The UAB athletic program, which is a charter member of Conference USA, is approximately 11 months away from moving into the American Athletic Conference.
The timing of the move coincides with one of the most tumultuous and perplexing periods in the history of college athletics. 1819 News sat down with UAB Athletic Director Mark Ingram to discuss the move to the new conference and other hot topics surrounding UAB and college athletics in general.
1819 News: A year from now, where do you want to be as an athletic program?
Mark Ingram: We’ve been, in my time here, trying to be the best version of ourselves. We’re going to try to keep being that. What that has led to at this point is three division titles, two championships and five bowl games in football. It’s led to building our practice facility for football and a football stadium. It’s led to building a practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball. It’s led to building a beach volleyball facility that’s got us in the top 25 and the best season we ever had last year.
We built a track and individuals have gone on to compete at the NCAA championship level. We’ve built a softball stadium. The softball team hasn’t won a championship but they’ve played in the championship. The baseball team this past year, with Casey Dunn, he won more games this past year than any other first-year coach has ever done at UAB. Our volleyball team has gone to the conference tournament back-to-back times, which is the first time since 2013. We built a soccer stadium for our men’s and women’s soccer programs and they’ve really started to improve.
We’ve made improvements that are long-term impactful things, that our coaches use in recruiting, that our student-athletes use to train every day to improve their [skills]. We’ve renovated our academic center, that every single one of our athletes uses. Our academic scores speak for themselves.
I’m really proud of all of those things but we’re going to continue to do all those things to be the best we can be. We’ve been recognized for all those improvements by the American Athletic Conference. That means people around the country have taken notice of our effort, which is appreciated. We’ve still got other facility needs that have to be addressed as we go into the American. We’ve been taking a really hard look at that and tried to put those in the right priority and position ourselves for success.
1819 News: What are those facility priorities?
Mark Ingram: We need to renovate Bartow Arena and modernize it in a lot of ways. We definitely need a new baseball stadium. We need a new tennis facility. We have two tennis teams and only four tennis courts, which is not adequate for practice or competition. We’ve got some other things that we’d like to have. For example, maybe one day have a cafeteria for all our student-athletes, that’s centrally located for all of them to use for nutritional needs. The arena, baseball stadium and tennis courts are our biggest needs.
1819 News: Did you study other AAC programs to compare what you have and don’t have?
Mark Ingram: We have done that from a personnel standpoint, from a budget standpoint, from a facility standpoint. What are the things that are different between us and them? Sometimes, you say, ‘What is School A’s total budget vs. ours?’ Well, their budget is $20 million more than ours.
You think, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re $20 million behind.’ Well, that school is a private school and their tuition is triple the cost of UAB, so they’re not providing more scholarships for their teams. Their scholarships just cost more. So, they’re not really that much better. You have to dig in, see where the true differences are, where are the gaps and how can you fill those gaps.
1819 News: Why did you feel that moving to the AAC from C-USA is a step above?
Mark Ingram: We’re proud to say that we’re a charter member of Conference USA and Conference USA has been great to us. We’ve enjoyed our time in that league. We look at, from school to school, as institutions, we are more like the American Conference schools from an academic perspective. We are more like them than the conference we are leaving. Their academic profile fits ours. The other thing that's a real advantage is when we recruit students, we oftentimes recruit other metro markets.
The American conference is made up mostly of other large television metro markets. When we recruit students, now we’re carrying our brand to New Orleans, Tulsa, Memphis, Baltimore/D.C. area, Tampa. All these great markets that we were not taking our brand to, now we take our brand to all these great markets, which is good for student recruitment. There wasn’t just one thing.
Historical rivalries with teams like Memphis will be really exciting for our fans. Not just them, but them being the geographically closest ones to us. I know our fans are really excited about that one.
1819 News: As an athletic director, especially one whose program is ready to move, how much does the unknown in college athletics keep you up at night?
Mark Ingram: The conference realignment thing, right now, is hard to figure out. It is not something that keeps me up at night, because I have no control over that. If the timing is right that somehow all of us need to start promoting ourselves again about what makes us great, we’re ready and prepared to brag about ourselves. But, right now, with the recent moves with USC and UCLA, that has really just upended everyone’s thinking and made everyone nervous.
