“We would do Birmingham a great disservice if we dreamed too-little dreams.”
– Joseph Volker
Elizabeth, New Jersey native Joseph Volker adopted the heart of central Alabama as his own when he arrived in 1948 and always dreamed big. He cared greatly for this city and the university he helped found here, having the opportunity to impact both as not only its first president but as the first chancellor of the University System of Alabama.
He also never chose to start a football team at UAB while in either of those positions. The first team to ever take the field was approved only three months after he passed away. It’s not an angle many have not focused; most have chosen to focus on what Gene Bartow’s wishes would’ve been for the future of athletics. It only made sense to take a look at things that would’ve influenced Volker’s opinions on the issue — and to “hear” from the man himself.
Stops along the way
A look at Volker’s previous stops before his arrival in Birmingham (as listed in his Encyclopedia of Alabama entry) helps to start understanding why this may have been the case. He earned his undergraduate degree from Indiana University’s Dental School in 1936 after starting his collegiate career closer to home at Rutgers in 1932. That dental school is now part of Indiana University Purdue University Institute in Indianapolis. It did not start an athletics program until 1972 and, though choosing to go Division I, has never fielded a football team.
He continued his education at the University of Rochester, earning A.B., masters, and doctoral degrees. Volker would have been exposed to a football team, but not one that gave athletic scholarships. The Yellowjackets currently compete in Division III (though apparently their squash team is a perennial contender in non-NCAA sponsored competition).
His final destination before his move to the southeastern United States and what became UAB was Tufts Dental School in Boston, Massachusetts. The Jumbos do field a football team – one significant in the annals of the sport’s history. They are credited with not only playing the first game ever using what’s now known as the “forward pass” in 1875 against Harvard (a game they won 1-0), but for being one of the only schools in the country that does not allow their team to compete in postseason play. This is a strict adherence to the concept of being student-athletes and a reason they chose to become a Division III school when the designation was created in 1973. It also becomes glaring when you realize the 1927 Tufts football team went undefeated at 8-0 (as did the 1934 and 1979 squads); they joined Pittsburgh as the only two squads to do so that year (though Pittsburgh had one tie). Tufts outscored its opponents 218 to 19 that year. For comparison, the 1927 Alabama Crimson Tide went 5-4-1 (3-4-1 in the Southern Conference), finishing in 10th place that year behind a 7-0-1 Georgia Tech squad. There were no divisions in the NCAA at that time.
Editors note: There are a few other tidbits about Alabama’s 1927 season to consider as the overall UAB athletics story moves forward. The Crimson Tide only played three games in Tuscaloosa that fall; two non-conference games were at the beginning of the season, winning 46-0 over Millsaps and 31-0 over Southwestern Presbyterian. The only other game played at old Denny Field that season was against the school now known as Mississippi State; they won the homecoming contest 13-7 in front of 7,000 people. They played the rest of their “home” games on the road – three at Rickwood Field; one at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery; and their last two at their new “home” in Birmingham – Legion Field. Those first two ever home games in Legion Field were losses – to Georgia (in front of 25,000 people) and Vanderbilt (in front of 20,000).
A debt to the Crimson Tide
Volker tells the following story during his “The University and the City” speech to those gathered at the Newcomen Society in North America event on November 3, 1971. It speaks volumes as to a major reason a team never materialized during his tenure; it’s about the lack of housing options available for students shortly before the start of the 1945 academic year (emphasis added):
“Despite these extraordinary measures, the venture would have failed except for an unusual degree of administrative entrepreneurship. This was clearly evident when no legislative funds were forthcoming to provide housing for the students, faculty, and staff – and in the immediate post World War II period, living accommodations were in very short supply. The dilemma was resolved by the purchase of the residential properties that occupied the half block between 8th and 9th Avenues South and faced on 20th Street. This was made possible by a loan of approximately $350,000 from the University [of Alabama]’s Physical Education Fund of the Department of Athletics.”
Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. By the way, the loan amount provided by the Crimson Tide converted to 2014 dollars is estimated to be valued at north of $4.5 million. The property is now the current home of the Doubletree Hotel on Birmingham’s Southside. It’s also adjacent to the space used recently by the UAB Faculty Senate during the no-confidence process in December 2014 and January 2015.
He continued, “As a newcomer to Alabama, I was immediately impressed with and am eternally grateful to the Crimson Tide.”
