationally ranked.
It’s hard to imagine a more scathing indictment of Carol Garrison’s tenure. St. John says he wants UAB alumni to focus on such issues. But what is he going to do about them? After all, he’s the one who sits on the board of trustees. He’s the one who OK’d Garrison’s hiring and has allowed her to stay in place.
Here is an ugly secret that many UAB sports fans like to ignore: Even Blazer athletics have been deteriorating under Garrison–and her predecessor, W. Ann Reynolds.
A quick look at the history of the UAB football program tells the story. The university hired Watson Brown in 1995 to take the Blazers into Division 1-A, college football’s highest classification. For his first six years on the job, Brown did a remarkable job. Playing schedules filled with established programs, the Blazers posted winning seasons in 2000 (7-4) and 2001 (6-5), even beating SEC powerhouse LSU and a nationally ranked East Carolina team.
But Gene Bartow, the father of Blazer sports, retired as athletics director in 2000–and that unleashed a whirlwind of administrative incompetence. Reynolds unilaterally hired Herman Frazier of Arizona State as athletics director, even though he had no ties to the South and spent much of his time on duties connected to the U.S. Olympics movement. UAB had an absent AD for much of Frazier’s tenure–and that allowed rot to set in.
When Reynolds and Frazier exited in 2002, Brown wound up serving as both athletics director and head football coach for three years. Garrison arrived as president in 2002 and failed to address problems in the athletics department. With Brown trying to fill two full-time jobs, decay started showing in the football program.
The Blazers made it to the Hawaii Bowl in 2004, the only bowl appearance in school history. But two years later, the team went 3-9–and Brown resigned under pressure to take the head coaching job at Tennessee Tech, in his hometown of Cookeville, Tennessee.
Garrison reportedly failed to stand up to UA board member Paul Bryant Jr. and agreed to hire a former Crimson Tide player and coach, Neil Callaway, as UAB’s head coach. The results have been disastrous. Callaway has produced records of 2-10, 4-8, 5-7, and 4-8. The 2011 Blazers are 3-8 heading into the season finale Saturday at Florida Atlantic.
Attendance, which was thin to begin with, has plummeted during the Callaway regime. UAB fans have called for Callaway’s firing, and Bryant apparently responded by pulling the stadium proposal off the table.
Many UAB fans were happy when Watson Brown left town. But where do things stand now? UAB is finishing up another dismal season under Callaway. Brown, free of administrative chaos at UAB, has Tennessee Tech in the national playoffs for the first time in 36 years.
UAB’s medical center, its football program, and its overall reputation have gradually declined on Carol Garrison’s watch. Finis St. John was correct to point out a leadership void at the institution.
Now, what is he going to do about it?