But, again, I’m not up at night because I have no control over it and, in the moment, it doesn’t impact me. Now, other things, like name, image and likeness trying to find ways to fund those, that stuff keeps me up at night. Even though it is depicted differently too frequently, I’m not sitting on a pile of cash. That’s not who we are and that’s not who most programs are. Very few people have (so much) money that they are not sure how to spend it. That’s what keeps me up at night, hoping we can correct some of those grave errors around NIL and collectives that we’ve created.
If we can put some guardrails around that to make it not pay-for-play, we’ve got to eliminate pay-for-play, then we’ll be in a much better place. Those are the things I worry about. What is the future of that? I worry about the students becoming employees and if they do what are the implications for a lot of our teams who don’t generate revenue. You just have to start asking questions about what the model looks like.
1819 News: Is the only thing you can fully control being in a positive place as a program?
Mark Ingram: Just keep winning, right? It’s a simple thing. All you have to do is win. Put the ball in the end zone, put the ball in the hoop, put the ball in the cup. It’s not that hard. Simple game. It’s like golf. It’s a simple game, just hit the ball straight. It’s so easy. But, yeah, winning cures a lot of ills and certainly makes you more attractive. And then there’s other things about our opportunity here at UAB with a phenomenal university and institution, a great town in Birmingham, that’s a bit of a secret nationally. We have a lot of other things that are [beneficial] to us that we are just fortunate to have. It’s part of what makes [us] who we are.
1819 News: How important is it to take momentum into a new conference?
Mark Ingram: I think just the enthusiasm around those new opponents and those renewed rivalries, is great for our fans to get excited about what’s next. To be able to bring those teams that we really missed like South Florida, ECU, Tulsa, Memphis and all those guys we used to play all the time. To get those teams back in Bartow Arena and now Protective Stadium. I think our people are going to be overjoyed at the transition. That’s not to say that we were unhappy with Conference USA.
It’s just about the affiliation with those other teams. It’s like seeing old friends again. We’re looking forward to that family reunion, so to speak. I was at Temple University when the American Conference was born. UAB wasn’t even mentioned as an opportunity. It was not even a program discussed transitioning in[to the conference]. Now, to be invited after this much time has passed.
It was our opportunity to hit the reset button, look ourselves in the mirror, evaluate who we are, evaluate who do we want to be. And our university is so great. We want to emulate the same thing in athletics that you get in the classroom here. That’s really been the driving force behind all of our decisions. How can we be excellent like the education you receive at UAB.
1819 News: Is there a Conference USA city you will miss visiting?
Mark Ingram: Everywhere you visit has got something about it that makes it great. Credit to all of them for whatever their something is. Not unlike us, other places have made improvements to their facilities and they’ve all got great fans. I don’t know that there’s one that I’m going to miss the most. I would say San Antonio but they’re coming with us. That’s a fun trip to take.
I love Hattiesburg because it’s so close to us and they have great fans who are really into their team. That’s fun. Middle Tennessee is also close. Western Kentucky, particularly in basketball, I’ll miss that. I’m hoping we can get several of these teams on our non-conference schedule in the future. Western Kentucky has been an awesome opponent in really everything. That’s a great competitor that we’re losing there. Some of the ones who are geographically closer, you’re probably going to miss. This isn’t a statement about Florida International but where they are geographically, you probably don’t miss them as much.
They are somewhat out of sight, out of mind. El Paso is an awesome town, Miami is an awesome town. We will miss that. But, hey we pick up some other unique places, too. I look forward to taking our team to Annapolis. That will be awesome. SMU is a storied university. Our fans can travel easily to New Orleans. We took a good group down there last year. I look forward to doing that again.
Of course, the Battle [for[ the Bones, bringing that back. We’ve already kind [of] started the smack talk about the Battle [for] the Bones. It’s in Memphis, so we got to set our sights on getting it back. Yes, we’ll miss some things but excited about the future and places we get to go.
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