Mark Ingram forges a future for the Blazers.
Written by Charles Buchanan
What happens next?
Mark Ingram, UAB’s new athletic director, has lost count of the number of times he’s been asked that question. His arrival on campus has coincided with a pivotal moment in Blazers history—when UAB is lighting up networks and national headlines with a bracket-busting NCAA Tournament basketball victory; a British Open success story; and the planned return of football, bowling, and rifle. That leaves Ingram with plenty of decisions to make about the direction of UAB sports, not to mention a packed schedule and infinite to-do list.
But that’s how he likes it. “I’m not interested in easy,” Ingram says. “Easy is boring.” A former student-athlete himself—he was a two-year starter for the University of Tennessee’s football team—Ingram has led athletic development offices at Tennessee, the University of Georgia, and the University of Missouri. The North Carolina native came to UAB from Temple University, where he served as associate vice president/executive senior associate athletics director.
Now he’s looking after 450 talented student-athletes on 17 intercollegiate teams—and serving as an ambassador to a fired-up fanbase, the community, the media, and more. Recently, Ingram discussed the Blazers’ current challenges and future opportunities:
Let’s start with the reinstatement of the three sports. Rifle returns this fall and bowling next year, but why must football wait until 2017?
President Watts’s announcement on June 1 marked the beginning of a process, not an end. Football reinstatement is different because there are many rules for a Football Bowl Subdivision program, and the requirements are more detailed than for other sports. We also have to consider Conference USA, where the status of football affects all of our other teams, and we must be mindful of the safety and well-being of our student-athletes.
Conference USA and the NCAA have been tremendously helpful. Rebuilding a program is not completely foreign. But other schools did it so long ago that a lot of the rules did not exist or were different. Our circumstance is unique.
We’ve also got to continue to raise funds to do this properly. We are so grateful to the community leaders, donors, fans, students, and alumni who got us to the minimum amount to begin the reinstatement process. We will need support for operating costs as well as facilities to help our athletes be competitive.
What are the facility needs?
In my meetings and tours with master planners, we have identified approximately $55 million to $60 million worth of renovations that will give us adequate facilities for all of our athletes. That figure covers a wide range of things, including a football practice building that would include a weight room, training room, locker rooms, meeting rooms, and coaching offices. Most, if not all, of our competitors nationally have such a facility. We also need to improve practice facilities for other sports. We have a track team but no track. We need a new tennis facility. Men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and volleyball share one court at Bartow Arena, which makes scheduling practices and games difficult. We also need to renovate almost all of our locker rooms. The new soccer project [BBVA Compass Field] has started.
I enjoy finding creative ways to enhance spaces for our student-athletes because it makes such an impact on their experience. It builds their confidence and pride, and it elevates their play. Here’s a great example: After softball moved to its new facility on campus, the team went to the NCAA Tournament five years straight. Improved facilities also help recruiting. Right now, a lot of coaches aren’t showing locker rooms or other areas that might give a negative impression. We want to give our student-athletes the facilities that position them to compete for championships. There is an arms race, and we have no choice but to play if we want to win.
There’s a lot of interest in an on-campus football stadium, but we’ve got to have a strong financial plan first. The same goes for every facility—and for all of our activities, down to renting a bus to take a team to the airport. We’re not doing anything unless we have money to pay for it, just like any other office at UAB or any other athletic department.
How will you capitalize on the Blazers’ newfound national fame?
Our whole department is working on that because so many people have reached out, wanting to partner with us. We will capitalize on the attention through vendor relationships, multimedia rights, and partnerships with local businesses that want to get involved.
We’re also going to find creative ways to promote football even when we’re not playing. We’re going to have a recruiting celebration after signing day, and we are enthusiastic about Homecoming this fall. We want our coach and team out front to keep UAB football in the conversation.
We also are building new relationships on campus. There are many opportunities to do that at UAB, which is so strong academically. For instance, the health of our student-athletes is a critical emphasis for us, and we have a world-class medical research center down the street. A partnership could help build both programs.
How do you keep the momentum going for donations to support football and UAB’s other teams?
Many of the people giving to this effort have made five-year pledges. It’s critical that they fulfill those pledges by September 1. We need the pledge payments now to ensure our future success and eliminate any doubt of our communities’ support and interest in UAB athletics.
We’ve got to continue to raise more money, sell more tickets, improve our partnerships, make better deals for multimedia rights—no matter how we generate money, we need to get better at it. At the same time, we must reduce our expenses. We will find efficiencies throughout our teams and department and identify where we can save money without impacting our work.
What role can UAB students play in the future of athletics?
The students give us momentum and create the atmosphere at our games. The fun and energy start with them. We want them in the stands and will continue to engage them.
It seems that Birmingham is embracing the Blazers more than ever. How important is that community connection?
Being Birmingham’s hometown team is the most important thing. We’re grateful that the community is rallying behind us and seeing an opportunity for positive change. So many people have said they are supporting us because it’s good for Birmingham. We need more of that. If you make a donation, buy a ticket to a game, or purchase a Blazers T-shirt, you’re making a difference.