Yet another casualty of Larry Langford’s corrupt bargaining and the 60-count conviction that resulted from it.
Langford almost left an indelible mark on sports in Birmingham. Almost. Just think, Fair Park could have been ground zero for two sports that 95 percent of the country ignores — competitive swimming (unless that jug-earred kid is involved) and horse frolicking. We almost had another driving range out there, too. A two-story showplace! Never mind that every time I’ve ever been to a driving range in this town — and there’s a million of ‘em — I’ve never once waited in line for a spot. I’ve also never pined for there to be a whole other floor of duffers above my head swinging away and aiming at the same pin I’m trying to hit. But that’s supply and demand for you.
What of the domed stadium now, friends? What of it? Wasn’t it just three months ago that Larry and his friends were playing in the dirt in that vacant lot near the BJCC? What a spectacle that was! Gold shovels, hard hats, bulldozers...the works! What will happen to the John Rogers Memorial Facility now? Where will Rodger Smitherman’s dead, peanut-selling friend peddle her wares? I guess the Prayer of Jabez was a crock after all.
I would ask what will become of Birmingham’s bid to win the 2020 Olympic Games, but I saw what happened when Jon Paepcke broached that subject last Wednesday in Tuscaloosa. Larry called him a snake! A snake! Geez, the man was just asking a question. Are we gonna get the Olympics or not? No need to drag personalities into this. Suffice it to say, the Tutwiler Barbershop’s dream of being the official cutters for the 2020 Games have likely been dashed.
In all seriousness, whoever emerges from the special election in December holding my city’s mantle of leadership inherits a sports scene that is in the direst of straits. We don’t have a pro sports franchise in this city. We don’t! I Googled “Birmingham Barons” and it gave me an address in Hoover. Just imagine that, a city with more than 200,000 residents and not one professional sports franchise to represent them. Back in 2001, we had two football teams and a hockey team playing downtown! Nowadays, if it weren’t for UAB, the closest thing we’d have to organized sports in this city is Saturday morning ultimate frisbee in Caldwell Park.
How do you fix our sorry sports scene? Well, it doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, I doubt much progress will be made by the time our new mayor becomes our old mayor. But here are a few suggestions on where to start:
1. Stop the dome now.
I wrote four consecutive columns this year about Birmingham’s need — or better, lack thereof — for a domed multi-purpose facility. If you missed it — and who am I kidding, of course you missed it — here’s 5,000 words summed up in several short sentences:
• It ain’t a good idea.
• We don’t have a major league team to play in it.
• It’s too big for UAB football to use effectively.
• Our weather doesn’t necessitate a domed stadium.
• A domed stadium is a depreciating investment, since it cannot be retrofitted like outdoor stadiums can be.
So stop it now. Stop sending Populous money for blueprints. Build a business incubater on that land, or expand the BJCC’s exhibition space, or build another hotel. But for God’s sake, don’t pour more than $500 million into a generational albatross.
2. Stop dreaming the impossible. Dream the realistic instead.
I don’t care what the Foundation for a Better Life would have you believe, but our dreams aren’t going to come true. We live in a dying city, and the new census estimates prove it. By the end of next year, Birmingham might not be the largest city in the state any more. Heck, it might not be the second-largest city in the state any more. We’ve got some heavy problems here, friends. Heavy problems. The kinds of problems that require us to set realistic and achievable goals.
So if I hear anyone, anyone, mention the words “Olympics” and “Birmingham” outside of a punchline situation, I’m going to punch them in the throat. That’s a new rule. Stop wasting our time, effort and funds on baloney like that and, instead, figure out how we can keep Indy at Barber, or get a PGA event established here, or another college bowl game. That’s stuff we can do and that’s stuff we should do. And hey, if we get thrown an occasional bone we’re not expecting (Davis Cup, anyone) we’ll take it.
3. Do something about Legion Field.
If you haven’t been to Legion Field since Alabama pulled out and ran back to Tuscaloosa, you need to drive by this afternoon and look at it. I’ve been to my share of football stadiums in my time, some of them good, some of them not so good. But nothing, and I mean nothing, rivals Legion Field. To borrow an old Langfordism, it’s a rusted-out monstrosity. It’s depressing as hell to go there. I’d be more excited to walk past the gate at old Bryce Hospital on Halloween night than I would to be dropped off at Legion Field on any day during the calendar year.
I mean, really, a stadium surrounded by barbed wire? There’s a festive atmosphere. Like playing a football game in No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl. Something has to be done about this, either fix it or bring it to the ground. And hey, if you’re going to go to the expense of fixing it, why not just...
4. Find a way to get UAB an on-campus football stadium.
UAB is the engine that drives Birmingham’s economy. Football drives the engine of the state’s two largest universities. Ergo, if UAB football can be successful, it will embolden the university and, by proxy, the city of Birmingham’s economy. So how do you make UAB football successful? You start by figuring out a way to get them out of the Legion Brownfield and into a 40,000 odd seat facility on campus.
For most of its existence, UAB has been a commuter school. Local students shacked with the parents, drove in for class and then drove out for sleep. But with new dorms, new cafeterias, new student rec center...the culture is shifting to a more traditional campus mindset. And, for those of you who went to a traditional-type college, what do you remember most from your experience? Well, if you’re reading a sports column, I’m guessing a lot of you would say attending your alma mater’s sporting events. And if you went to school in the Deep South, the sporting events you probably remember the most were football games. But what if your school played its football inside the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl? Wouldn’t that temper your excitement just a bit? Perhaps dissuade you from attending?
What UAB needs is an on-campus stadium with a seating capacity that will help drive up ticket demand and not frighten away fair-weather fans and families. We’re not talking about Bryant-Denny or Jordan-Hare; that’s above the pay grade here. We’re talking about the Troy model, we’re talking about the UConn model. Google it and see for yourself. Did you really think college football would take off in Storrs, Conn.? It did when they built that new stadium. And the same can happen here in the so-called “Football Capital of the South.”
Now Birmingham can’t pay for it, but Birmingham needs to facilitate its construction in every way conceivable. In turn, UAB will provide use of the stadium for the Magic City Classic, the PapaJohn’s.com Bowl and whatever else can be played or performed in there. Maybe the Super Six will come back home, who knows? Just get it done and do it soon.
So that’s all I’ve got, new mayor. I know it’s not much, only a start, but all of it is doable. I wish you nothing but success as you assume the duties of this office. Good luck to you. You’re gonna need it.