Death of a Program: Alabama-Huntsville Gets Plug Pulled

The writing was on the wall. A school needed to cut costs. No one from the outside was willing to help. Malcolm Portera, Alabama-Huntsville’s interim president has decided to pull the plug on the school’s hockey program. Now, college hockey has lost its most unique program.

Portera said in a memo to staff and students at UAH that the team will be bumped down to club status after this season and will remain a part of the university, but that’s far from the same thing.

The only school south of the Mason-Dixon Line with a Division I hockey program always seemed like a long shot, even when Doug Ross took over the team in the mid-1980s. Against all odds, it lasted through the dissolution of Division II and temporarily the collapse of College Hockey America, UAH’s Division I home for nearly 10 years.

The last two years have been difficult for the Chargers, going it alone as an independent, after being turned away by the CCHA when the CHA went under. Though the school was able to book an incredibly competitive and attractive schedule, there was no chance for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Hard to get players to come to your school when they play what amounts to an exhibition season.

There was briefly hope for UAH during college hockey’s summer of realignment. There were openings in conferences that hadn’t been there previously. However, every school found a date to the dance, while UAH was left on the wall. An undesirable.

Realignment didn’t kill UAH, it merely nailed the coffin shut. There was no way the program was going to make it as an independent much longer.

To say college hockey owed Huntsville something is unrealistic. In the world of big college athletics, each school has only one concern. Itself. It’s why conference relationships soured leading to the restructuring of the WCHA and collapse of the CCHA. Alabama Huntsville was going to be done no favors.

However, Portera had a chance to find a way to save the program himself. That said, it never seemed like the interim president had any interest in making an effort to save hockey. To be honest, it’s hard to blame him. Alabama-Huntsville playing as an independent for the foreseeable future was not going to keep the program from losing money annually.

What is moderately upsetting is that a UAH spokesman told this to the Huntsville Times last week (via College Hockey News):

“While we appreciate the voices of support for our Division I ice hockey program, as an institution of higher learning during these times of economic stress on education, we must place our greatest emphasis of taxpayer investment in the classroom and in our laboratories.”

So they’re trading hockey sticks for Bunsen burners. In a nation with failing educational systems, that sounds reasonable and actually somewhat noble. However, Portera’s memo said this about where the money they’ll save from hockey is going:

In this economic environment universities must examine the value of every dollar we spend, and we must view every option to use those funds for the betterment of the entire campus. The cost savings from this move will allow the university to enhance the operating budgets of the other 15 sports on campus, provide more student aid to a greater number of student-athletes, and, at the same time, enable us to increase our investment in high-demand academic programs to better position UAHuntsville for future growth.

Well, part of the money is going to educational programs, but from the sounds of it, a lot of it is going to the other, less popular, Division II athletics programs, instead of the one program that has won a national championship for the school (UAH hockey won the Division II title in 1996 and 1998).

As UAHHockey.com writer Geof Morris accurately states, Portera has “cannibalized” the hockey team for the betterment of its Division II programs. That is what’s troubling for me, too.

There were overtures from students, local government officials, alumni and many more to keep the program alive. In fact, there was more than $500,000 pledged in donations to keep things going (as nice as 500k is, it’s not enough to run a program for even a year). That’s what really hurts for UAH. People fought hard and it wasn’t enough in the eyes of the administration.

The players committed to a program knowing full well it might not be around, but were willing to take the risk to play Division I hockey. Now they’re left to pick up the pieces. Some might be lucky enough to transfer to continue their careers. The school will honor those players’ scholarships, so some might just finish out their years at Huntsville playing club.

It’s going to be tough for them to get up for the remaining games this season, knowing there’s literally no tomorrow. Hopefully the currently 0-7-1 Chargers rally and go out with a bang, even though it would be hard to blame them if they just went through the motions.

College athletics has become a pretty dispassionate business. It’s all about money. We have to accept that now. It’s not fun, but that’s what we got.

Now college hockey loses its satellite in the south. The one program that seemed to give hope to expansion to non-traditional markets. College Hockey, Inc., sent out the following statement in regards to what this means for college hockey expansion.

“The news out of Huntsville, Alabama, this morning is disappointing for the sport,” said Paul Kelly, Executive Director of College Hockey, Inc. “The community supported the Chargers for years and made their desire for a Division I program abundantly clear. We feel for those fans and especially the players, coaches and staff in the Charger program. To see the support of that fanbase and the efforts of the program and its passionate alumni dismissed seems shortsighted and unfair.

“Alabama-Huntsville was a leader in the rapid growth of hockey in the Southeast. That growth will continue, and it’s a shame that the UAH program will not be there to enjoy it. Similarly, this decision will not slow the growth of the college game. While Division I will lose a program next season it will gain another in Penn State, with the prospect of more additions to come. The college hockey landscape is better with Alabama-Huntsville a part of it, but we will move forward with a core of strong, committed programs and a sport that is second to none.”

Coming on the heels of the Atlanta Thrashers relocation to Winnipeg, hockey in the south takes another hit. It’s unfortunate. Hockey is growing in popularity there, if only incrementally, and UAH was certainly a part of it.

Hopefully college hockey continues to expand and perhaps one day, Huntsville will be better positioned to rejoin the fray. For now, we mourn the loss of a program. One that fought valiantly to stay alive.

As someone who had a college hockey team ripped away (Illinois-Chicago), I know how it feels. It’s not fun. If you have a chance to see UAH on on the road this season, make sure to show some respect for college hockey’s latest casualty. No team should have to go through what they are right now.

R.I.P. Alabama Huntsville Hockey

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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3 Responses to Death of a Program: Alabama-Huntsville Gets Plug Pulled

  1. Martin Breen says:

    Chris, I have heard rumors of other prominent schools possibly stepping up to the D1 ranks but are you able to report any? Schools that come to mind for me:

    Syracuse University
    Oregon
    Washington
    Purdue
    Utah
    BYU

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  3. Pingback: Congratulations, UAH | Obstructed View Sports

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