Birmingham-Southern is shutting down, but its baseball team is finding a way to live

Birmingham-Southern will cease operations on May 31. Transylvania University Athletics

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 23, 2024. With Birmingham-Southern advancing to the Division III College World Series, it has been updated through the super regional round of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN BIRMINGHAM-SOUTHERN baseball coach Jan Weisberg called a team meeting on March 26, it seemed like business as usual.

"We thought we were gonna have a meeting and then go out to the field for practice," said junior outfielder Eli Steadman.

But as the morning unfolded, players on the team started hearing from other athletes at the 168-year-old private liberal arts college in Birmingham, Alabama. All the teams had impromptu meetings scheduled for early that afternoon with some of them being virtual. Being that it was spring break and many of the teams were out of season, it was clear something was up -- and given the college was in the midst of a months-long battle to keep its doors open, it wasn't impossible to connect the dots.

Just before the school officially announced the news, Weisberg confirmed it to his team: Birmingham-Southern College would close May 31. They would be able to finish the season, but then everyone would have to go their separate ways.

"We didn't really know until really right up to the moment where Coach Weisberg came in and you could see the look on his face," Steadman said. "It wasn't one that was normal, it was one that -- he was obviously crushed by the news and I'm sure crushed to have to relay that news to us."

The room was somber. Weisberg and his two assistant coaches -- all three of whom also just learned they would soon be unemployed -- were left to help the 39 players make sense of it all.

"It allowed us to help teach life moments," Weisberg told ESPN. "That's one of the great things about sports. It's a lot like death in that it's OK to have these emotions and it's OK to grieve what we're losing. But we still have to find a way to live. And we told them, 'Hey, man, over the next three weeks or two months, we're gonna be with you every step of the way.'"

At the time, the Panthers were struggling on the field. They were 13-10 overall but had lost nine of their past 14 games. Then everything changed.

Birmingham-Southern has gone 18-4, won its four-team regional as the No. 3 seed and beat national No. 2 Denison (Granville, Ohio) in the super regional for the right to play in the Division III College World Series.

The tournament will start on May 31, the day Birmingham-Southern will cease operations.

BIRMINGHAM-SOUTHERN WAS founded in 1918, when Southern University and Birmingham College -- a pair of Methodist schools founded in 1856 and 1898, respectively -- merged. Its 192-acre campus sits about 3 miles from downtown Birmingham and, traditionally, enrollment has hovered just over 1,000 students.

Despite its lengthy history, Birmingham-Southern started facing major financial problems starting around 2007, under the leadership of president Dr. David Pollick. At the time of Pollick's arrival in 2004, BSC's endowment sat at roughly $122 million, according to the school.

However, he tapped into the endowment and took on debt to fund ambitious projects, including new residence halls, a welcome center, athletic facilities -- including a new football stadium for the upstart program added in 2007 -- and a manmade lake.

The endowment took a $25 million hit during the crash of the financial markets in 2009 and by the time Pollick resigned and his replacement, Gen. Charles Krulak, was hired in March 2011, the endowment had shrunk to $53 million.

"[Pollick's spending] put us in quite a bit of debt that the presidents since have been trying to kind of crawl out of by restructuring that debt and raising money," Birmingham-Southern athletics director Kyndall Waters told ESPN. "All while the national landscape of college is changing. There's fewer kids going to college. There are fewer kids able to go to college. The private liberal arts colleges across the country are struggling with enrollment and with donors and stuff like that to kind of keep them up and running."

Through it all, Weisberg turned Birmingham-Southern into somewhat of a Division III baseball power. He was hired in 2006 after spending the previous 14 years as a player and assistant coach at Kentucky. The Panthers were the fourth winningest Division III program nationally in the 2010s and reached the Division III World Series in 2019, losing in the championship game.

As of the 2023-24 school year, the school offered 20 varsity sports for roughly 450 student-athletes and has competed at the NAIA, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III levels at various points in history.

Speculation about the school's potential closure began in the fall of 2022, after which the school announced president Daniel Coleman had been fundraising toward a goal of $200 million to refresh the endowment.

The uncertainty about the school's future had a negative impact on the school's enrollment and the athletic department's ability to recruit.

"We did what we've done all along and that was we just gave [recruits] our honest opinion and told them exactly what was happening," Waters said. "We still had people who bought into coming here. Our kids wanted to stay. We didn't have as many recruits as we had in the past but the kids who were here, they wanted to stay. Because they really loved this place and believe in it."

