The UAB football team made history in Saturday night’s 26-23 overtime victory over Southern Miss at Legion Field – a result that gives the Blazers a 9-1 overall record, 7-0 mark in Conference USA and – here’s the biggie – a West Division title.
No matter what happens at College Station this coming Saturday or the following weekend in Murfreesboro, the Blazers will play for the league championship on December 1. There’s plenty of credit to go around, from the players who stuck it out through the death and resurrection of the program to Coach Bill Clark and his staff.
But moments after Spencer Brown scored the game-winning touchdown on a 17-yard dash, the first man I thought of was Gene Bartow.
The father of UAB athletics – who passed away in 2012 – would’ve been so proud to see the program he built take such a major step forward.
I was a nervous wreck the first time I ever got a sit-down interview with him.
I was a twentysomething nobody who was a newbie working for the UAB student newspaper, The Kaleidoscope, and he was … Gene Bartow.
A Final Four trip with Memphis, a Final Four trip with UCLA – the man that followed John Wooden at UCLA followed an uncharted path to UAB, starting an athletic program from nothing.
So there I was, making intermittent eye contact with one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, stammering my way through an interview about the Blazers’ upcoming roundball season.
He was gracious and sincere because that’s the man he was, and he answered all my questions thoughtfully – even the stupid ones.
Over the next couple of years I spent a lot more time in his office – and got a lot more comfortable talking to him. We developed the type of relationship where he would tell me things “off the record.”
When he did, he knew he could trust me keep them that way. Shoot, there are some of our discussions I’ll take to my grave. Nothing nefarious, of course … he wasn’t called “Clean Gene” for nothing. But it was pretty cool to hear insider stuff from a man who decided I was worthy of his trust.
That being said, we spent a lot of time during a couple of summers talking about football.
Not football in general, but UAB football in particular. The school didn’t have a team and he thought it should.
I was thrilled he felt that way and, frankly, a little stunned.
I just assumed when Bartow came to Birmingham his goal was to make UAB a “basketball school” and UAB basketball a national force.
He did both, taking the team to the Sweet 16 in just its third year of existence and Elite 8 in its fourth.
But he was also an athletic director, and he wanted every team wearing the green and gold to succeed.
As an AD in the Deep South, he knew football was key to the overall success of a department.
“I really think we need it, Scott,” he’d say. “What do you think?”
Hey, Bartow had already worked a basketball miracle at my school. If he thought something else was needed athletics-wise, who was I to argue?
Not that I would have, anyway … I won’t say I was a step ahead of him, but I had imagined the possibility of UAB football from the moment I stepped on campus in 1979.
While UAB played in the Sun Belt Conference back in the day, I envisioned them moving to the Metro Conference. The Sun Belt was a quality hoops league during its heyday, but the Metro featured the likes of Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Memphis State, Tulane, Cincinnati and Saint Louis.
Most of those teams played Division 1-A football, and in my fantasy world, UAB would field a team, move to the Metro and we’d all live (and play) happily ever after, going to New Year’s day bowls and winning conference championships.
Of course it wasn’t long before I learned that the University of Alabama system – of which UAB is a part – wasn’t interested in having more than one football team.
The Board of Trustees’ opinion of the Blazers blazing a trail on the gridiron wasn’t so much “No!” as it was, “Oh, hell no!”
(See December 2, 2014, for details).
Bartow kept his thoughts on football under wraps in the early days, but he never gave up on the idea. And I wrote my share of columns promoting the concept, all of which made him smile.
Of course I knew if football ever happened, it’d be long after I graduated.
Club football was born in 1989, and over the next decade it would go through an evolution that took it to Division III, Division 1-AA and ultimately what we now call the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The 1996 season was Bartow’s last as Blazer basketball coach, although he did stay on until 2000 as AD.
I had moved on to daily newspaper work by 1987, and that would only occasionally lead me back to UAB. When it did, though, I’d always seek out Bartow, and he’d always make time for me.
After football had been established, most of our conversations centered on hoops. Still, there was one time – I think it was in the late 1990s – when he took me to lunch and we reminisced about the push for football that took root in the early 1980s.
“Becoming a big-time football program will be a hard road,” he said. “But we’ll get there.”
As usual, Coach Bartow was right.