A version of this story also appears in Tennant McWilliams’s written history of UAB, “New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB,” though the impact of the gesture on Volker is not mentioned. The book also contains a quote attributed to the then freshly-minted university president shortly after taking office in 1969. He was asked about the possibility of a football team during his first faculty meeting, albeit lightheartedly according to the author (p. 273). His answer, “Not currently part of the plan.”
This is not to say he never considered it, but another quote included in McWilliams’s book (p. 355), attributed to former University of Alabama administrator J. Jefferson Bennett, shines a light on why it wasn’t necessarily a priority:
“Joe [Volker] understood that football was the ultimate source of security for UA after the embarrassments associated with desegregation, despite many non-football accomplishments at [the University of] Alabama.”
Joseph Volker was named the first chancellor for the University System of Alabama in 1976. He announced his retirement in 1982, choosing to return to UAB as a distinguished professor. One of his last interviews as chancellor was with The Tuscaloosa News on July 18, 1982. The front page, above the fold article was wide-ranging. This excerpt that follows should draw interest to those paying close attention to the current #FreeUAB movement attempting to take root in Birmingham — especially in terms of their beliefs of how UAB is treated by the University System’s board of trustees:
“Advocates of the University of Alabama’s historic campus in Tuscaloosa were opposed to the additional control being instituted over the campus. And by then an intense rivalry had developed between the University campus in Tuscaloosa and the booming UAB, and Volker’s appointment fueled fears in Tuscaloosa that with Volker’s ties, UAB would flourish at the expense of the traditional campus. Through the years, angry Tuscaloosa County legislators and others complained of incidents they said demonstrated that Volker either restrained or helped raid the Tuscaloosa institution to enhance UAB.”
The article goes on to point out frustration throughout Alabama in terms of the lack of restraint applied on any of the three campuses (i.e., growth and distribution of funds). Volker’s response to the accusations in 1982 is one worth considering currently as reform via legislation is being suggested:
“I think we have a system that’s flexible and we have three very different institutions, and I don’t find it surprising that the campuses have different needs and different opportunities. The campuses are in different stages of development. You have to view them in different contexts. You can’t view it as what’s good for one of them is right for another.”
Joseph Volker passed away on May 3, 1989, having been back at UAB for parts of seven academic years. Then UAB president Charles “Scotty” McCallum gave the school’s athletic director, Gene Bartow, permission to field a club team at UAB that August. It seems somewhat coincidental that “the father of UAB athletics” did not receive permission to field a football team until after the passing of “the father of UAB.”
UAB after Volker
The move was one done to help with the university’s image, especially in light of how it was described by the Wall Street Journal in October 1998:
“While UAB is one of the state’s biggest employers, many Alabamians think of it as nothing more than an urban night school.”
It’s a belief that appears to continue to this day, even in Tuscaloosa, as evidenced in this editorial (pay special attention to page 2) penned shortly after the decision to discontinue bowling, football, and rifle in December. The editorial (as well as the excerpt from the WSJ article above) shows the idea of adding football to change perceptions about UAB, specifically in the South, possibly drove McCallum to allow Bartow to field a team. This is despite knowing the fiscal strain it could place on UAB specifically, and the University System as a whole, as state appropriations to the schools were being reduced as far back as 1987.
McCallum was correct when he said the decision to end football was not one normally considered by the Board of Trustees, in part because he exploited that “gentleman’s agreement” policy when he sidestepped them and announced plans to start the team in 1989. McCallum’s concerns are primarily about protecting the autonomy with regard to athletics that he’d carved out with his decisions. Your opinion about whether or not that freedom still exists depends on how you choose to look at the decision to cut the three teams — and whether you believe the conspiracy theory or the numbers in relation to the University System’s current data.
It is interesting to note that one of the urban universities often cited when talking about the reasons UAB started a program is the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Before returning to the field in 2013, the 49ers last fielded a football team in 1948, after only two seasons. When UNC-Charlotte was looking to bring the team back, one of the schools they reached out to was… UAB. The responses shared via The Business of College Sports the day after the UAB athletics announcement were quite enlightening. They implied that issues did arise as a result of the decision to start football and that they continued to exist.
As UAB, Birmingham, and Alabama continue to dream big dreams for its future, some will have to determine whether or not it will neglect the lessons taught in its past. Perhaps listening to Joseph Volker would help.
CORRECTION, 1.20.2015: An earlier version of this piece stated Volker’s arrival at UAB occurred in 1945. Volker actually arrived in 1948, though the story told during his “The University and the City” speech references an incident in 1945. Special thanks to UAB Archives for bringing the error in question to our attention.