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Coach, Community Kept Football Alive at UAB

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Inside the shed by the practice field, where football coach Bill Clark made his players cry thankful tears in 2014 because he scrounged up enough money to turn it into a locker room so they wouldn't have to use the one in the basement of the basketball arena several hundred yards away, the lockers all have been ripped out.

It happened after the final game in 2014 when, coming off its best season in more than a decade, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) President Ray Watts entered the same building, stood in front of a team that had clawed its way to 6-6 and killed the program without a hint of sensitivity or inkling of the backlash to come.

"They always had their foot on our neck, so it wasn't a surprise," said Tevin Crews, a linebacker who became a key player for the 2014 team. "The surprising part was, hey, we finally broke through, and then they took the rug out from under us."

The shed was never much to look at -- for a Football Bowl Subdivision program, it was an outright embarrassment -- and is even more straggly these days, with old plastic chairs serving as makeshift locker stalls.

But nearly 1,000 days after Watts used a since-discredited report by a consulting firm to justify disbanding the program -- a decision, by the way, that many of the program's supporters think had been made months before the report even came out -- there's a different reason they're not sprucing up the shed.

In a few weeks, UAB football will move into a sparkling $22.5 million operations building attached to a 120-yard covered practice field, completing a huge step in its rebirth as a program before debuting Sept.2 against Alabama A&M. By next year, the shed will be knocked down, making way for a third field for the team to train on.

"Now we're here on the other end, and it's crazy," said Clark, who faced a coaching career in limbo between the Dec. 2, 2014, announcement that UAB was killing the program and the June 1, 2015, reversal after months of outcry and behind-the-scenes discussion among community leaders. "You come to work every day and you're full of hope."

'It took a visionary'

You could make a reasonable argument that no coach in the country -- not Urban Meyer, not Nick Saban, not even Dabo Swinney -- is as important to the program he leads at this particular moment than Clark is to UAB.

Without him, UAB football almost certainly would have died in 2014, never to be resurrected.

"It's my belief that it wouldn't have been," said Justin Craft, a former UAB football player and president of a prominent wealth management firm based in Birmingham. "When (former athletics director Gene) Bartow started the program (in 1991), he knew that creating big-time football at UAB was the pathway to more revenue, a better conference and more of a national brand and that it could be a winner because of the great high school talent around Birmingham. It took a visionary like Bill Clark coming in and reminding everybody what it was and that it can be done. Without him, I don't think we're sitting here today."

Which, in retrospect, was exactly the opposite of what UAB might have intended when Clark was hired in January 2014.

At that point, the Blazers had recorded one winning season in the previous 12 years, bottoming out at 2-10 in 2013. Adding insult to injury, coach Garrick McGee had resigned after two seasons to take the offensive coordinator's job at Louisville under Bobby Petrino. During a November game that season against Rice, UAB drew an announced crowd of 5,831 at 71,000-seat Legion Field, a relic of a stadium that long ago abandoned its historic charm and settled into decay.

UAB's on-campus facilities, from its locker room to meeting space to training center, were well-known throughout the industry as among the worst in the FBS. If even a hint of weather disrupted practice, the only place to go was a gymnasium where other sports and physical education classes had first dibs.

In its final home game that year, with rumors about the program's demise growing more prominent, UAB drew 28,355 to watch a 23-18 loss to then-undefeated Marshall. The next week, it became bowl eligible with a three-touchdown win at Southern Mississippi. With the players UAB had coming back, there was a strong argument that UAB was about to turn the corner.

None of it mattered.

On one hand, Watts' decision was rooted in realism: Football was an annual money loser for an athletics department that has traditionally been more basketball-centric, its fan base had always been relatively small and it was going to take tens of millions of dollars in facility upgrades -- money the school didn't have -- just to be competitive. That doesn't even account for the lack of a long-term solution to Legion Field and the widening resource gap between football schools inside and outside of the Power Five conferences.

From ABUAB Kills Football Program, Fallout Immediate

Growing backlash

But killing UAB football -- and particularly at the time Watts did it -- sparked something in the community. Several days of protests followed, and two-thirds of UAB's faculty members executed a no-confidence vote against Watts, who refused to resign. Also, over time, it became clear that CarrSports Consulting included faulty assumptions about the revenue picture for UAB athletics without football, failing, for instance, to build in correct assumptions about the impact of league affiliation. Without football, UAB would not be allowed to remain in Conference USA and would have had to join another league, almost certainly with lower revenue shares.

