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Is UAB a sign of things to come for college football?

Mark Cuban is fond of using the term “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” He used it numerous times in his criticism of the NFL earlier this year, stating that the league may eventually implode from getting too greedy and big.

But maybe, just maybe, that same claim could apply to college football.

The University of Alabama-Birmingham stole a few headlines over the previous weekend with rumors that the school would shut down football; that rumor was substantiated when the official decision was made last Tuesday. This came one day after SMU ended all the speculation and named Chad Morris the next football coach on the Hilltop. So far, then, the school is not adhering the advice of disgruntled alum Eric Dickerson and just going to shut the program down.

But with the way major college football is going, can they last much longer? Or anyone in the American Athletic Conference? Or anyone not in the Power Five?

Now, maybe I’m looking too much into this and this is an isolated incident. From what I’ve seen, this decision by UAB is the culmination of a long-standing battle that school has had with the University of Alabama system over getting undercut for funding in favor of the big flagship campus in Tuscaloosa.

But at the same time, there are reportedly at least 26 other schools in Division I’s so-called “Group of Five” conferences with larger athletic deficits than UAB. How many more of them may be pondering a similar decision?

This is the kind of stuff June Jones was hinting at before he left town, saying that the “Group of Five” schools would get left further and further in the dust in the wake of the “Power Five” conferences and schools getting more and more autonomy and permission to spend recklessly and put less and less emphasis on academia, and it would lead to many small schools dropping football, unless something radical like the group of Five breaking away from Division I and moving to a spring schedule happens.

That type of radical decision is something SMU would never agree to for sure, given the only games they can draw crowds to are against former Southwest Conference schools that are now in the Power Five.

SMU should be commended for how it operates its athletic department now. It took one of the worst scandals in college sports history to do it, but the school has yet to go overboard with athletics, still considering them to be complimentary to academics, not a greater priority. They have not splurged on ridiculous luxuries like a huge climate-controlled indoor practice facility. (The school did reportedly consider building one, but it got passed over for a new tennis center because Jones did not like the location.) What’s more, they insist on recruiting athletes who are actual students.

But many of those factors, especially the last one, are why Jones and his predecessor Phil Bennett are no longer coaching in University Park. And while Morris brings an enthusiastic attitude with the Texas ties to make people believe that maybe this program an finally recruit the in-state athletes it needs, can SMU continue to compete with ginormous programs who are willing to spend more than some countries’ GDPs on football?

I’m not just picking on SMU here – this is a serious issue for all of the “Group of Five” schools. With the Power Five planning to legalize “attendance stipends” to players, which is just the first step toward eventually making them full salaried university employees, the other schools who simply cannot afford to offer such luxuries will be forced to ask if competing in the most expensive sport is fiscally worth it anymore. Just like UTA did nearly 30 years ago, they’ll likely have to decide between dropping football or dropping completely out of Division I, and the former will likely be the choice.

UAB’s coaches and players can cry foul and condemn university president Ray Watts for this decision, but how can the school continue to finance a program that can’t even fill a third of the capacity of Birmingham’s Legion Field as the majority of the city prefers to watch the Crimson Tide on their TVs instead? And while those people asked Watts how other schools at their level can find a way to make football work, they may eventually find those other schools going in the same direction as theirs.

Heck, there are signs that enthusiasm for football is waning even at the most almighty of college football factories. Nick Saban has supposedly been very frustrated with the lack of student enthusiasm at Alabama, which some suspect is a result of the school’s in-state enrollment dropping over the years, meaning fewer students that grew up passionate about the Crimson Tide. Meanwhile, in Austin, there were several empty seats, particularly among the students, for Texas’ Thanksgiving game against TCU. Yeah, it was a holiday, but those seats were never empty against Texas A&M.

That may seem like not much for now, but less enthusiastic students in the stands today likely means less enthusiastic alums in the future willing to shell out big dollars for big coaches’ contracts.

At just about every level, college football is looking like our nation’s infrastructure. Everything looks healthy from afar, but up close you can see the cracks that will eventually bring everything down.

Whether it’s SMU or Texas, Alabama or UAB, the money-making machine that is college football may be a bubble on the verge of bursting – just like the Internet industry that Cuban got out of just in time.

And Mark knows a thing or two about pigs getting fat.


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