Ray Watts On The Current State Of Birmingham's Economic Engine

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How a group of Birmingham businessmen saved UAB football

business.jpg Hatton Smith, left, and Craft O'Neal, right, set up a meeting that might have saved UAB football. Print Email >John Talty | jtalty@al.com By John Talty | jtalty@al.com AL.com

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on June 05, 2015 at 7:00 AM, updated June 09, 2015 at 12:06 PM

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Craft O'Neal knew time was running out to resuscitate UAB football.

The chairman and chief executive officer of O'Neal Industries followed the story through the news for months and saw how it was affecting both the university and the city he loved.

It's why O'Neal decided two weeks ago to get off the sidelines and make a major move to help UAB get its team back and allow Birmingham to continue its ascent.

First, O'Neal set up a meeting two weeks ago with

Johnny Johns, a prominent Birmingham businessman and a member of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees. After meeting with Johns and getting a better feel for the situation, O'Neal made a phone call that might have saved UAB football: He set up a meeting with UAB president

Ray Watts.

Dr. Watts agreed to a meeting on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and O'Neal gathered the who's who of Birmingham businessmen. There was RoyalCup Coffee chief executive officer emeritus

Hatton Smith; McWane chairman

Phillip McWane; Brasfield & Gorrie chief executive officer

Jim Gorrie; Harbert Management chief executive officer

Raymond Harbert and Children's of Alabama chief executive officer

Mike Warren, among others.

"We had 40 percent of Birmingham's largest privately-held companies in that room," said Hatton Smith, who was recently selected to chair a fundraising task force.

O'Neal became aware that Dr. Watts would make his decision that Friday, adding a sense of necessity to the meeting. The Birmingham business coterie needed to make a big impression on the school president if he was going to reverse a decision he made a mere six months prior.

"We needed to do everything we could to communicate our support to bringing football back," O'Neal said.

Watts went over the CarrSports Consulting and College Sports Solutions reports, detailing the operating costs still unfulfilled and the need for football facility upgrades. The situation wasn't hopeless --

Don Hire and

Justin Craft did a tremendous job raising private funds the last few months --  but there was still a significant amount of money needed in Watts' eyes for football to have a chance of returning.

The men assembled didn't blink at the numbers thrown out. Instead, they decided by the end of the night to guarantee to cover the deficit and make a $4 million donation. They met again with Dr. Watts on Wednesday to make it official.

The reason was simple for O'Neal.

"UAB is the economic engine for Birmingham, and for the state to a large degree. What's good for UAB is good for Birmingham," O'Neal said. "We recognized the whole football issue was becoming a real negative for Birmingham and UAB. We see the potential in football at UAB with the proper facilities, so we were willing to step up, get involved and help with that."

The money and the message from the Birmingham businessmen seemingly swayed Watts' decision. He officially announced on Monday the reinstatement of football, bowling and rifle, crediting unprecedented support of $17.2 million for operational costs.

"The most amazing thing is all of this started 15 days ago," Smith said.

There is still work left to be done. Smith will lead efforts to raise $13 million for football facilities, some of which has already been raised. He plans to make his own contribution for facilities and will ask many of the men that were in that fateful meeting to make another donation. 

Smith isn't a devoted UAB football fan -- he prefers basketball and played at Washington and Lee University in Virginia -- but like O'Neal, he believes UAB football can help the entire city rise up.

That sense of civic duty, from Smith and his business peers, is how the most improbable story in UAB history got a happy ending. 

"If Birmingham has a viable UAB football program," Smith says, "it improves the quality of life for Birmingham. It's a victory for our city."

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