For a while, Alabama-Birmingham’s football program was the focus of as much media attention as any in the country.
In late 2014 and early 2015, UAB’s decision to shutter its football program, then a sudden decision to reverse course six months later, cast it in the national spotlight.
The resurrection of football ever since hasn’t garnered as much notice, but if you look closely, you’ll find one of the most remarkable and heartening stories in college athletics.
The Blazers are set to return to Conference USA in 2017, and will do so with a boatload of money and sparkling new facilities. The school has raised more than $38 million for football in just 18 months, an astronomical amount for a mid-major program.
“Absolutely mind-boggling,” athletic director Mark Ingram said .
In June, state officials OK’d construction of a $22 million football training center with 46,000 square feet of offices, locker room rooms and weight training facilities, as well as three practice fields. One field will be quasi-indoor: It will have a roof, but to save money, no walls.
“Innovative,” is how Ingram describes it.
Moreover, Birmingham and Jefferson County have begun to move on plans for a new, 45,000-seat stadium that would be located in Birmingham’s booming downtown area. Officials say the proposed stadium is another step in revitalizing “uptown Birmingham,” as it is called.
Bill Clark, who defiantly remained as coach through the shutdown, said he’s confident that his team will play in a new stadium, likely in 2019.
“Throughout all of the stadium discussions, there hasn’t been one negative voice in the city or county,” Clark said at C-USA’s media days last week.
Things were far different of Dec. 2, 2014, when UAB president Ray Watts, announced that the program would be shut down. He had no idea the firestorm that news would create, and who could blame him? Blazers football traditionally has been unappreciated in Birmingham.
Clark began to change that in 2014, just as school officials were studying the future of football, by leading the Blazers to a 6-6 record. Buoyed by an improved team and media reports of an impending decision to shut down football, attendance swelled, from an average of 10,548 in 2013 to nearly 22,000 in 2014.
Suddenly, UAB football was a cause celebre.
Trouble began almost immediately for Watts after he announced the shutdown. When he held what was supposed to be a private meeting with players, some tearfully accused him of betraying them. Smartphone videos of the meeting went viral .
Student protests began within hours. A campaign began to force Watts to resign began, and many fans began chanting “Fire Ray Watts” at basketball games.
The media, especially Birmingham-based al.com, also began dig deep into the consultant’s report that officials used to justify eliminating football, and found flawed data and misleading comments from UAB officials.Student, alumni and faculty groups all denounced the decision. At times, Watts needed security when he left public meetings.
Yet, behind the scenes, the Birmingham business community began to take a sobering look at itself. ESPN reports that for much of the past two decades, the city had the nation’s highest college football TV ratings. What does it say that we have failed to support our college football team?
So business groups began to open their checkbooks. Legacy Community Federal Credit Union gave $4.2 million, the largest gift in UAB history. Dozens of donations came in amounts from $100,000 to $1 million.
None of this likely would have been possible without Clark, an Anniston, Ala., native and son of a football coach who has coached in the state his entire career, including 17 years in high schools. Clark became a symbol of defiance. He spoke out often, but carefully, saying he believed the decision to shut down football was wrong. Yet, he never criticized Watts.
“It was a tough time,” he said. “My feelings were hurt and I was upset, for our players and coaches. But we chose to be positive.”
Britton Banowsky, then the Conference USA commissioner, was a quiet ally.
“Britton called me several times,” Clark said. “He said, ‘We need UAB in Conference USA, and if you don’t stay, it’s not going to work.’
“He knew that UAB was good for the conference.”
Clark turned down several offers to coach elsewhere. “I knew eventually, I would have to find something,” he said. “But then our folks started fighting. There were good days and bad days. There were enough good days to keep me hanging in there.”
Throughout it all, his message was clear: “We can’t do it the way we were doing it before.”
By that, he meant UAB couldn’t revive football without more community support. The school began football in 1999 without investing in the needed facilities – no new stadium, no football training complex – and it showed on the field.
Other than 2004, when the Blazers defeated Baylor and Mississippi State and went to their only bowl, the program struggled, with just two winning seasons of 19 in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Football generated little revenue. Sparse crowds appeared sparser inside 71,594-seat Legion Field, a city-owned stadium that has suffered from a lack of maintenance.
“Even when I was a high school coach in the 1990s, I saw so much potential,” Clark said. “You’ve got this city that loves football, a city with a great economy, a great school. How does it not work?
“Because we were lacking investment. And now we have that investment. And what’s cool is how we got it. We got it from the people.”
Clark, a born-again Christian, sold the story of UAB’s revival as he was recruiting last year with a sermon-like pitch. “We told guys that if you come here, you’ll be playing for more than just yourself. You’ll play for a city, for a community, that stepped up and saved its program.”
Clark’s first recruiting class in February was ranked second in C-USA by 247Sports. UAB signed 48 players, including 41 junior college transfers.
Clark and his players now enjoy public support from with Watts, whom Clark called within days of his decision to reinstate football.
“I told him that I need to come see you,” he said. “Once we got past that initial meeting, everything has been fine.
“We’ve been to a lot of events together. He’s been on fundraising calls with me. Everyone saw him as the guy who made the decision to shut it down, but you have to remember, he made the decision to bring it back.”
Clark’s not sure how competitive UAB will be in 2017, when it plays Florida in November. The Blazers are eligible for a bowl and a C-USA championship right away. They will practice this fall and hold three exhibitions but play no games. “You worry about keep players focused,” he said. “You worry about attrition.”
Clark has emphasized that UAB isn’t competing with Alabama and Auburn. “We don’t compete with the national programs. A lot of their fans are our fans. People come up to me and thank me in restaurants, at the airport, with Auburn and Alabama hats. They’re just regular folks. I tell them you can root for Alabama or Auburn and still root for us.”
Coaches, including many from the SEC, have told Clark they are rooting for UAB.
“So many have told me that what happened was for the good of the game,” he said. “We can’t forget why we’re in this. This is an opportunity for 85 kids to get a world-class college education. What is that worth?
“If you believe in football like I do as a son of a coach, for what it does for young men, this was a no-brainer.”