At various points over the past year, the college's leadership thought it was on the path to securing a viable long-term future -- most notably in the form of a $30 million bridge loan from Alabama's Education Trust Fund, which BSC said has a $2.8 billion surplus -- but ultimately the plans fell through without the necessary support from state lawmakers.

"This is a tragic day for the College, our students, our employees, and our alumni," said Birmingham-Southern board of trustees chair the Rev. Keith D. Thompson said in a statement announcing the college's closure. "But it is also a terrible day for Birmingham, for the neighborhoods who have surrounded our campus for more than 100 years, and for Alabama. Through this challenging year and a half, we have talked a lot about BSC's more than $90 million annual economic impact on Alabama, with $68 million of that right here in our city.

"But beyond that loss -- which is enormous -- the loss of a nationally ranked liberal arts college that has contributed so much to this state and to the world -- and still had so much to give -- is incalculable."

AFTER WEISBERG FINISHED breaking the news to the team, he had another message to impart on the players.

"He said, 'There's only one thing we can focus on now,'" said pitcher Hansen McCown. "We're just going to focus on us. We're going to do stuff together. We're going to keep playing baseball. I'm going to help all you guys out. If you're trying to play somewhere, I'll help you out. I'll be calling coaches. Let me handle that part. Y'all just take care of yourselves and let's focus on what we got ahead." (Multiple players have new schools lined up for next season, others remain in the process, some plan to walk away from baseball after the season and 10 players graduated this week.)

And with that, the team went out to the field and took some swings off the tee. The mood wasn't quite right for a full practice, but it proved a necessary outlet for the players.

"I think that helped us kind of refresh," McCown said. "It was still sad, but we were able to go through it together instead of just getting the news and suffering with it alone. We were able to kind of grow and as a team, I think that's what really turned our season around."

Added Steadman: "It was like a fork in the road where we could choose -- the school is closing, we could feel sorry for ourselves. Or we could take the path that coach was urging us to take, which is, 'Nah, we're going to go out there and give it our all and we're going to try to win as much as we can.' ... I felt like a huge weight was lifted off our shoulders."

The Panthers won their first game the next day, beating LaGrange (Georgia) College and proceeded to average 10.5 runs a game over the rest of the regular season. They finished tied for second in the Southern Athletic Association and entered the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed. After their hot finish, though, the Panthers lost back-to-back games to No. 6 Rhodes in the first round, ending their streak of four consecutive SAA baseball championships.

Their early exit on April 27 meant more uncertainty. The NCAA Division III bracket wouldn't be released until May 13 and given their midseason struggles, an at-large bid was not a guarantee. If there were enough upsets in other conference tournaments, there was a chance they could get squeezed out.

"The first week of practice was a little tough," McCown said. "Everybody's kind of like up and down, but by that second week we were fully bought in. We were just like, 'Give us a chance. That's all we want. Just give us one chance and let us show you what we can do.' And then when we heard the news, we were thrilled."

In the regional last weekend hosted by Spalding University in Lexington, Kentucky, the Panthers beat Transylvania 21-7, Spalding 4-2 and Transylvania, again, 5-2 to advance to the Super Regional against Denison.

Since the Panthers upset Denison to advance to the World Series, there are no concerns about the team's ability to participate. The NCAA pays for travel, food and lodging for every team to participate and while the school's last official day is May 31, there is still a necessary wind-down period for a few months. (Summer classes will be offered online for students who needed four credits or fewer to finish their degree.)

"More than anything I would want it for my guys so badly just because they have had to endure so much over the last two years," Weisberg said. "But either way, win, lose or draw, what they've done is incredible. But getting there would be an awesome ending to the story, no doubt.

"And you can't believe how many coaches across the country that we played against and friends of mine who are just like, 'Go win the whole damn thing.'"

For McCown, there is another important part to the team's story that he says is important to understand.

"I feel like when I've been reading through [social media], like a lot of people are supportive and, everyone's rooting us on, which I think is just awesome. But I feel like some people might look at it as like a sad story, but in our eyes, we're not looking at it as that. We're embracing the story. We're playing because we want to have fun and we're just happy to do it again. When we're out there playing, nobody's thinking about, 'Oh, well the school's going down, so this is the last season, so we have to do this.' It's not, it's not all that. We're just excited to get another chance to play and we're just playing with our hearts."