Featured Photo courtesy Mark Almond, Alabama Media Group
“We’ve been waiting almost 3 years for this.”
A short, powerful sentence that was echoed numerous times throughout the grounds of Legion Field on Saturday that held so much meaning to nearly everyone in attendance. UAB made its triumphant return to the gridiron after missing 2 seasons from what was essentially a self-imposed death penalty.
“I can’t believe it’s actually happening, we did it you guys!”
You’ve heard and read the stories about the tears shed that fateful afternoon on December 2nd, 2014, when Dr. Ray Watts informed the UAB Football team that the program would be shutting its doors due to a “lack of funding”. Many expected the UAB Football program to fade off into the night, an eventual afterthought of a University that was up to its neck in Medical and Health Science accolades and grants, a whisper in a state full of loud and proud football programs. In the 18 years of Division I football experience, the UAB Football program failed to consistently turn heads, whether due to Trustee interference, coaching mishaps (caused by Trustee interference) or poor gameplay, but that didn’t mean it didn’t have a core support group.
That core group stood up loud and rallied the alumni and student base when that decision was made.
The Justin Crafts, Jimmy Fillers, Hatton Smiths, BlazerTalkers, Timothy Alexanders, Courtney Campbells, Tim Brandos, Andy Schwarzes…..
Because of countless individuals, UAB’s fanbase did the unthinkable and fought back against a Board notorious for getting their way, no matter what. It took the Justin Crafts to notice something shady regarding UAB’s future scheduling back in 2014 and how there were no games scheduled beyond 2017. A combination of this revelation by Boosters and fans, along with Clark’s turnaround of the program, prompted the Board to accelerate their decision to cut the program in 2017 to 2014 lest the Blazers gain too much momentum both on the field and off the field to justify shutting them down.
Shutting down firms who were willing to take the project on at no cost. They got caught firing the bullet and they were holding the smoking gun while wearing a neon suit with a flashing light that read “guilty” and attempted to act as if it was the victim’s fault.
“BUT ATTENDANCE”, they yelled.
Fact of the matter is, UAB’s biggest competitors aren’t its fellow Conference USA or Group of Five in-state rivals, it’s the two SEC schools: the one down I-20 and the other one down 280. It faces much stiffer competition that it can never hope to compete against, and it’s because of that one-sided battle that the perception would forever be mediocrity and sub-par college football, no matter what they did.
It’s the reason why UAB can place in the top half of Conference USA in attendance in 2014, but still be called out by in-state SEC fans for having no fans. It’s why the Blazers had a crowd of almost thirty thousand for a very important and pivotal Marshall game in what was initially their final season and were still chided for a lack of fans.
See, in SEC country, it’s only natural to have higher attendance numbers than most NFL teams. It’s a unique take on an old adage: if your football programs wins in a forest of less than one hundred thousand people, does it make a sound? When an Alabama or Auburn fan thinks poor attendance is sixty thousand, is there any wonder that they lack the sense of understanding of how many people most Group of Five programs have at their games? FAU in the debut of Lane Kiffin announced an attendance in the 20,000s, is that worthy of their program being shut down?
UAB’s revival offers the chance for something the program hasn’t been able to do in its entire existence, no matter how popular Roddy White and Joe Webb became. It provided a national spotlight.
ESPN segments, VICE articles, Sports Illustrated focus pieces, it offered free recruiting commercials, made future athletes want to be part of something special. UAB’s death may have been the best thing to ever happen to it. One might pose the question that if UAB was left alone, allowing Clark to continue his success and inevitable climb up the College Football ladder, it would have only been a matter of time before the perfect offer came calling and Clark may have been more than willing to answer. This would leave UAB in a vulnerable place where it would get Neil Callaway’d into another bad coach, ensuring any momentum that Clark created would get nullified immediately. Instead, Clark has stayed, despite the fact that plenty Power Five college football programs came calling, solidifying his ties with UAB for the long run. While there’s no way to tell whether or not Clark will actually stay with the program, one would think that his willingness to stay and fight behind the scenes for its return, his love of the University and city itself, his refusal to budge when things got tough and the millions put together by boosters and local businesses bode well for his longevity on the Southside. This return doesn’t happen without him, no matter how much screaming and yelling would have happened.
This is the brightest timeline, UAB has a guy who can legitimize the program and bring it to where it always should have been: a premiere Group of Five football program in College Football’s strongest TV market that can hold its own against anyone, but probably would never win a National Championship, but would make one hell of an effort to try. Memphis Football is where UAB Football should be if its own Board of Trustees wasn’t holding it back. It would have been the one making Big12 bids.
It’s the very thing the Trustees were trying to prevent. By applying constant pressure on the program to keep it irrelevant, they drew attention to the program and themselves. Unknowingly and unwillingly were responsible for brand new facilities the program had never seen before that in the past they would have blocked successfully and without much of a peep outside of the fanbase. Remember the proposed 2011 stadium? The one with the appropriate funding that got blocked at the 11th hour and behind closed doors when Alabama state law prohibits such a public entity from doing that sort of thing? The Governor of Alabama who turned a blind eye to what was happening because of his connections with the Bryant family? The artificial turf and practice field that would have been paid for?
When they came with chainsaws to tear down the program, they left a few acorns. The UAB Family collected those acorns and planted a new program, a stronger one. Strong enough to break an attendance record their first day back: 45,212. (Thank you to the Alabama A&M University Bulldogs and their fans and alumni for helping make this possible).
Saturday’s game may have not been perfect, but it didn’t need to be, the opening kickoff was everything this fan base, alumni and students needed and fought for.