David Sher’s BackCity give a voice to the people of Birmingham and Alabama.
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On December 4th, 2014, I did something that I had never done before and never had to do again.
That day, as the editor of ComebackTown, I published a column that I naively titled: “UAB is fortunate to have Ray Watts as president. “
Two days earlier, Dr Watts had announced the cancellation of UAB Blazer football.
The response was immediate, ugly and personal.
Social and local media have aggressively lambasted Dr Watts.
I was ambivalent about UAB football, but I thought it was unfair to attack Dr Watts shamelessly.
To say that the UAB was fortunate enough to have Dr Watts two days after the football program was canceled was a little insensitive.
It was like throwing kerosene on a fire, but at the time I didn’t understand the extent of the outrage.
Unsurprisingly, I became the subject of some of the venom directed at Dr. Watts.
I immediately took the column offline, softened the content, changed the title to Ray Watts: A good man in the wrong place at the wrong time and reposted it.
Since then, I have felt guilty for giving in to the pressure.
Fortunately, the negative reaction to ComebackTown evaporated, but the animosity towards Dr Watts lasted for months.
But what has happened since is truly remarkable.
Where is UAB Football now?
For those interested in Blazer Football, I could just say …
What about UAB hospital?
This month it was announced that UAB is now the 8th largest hospital in America.–Up three places compared to last year alone.
And school ?
Enrollment increased by 4,000 students since 2013, when Watts became president.
Football and athletics thrive
UAB was the United States Conference Western Division soccer champion in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (C-USA Record). 2018 and 2020 US Conference Champions (first two conference championships in program history).
The Blazers were in the National Total Defense Top 10 in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (currently ranked No.15 in 2021).
UAB has been bowl eligible each year under head coach Bill Clark and played nationally ranked BYU on Dec. 18 in the Independence Bowl.
During Dr Watts’ tenure, the UAB built or improved other sports facilities: an on-campus football operations center, a new athletics facility, an improved PNC football field (formerly BBVA Field) and refurbished basketball practice facilities.
UAB men’s basketball is making a comeback under coach Andy Kennedy.
Other key achievements under Watts’ leadership
- UAB is Alabama’s Largest Single-Site Employer with more than 26,000 employees, an increase of approximately 3,000 since President Watts became President.
- Construction of new state-of-the-art buildings – including the Collat Business School, a Information technology building, new Hill Student Center, Abroms-Engel Institute of Visual Arts, two residences, University hall for the College of Arts and Sciences, and Police and Public Security Headquarters.
- Work on several new buildings is in progress including a new Science and Engineering Complex and the Altec Styslinger Building of Genomic Medicine and Data Science.
- Forbes named UAB America’s Top Large Employer this year and named the institution # 4 Best Employers for Diversity (# 1 among colleges and universities) and # 4 Best Employers in the United States for recent graduates.
- Record year for research funding – $ 849 million – an 85% increase in five years.
And that doesn’t even address the UAB’s initiatives to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, work for pulling Alabama out of the ranks of the worst states for health care outcomes, and to help save rural hospitals across the state through affiliations that improve patient care.
Very few men would have had the tenacity and perseverance to survive, let alone thrive, through the hailstorm that Dr. Watts endured.
Dr Watts is a man of great leadership and great vision.
For my part, I thank him and thank him for all he has done for the UAB, Birmingham and beyond.
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of BackCity. He is the former Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham) and the City Action Partnership (CAP).