Communities impact growth of athletic programs

Several students cheer on UNA in the student section during last season’s homecoming game against Western Oregon Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014.

If anyone doubts the importance of a community on its local football program, this year’s off-season for the University of Alabama at Birmingham erases any doubts.

UAB President Ray Watts announced Dec. 2, 2014, the discontinuation of the university’s football program, along with the bowling and rifle teams, due to financial burdens. About six months later, Watts announced the reversal of the decision and the programs were reinstated.

The original decision to discontinue football caused an uproar among fans of the program. In the midst of the turmoil is a growing support from the Birmingham community.

After making the decision to reinstate the programs, Watts told reporters he was excited to see the community come together and had never seen the level of support from the community as high as it was in its hiatus.

UNA football head coach Bobby Wallace said the level of support from the Shoals community has a tremendous impact on UNA’s program.

“One of our strengths at UNA compared to most Division II programs is we have such a strong following and community support,” Wallace said. “It’s amazing how much support we get from the Shoals area.”

UNA ranked fourth in football attendance amongst Division II schools, averaging 9,908 fans per game, according to a 2013 NCAA study. UAB, a Division I FBS school, only averaged 10,548.

Wallace said he could never imagine UNA discontinuing its football program.

“There is a lot of tradition at UNA,” Wallace said. “This team means a lot to the people of the university and the people that went to school here, not just the former players but also the students.”

Senior wide receiver Markeldon Washington said the best feeling in the world is seeing UNA fans fill Braly Municipal Stadium during football season.

“It’s hard playing when you have nobody pulling for you to win games,” Washington said. “When you see people spending money and consistently coming to see you play, it makes you play harder to make them proud.”

Washington said he could never see UNA ending any of its athletic programs because the fans have supported its winning traditions.

“The more you win, the more support you have behind you,” he said. “UNA is a winning school, not just in football but in all sports.”

Junior Hayden Henderson, Washington’s teammate, agreed the football program at UNA would not be in jeopardy anytime soon.

“The support of UNA from the community is too strong and they would never allow that to happen,” Henderson said.

Henderson added his performance on the field not only affects him and the ones close to him, but the entire community supporting the team.

“When you step onto the football field on Saturdays, you not only play for your coaches, your brothers right next to you or your mom and dad in the stands, but the 10,000 people in the stands there to support you,” he said.