When the UAB football Blazers started the 2017 season on Sept. 2 – ending a competition hiatus that began on the evening of Nov. 30, 2014 – I felt like I had a little something to do with it.
After university president Ray Watts shut the program down based on a bogus “study” (and with the support of some trustees who wanted only one football team in the University of Alabama system), alumni and Birmingham business leaders with deep pockets and big influence fought back.
I and many others made a five-year financial pledge to help revive football (as well as bowling and rifle, programs caught in the crossfire of the gridiron assassination), and the city’s movers and shakers shook Watts into “rethinking” his position.
Jump to today, and the reincarnated Blazer football team is back and better than ever.
At 6-3, the Conference USA member is already bowl eligible, and with USTA, Florida and UTEP remaining on the schedule, there are likely more wins to come before making its second-ever postseason appearance.
The program now has a football operations center and a covered practice field. Just a few years earlier, UAB wanted to install artificial turf to work out on, but was allegedly denied by a board member – even though the money was part of a pledge that would’ve involved no funds from the UA system.
And of course current Florida State boss Jimbo Fisher was famously offered the head coaching job at UAB before the 2007 campaign, and accepted. However, the deal was nixed by the same board of trustees that seemed to take great pleasure in playing Lucy to the Blazers’ Charlie Brown, cheerfully snatching away the football during the follow through of his kick.
Although I don’t know of a single UAB fan who trusts Watts or the board – and with good reason – the bitterness is giving way to giddiness thanks to the remarkable work of head coach Bill Clark.
And while I’m deeply grateful to those whose influence and substantial monetary commitment breathed life back into “Birmingham’s Team,” to my mind it was Clark who ultimately saved the program.
Had the shutdown come in 2013, I’m not sure UAB football would be around today. It’s hard to convince me that enough people would’ve been inspired to save it.
Before Clark took over, the Blazers were in a downward spiral that seemed irreversible.
The beginning of the end started when the board forced Neil Callaway on UAB. A friend of board president pro tempore and chief power broker Paul Bryant Jr. – who never tried to mask his hatred for all things Blazers – Callaway was a position coach in zero demand as a head coach.
UAB had originally hoped to promote assistant coach and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan to the top job, but the board blocked the promotion.
Then came the Fisher fiasco.
Callaway’s era lasted from 2007-2011; his first season ended in a school-worst 2-10 record and he was 18-42 over five years.
After he was canned, Bobby Petrino protégé Garrick McGee was hired, and there was hope he could provide a fresh start.
McGee was 5-19 in his two seasons in the Magic City before rejoining Petrino at Louisville as offensive coordinator.
By the end of the 2013 season, which ended with another 2-10 record and several humiliating losses, Blazer football was at an all-time low.
Its season finale at Legion Field was watched by 6,383 fans, and what they watched was the Blazers lose 62-27 to previously winless Southern Miss.
As much as it pains me to admit this, had Watts announced the day after that game that football at UAB was finished, I might not have fought it.
I like to think I would’ve been indignant and inspired to act, but at that point I felt the program had been hijacked. After all, if the board wasn’t going to allow the team to be competitive, why keep going through the motions?
Clark, of course, had other ideas.
With no facilities and no support to speak of, he snatched a team in a death spiral and caught it before it crashed.
His 2014 Blazers finished 6-6, which was a huge leap forward for a squad that had absolutely no business winning that many games.
The team’s last contest at Legion Field that season came against No. 18 Marshall.
It ended in a 23-18 loss, but it also ended with nearly 30,000 fans cheering on a team that was reversing course.
Clark gave us wins, but more than that, he gave us hope.
If he could take a group of kids beaten down and counted out and turn them into a .500 team in his first season, what might he do going forward?
And then, with one visit to the team by the Grim Reaper (who looked amazingly like Watts), all hell broke loose.
Shutting down UAB football was met with outrage, but it was also met with resolve.
Because Clark believed he could win at UAB, business leaders, boosters and old alums like me started believing again, too.
We put our money where our mouths were and were finally able to shout down the people who seemed to be making it their business to put Blazer football out of business.
I’m biased, of course, but Clark should be the leading candidate for national coach of the year honors in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Two years after Watts executed an innocent team they sprang back to life, and their leader has been the architect of this year’s greatest college football Cinderella story.
Sure, I’ll always be proud of the role so many of us played in UAB’s football resurrection, and thankful we all worked together to make it all possible.
But without Clark, it might have never happened.
Fortunately, we’ll never know.