Posted: Wednesday January 10, 2007 5:20PM; Updated: Wednesday January 10, 2007 5:20PM
Joey Jones will coach the first Birmingham Southern football team since 1939.
Frank Deford will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
The BCS National Championship Game last Monday made millions of dollars for the two teams and their conferences -- just as millions more have been made from the myriad other bowls. This only encourages the myth that college sport is a financial bonanza. It isn't, of course. Only a handful of universities make any money. Usually it is more like the way it was last spring in Alabama when Jim Stephens, the chairman of the board of trustees at Birmingham Southern College, came to see the school president, David Pollick.
Birmingham Southern is a fine, small private school -- too small to field a football team -- but it was successful enough in other sports in Division-I. Chairman Stephens wanted to make sure that what he was reading was really true, that the school was offering a total of 116 full athletic scholarships, at about $30,000 apiece -- a total of $3.5 million -- while the college awarded, outright, exactly one full academic scholarship. Yes, President Pollick said, that was true.
So, incredibly quickly, the board and the president at Birmingham Southern did the unthinkable. They voted their college out of the business of athletic entertainment. They dropped Birmingham Southern out of the glory of Division-I, down to Division-III, where students play sports because they want to, not because they are paid performers. Says President Pollick: "When I hire the Dave Matthews Band to appear on campus, the relationship is honest. I don't pretend to be engaged in anything other than a simple business relationship. By definition, Division-I sports is just as professional, but we must pretend."
Oh, there was a firestorm. Indeed, Alabama may be the epicenter of the unholy worship of college sport. "They talk about how much religion matters in the South," says President Pollick. "But no. I'd rather face God than football." Several other college presidents have contacted Pollick, astounded at this rare American victory of education over athletics. None, however, has yet dared emulate Birmingham Southern to take on the sports lobby.
But the Birmingham Southern faculty was almost totally for the switch. The vast majority of alumni approved. And yes, alumni contributions have increased substantially since the controversial decision was made. Freshman applications are also up -- by almost 50 percent. So much more money will now be freed to go to, my heavens, good students -- not, good athletes.
One of the great arguments against giving up athletic scholarships was that it would damage campus diversity (ie. there go the black athletes). Well, under the old system, the freshman class was six percent African-American. This year it was 14 percent. "It's a question of where you are looking," says President Pollick. Birmingham Southern, you see, started looking more in classrooms than on playing fields.
And oh yes, this too. With the money saved from scholarships, a football team has been added at Birmingham Southern, as well as four other new sports, male and female. Almost twice as many students will actually play intercollegiate sports than did before. Giving up athletic scholarships at Birmingham Southern greatly improved, yes ... athletics at Birmingham Southern.