As UAB's players and coaches dispersed -- some to big-time programs -- the anger in the community remained.

Roughly a month after UAB's decision, while Clark was in Dallas at a coaching clinic, he got a request from then-C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky to drop by his office. As they talked about Clark's future, Banowsky casually mentioned it would be nice to have UAB football back in the league. Clark was dubious, but the conversation remained in the back of his mind.

"Every day, people here were fighting," Clark said. "It never stopped, but I'm thinking, 'OK, how long were people going to fight? How long were they going to work?' Then January, February, March, it's not going away. People are calling me, asking what should we do? I wanted to encourage them, but I didn't know what to tell them."

Clark, meanwhile, was getting interest from Power Five programs as a defensive coordinator, jobs that could pay him significantly more than he received as UAB's head coach. Complicating matters was that he had two years remaining on his contract and needed to work just one more in the state of Alabama educational system to be fully vested in its retirement benefits. Plus, there was a glimmer of hope that UAB football could come back.

And despite all the pain of 2014, he couldn't resist getting back on board when the opportunity became somewhat realistic.

"I'll be honest, there were days when I said, 'Why would I even consider doing that?'" Clark said. "I always say all of us coaches, 'There's something wrong with us.' But for me, my dad was a high school coach, and I've always loved it when you felt like you were making a difference for a place. 2014 did something to me. I can't even really express it, because I've been on better teams, better win-loss records. But those kids were so hungry for something positive. I remember walking out with some new uniforms, they're in tears. The former players come back for our flag football game, they're in tears thanking you. That kind of bled, for me, into the fans when they're fighting their butts off, like they need us. I know it sounds kind of corny, but that's kind of why you're supposed to do this."

Seeing an opportunity to help resurrect the program, Craft stood in front of six of the city's biggest business leaders at a key breakfast meeting in May 2015. Though they weren't UAB fans or boosters, Craft showed them that UAB's enrollment had ticked down since the announcement and sold them on what a revitalized football program could do for the school, thus having an economic impact on the city.

"It was a matter of showing people with the right investment, UAB is positioned to be a great midmajor program and can become a national program," Craft said. "That was what we sold, and when the money was put forward, it was really a convincing argument. Within a month, we'd raised several million dollars."

That amount grew to $21 million in 18 months, most of it in chunks of less than $1 million, validating Clark's decision to go back to UAB, but only "if we bring it back the right way."

Without Clark's involvement, though, that momentum might never have carried very far.

Getting back to work

Now, UAB has to do it all over again. This time, though, there's something more to sell.

Clark has carefully tried to balance his roster by bringing in junior college players for this season, but he acknowledges there are significant unknowns in how well it will compete right away. Ultimately, though, this is about the future, which now looks brighter than ever thanks to the building that is nearly finished that includes a modern locker room, hot and cold tubs with an underwater treadmill, lounge areas and a new weight room that looks out onto the covered pavilion. There also is momentum locally to build a 45,000-seat stadium in a trendy area of downtown, plans for which Clark thinks will be finalized in the near future.

"I bring recruits back here, and they come back in this office selling me," Clark said. "One of the hardest things in 2014 is we were getting a better response by bringing in a junior college guy who loved Birmingham, loved the school, but the local guys had such a bad connotation with UAB, and now that's changed."

In a few months, though, the passion so many people put in to bringing back UAB football will subside and the business of running a college program with many challenges and very little history of success will go on as usual.

The community was there for UAB football when it was needed most. Whether it stays that way, again, might be up to Clark.

"People talk about all the new, upcoming things, which is a big recruiting thing for us. A lot of guys like shiny things, and we appreciate the donations and stuff that helped make this possible," said linebacker Shaq Jones, one of the 13 holdovers from 2014. "But it all reverts back to Coach Clark. He's our No.1 recruiting tool, not the facility, not the return, not making history. He's the No.1 recruiting tool we have."

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June 29, 2017
 
 
 

 

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