Beyond the Build

Community Service

When It Takes a “No” to Get a “Yes”

About 6 months ago, the president of a local public university made the decision to end the UAB Football team. The result was an unprecedented rally of support for the school, and the #freeuab movement. You can’t drive down a local highway without seeing multiple bumper stickers supporting the UAB campaign.

Truth is, some sports lose money, comparing revenue to cost. But what are the gains beyond the financial? Why did anyone care if they were eliminated? I think the answer is “because.”

While UAB employs some 23,000 people and includes a world class medical school and one of the top 10 NIH institutions in the US, to me, the foundation of the backlash was for the students who attend the university. Beyond the economics, many in the community believed that the students of the University deserved an experience that included Division I football, similar to SMU and Tulane University. And what’s good for UAB is good for Birmingham.

In addition to the UAB faithful coming out of the woodwork to support their school, a handful of Birmingham businessmen worked together to help save the program as well. Most of these people had attended other colleges, but this did not matter. It was all about a desire to help the students, and in the process, the city. In just a few weeks, about $29 million was pledged to cover the operational shortfall and to immediately upgrade the support facility with a joint goal of an on-campus stadium in a few years.

The lesson for me? Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we’ve got until it’s gone. Moreover, sometimes it takes a “no” to get a “yes.” Because our community galvanized in support of our school, generations of nameless/faceless students will have a complete college experience, and our local economy will continue to grow. #freeuab, indeed.

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Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.