The return of the UAB football team provided a much-needed boost for Birmingham.
Never in recent memory, if ever, had the metro area rallied behind a singular issue the way it did for UAB football after the demise of the program.
How did they do it? That is the question that goes through everyone mind when regards to the UAB football program. It all starts with one man really. That’s with the Head Coach. No one would have blamed him had he left following the program’s shutdown late in 2014. But for some reason he stayed, despite having other opportunities. He stayed through the vote to reinstate the program six months later; he stayed through the arduous two years it took to raise money, recruit and rebuild from scratch; and he stayed through the team’s remarkable return last season in which the Blazers won eight games and Clark was tabbed as Conference USA’s Coach of the Year.
This one has been a doozy, though. There was a time not too long ago when Clark walked out of the official adoption of the UAB Football Foundation — a fundraising arm that should have been created decades earlier — and said, “This is what it must have felt like to be one of the Founding Fathers.” The group then went out and raised $27 million to help get the program back on its feet, which blew Clark away.
Now, when Clark talks about the doubt he once experienced, it’s in the past tense. He points out the window of his office on the second floor of a new football-only facility, past a new covered practice field, to their old beige football offices straight out of the 1970s, as if to say, That’s where doubt used to live and that’s where it will stay.
UAB only had one season where they made a Bowl game and it was a disappointing loss in the Hawaii Bowl with future all-pro receiver Roddy White before the program shutdown. Now, UAB went 11-3, won it’s first conference championship, and it’s first bowl game in school history after a crushing win vs NIU in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 18, 2018. The state of the program has not only changed its history, but the city of Birmingham and its campus.
There are plans to tear the building down soon to make room for additional practice space. Yes, the same one mentioned above!
At UAB, after the shutdown and with games nowhere on the horizon, he ended practice the very same way. Every day. Champs! The same way he ended the day of hard work when he was Head Coach of Prattville High School. He went after the big-name players UAB wasn’t accustomed to recruiting, and landed a few. And when he had all of them together, unlike a lot of coaches, he wasn’t afraid to verbalize goals beyond the next week’s game.
Players like Colin Lisa, who was part of that 2014 team, left for Buffalo when the program was shut down, and returned after a year because he couldn’t stand the cold and because he never really wanted to be anywhere else in the first place. Lisa, the team’s leading receiver this season, credited Clark’s consistency throughout what has become known in social media circles as #TheReturn. “He coached the same when we didn’t have a game for another 300 and something days to when we had a game in three days,” he said. Every day the message was the same, and slowly players started to believe.
It wouldn’t matter that high-profile recruits like former Ole Miss signee D.J. Law and former Alabama signee Brandon Hill didn’t work out. It wouldn’t matter that Johnathon Haden, the brother of former NFL first-round pick Joe Haden who started his career at Arizona, would miss all of this season with a torn ACL.
The roster didn’t miss a beat though in the 2018 season. So good that the defense ranks in the top five nationally in seven categories, including No. 1 in sacks and No. 5 in total defense.
UAB is currently 13-0 in Legion Field since their return and that is very impressive when thinking about where the state of the field and the fans was in 2014. As a fan in 2012, I attended the UAB vs ECU game and the stadium looked terrible something awful and it was scary (kinda still is) when walking up and down the stadium steps. The atmosphere? That of a division III game and I felt more fans attended my local high school game which my school is only in 5A. The PA announcer even with terrible 1990 era speakers was louder than anything.
In 2018, I attended perhaps the biggest game in the program’s history so far. UAB vs Southern Miss where UAB won 26-23 in OT to win the CUSA West division and a berth to play in the conference championship. The stadium was loud (couldn’t hear the PA really) the stadium was filled with nearly 45,000 attendees (conference best) in 38 degree weather. Very cold but exciting and so much so nearly everyone stayed to watch the whole game. The stadium had some upgrades and not much, but enough to notice and not feel so scared the stadium would fall apart underneath your feet. Now in 2019, the new home of Birmingham has start construction in Downtown Birmingham where UAB will start play in 2022. It will be about 40,000-45,000 seat stadium and will be used for football games, soccer games, concerts, and more for the city of Birmingham.
UAB is also building new facilities not just in football, but in medical and education buildings. These are state of the art in terms of the state of Alabama. Perhaps, these new facilities will be the best in the state when talking about Alabama’s terrible healthcare and education infrastructure. UAB recently raised $1 billion dollars in a incentive to upgrade and expand the campus in Birmingham. All of this, was helped by the return of the UAB football program.
It is certainly not over…its only beginning. UAB is building new facilities, a stadium, and a new recruiting class. The 2019 recruiting class is perhaps the best in school history all-around and is filled with talented 2 and 3 Star freshman and nationally recognized JUCO’s. UAB has a incoming Sophomore QB and a young offense coming in. The loss of talented seniors on defense will only be replaced and filled with a experienced coaching staff. UAB as a University is one of the fastest growing in the South and may go nationwide.
This perhaps may go down as a miracle or even better….a movie. Yes, Coach Clark told all of his players all season long about the movie they were writing. Asking each player and coach, “what part will you play in the movie?” Certainly, it would be one that be watched by millions and be left with millions of questions on “how?” A program and university with basically no money becomes a nationally recognized program going 8-5 and 11-3 in its first two seasons after the program was returned, after a two year hiatus.
This story certainly deserves more attention than it already has and perhaps deserves several parts as it takes more than one article to explain. This is the story of how UAB turned around and made the “best comeback in college football history.”
(This article was written by Noah Brady an columnist for Tailgate athletics and runs @theuabnetwork on instagram and has nearly 500 followers)