University of Alabama-Birmingham football coach Bill Clark spent a couple months following the death of his program in late 2014 finding his assistant coaches other jobs and his players other places to play.
With just about everyone else accounted for, it was time for Clark, who had spent his entire successful 25-year coaching career in Alabama, to assess his future, and the coaching offers started rolling in. Many of them were attractive positions.
But Clark, despite being a coach without a program, waited. None of those offers “felt right,” and there was something stirring in Birmingham.
“I really wanted to see what happened here,” Clark said Wednesday. “People started fighting really quickly. It was a 100-percent maybe but it got stronger as time went on and it was definitely worthwhile to give it every opportunity.
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“… It has gone from tragedy to something really amazing.”
Clark and his Blazers will be hosting Coastal Carolina on Saturday afternoon in their third game of a 2017 season that is the result of a community uprising.
The football program at the state-funded public university is now largely funded by private donations.
The community, led by business leaders, has raised more than $45 million over the past two years for several new facilities and the funding of the operational budget for the next three seasons.
And it isn’t over yet.
“There is so much momentum. People really want to be a part of what’s taking place and the commitment, so we continue to raise money,” said Justin Craft, a UAB football alumnus and one of the business leaders who have spearheaded the rebirth of the program.
The community reaction came immediately after the decision to kill the program announced by school president Ray Watts in December 2014.
“There was a groundswell of support from the students and from alumni when the program was shut down, and there were numerous rallies that took place and just a lot of activity in the city,” said Craft, the president of Nowlin & Associates Wealth Management who played at UAB in 1996-97. “We went to the statehouse to lobby the legislature about the program and why it was good for Birmingham.”
Craft met his wife and business partner at UAB and has remained in Birmingham since college, and he epitomizes the spirit that has arisen in the community.
“I was always optimistic because I know the impact that athletics has on a university, but I am utterly shocked and extremely proud of our community and how it has come together and the excitement that has built around this,” Craft said.
I was always optimistic because I know the impact that athletics has on a university, but I am utterly shocked and extremely proud of our community and how it has come together and the excitement that has built around this.
Birmingham businessman and UAB alumnus Justin Craft
The university, which is subject to decisions and approvals of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, provides an athletic department subsidy of $20 million per year, according to UAB assistant vice president of public relations Jim Bakken, which includes 42 percent of the football operations budget.
Business leaders who organized the movement to save the program were asked to cover a five-year projected budget deficit in the program as well as provide $22.5 million for much-needed new facilities. “We probably had the worst facilities in FBS,” Clark said.
The goal has essentially been met and the program has received a new covered pavilion, practice field and field house that opened in late July and contains a weight room, training room, locker room, coaches offices and meeting rooms.
“Every day you walk in this facility and just are amazed,” Clark said. “It’s an unbelievable story. It’s community pride, and it’s about Birmingham as much as it is about UAB. This wouldn’t happen in too many places.”
A strategic planning report done for the university by consultant Bill Carr in 2014 projected the school would need to invest at least $49 million over five years to keep the football program competitive.
As a rebuttal to the Carr report, business leaders argued the importance of student growth at UAB for the health of the community as a whole, citing a study that showed $50 million in economic impact in the city for every 1,000 students at UAB. And they argued football can contribute to enrollment growth.
The last two freshman classes have been the largest in school history.
“Many of us felt they weren’t looking at the benefits to the university outside the football program that far outweigh the deficit you may have as a team in a non-Power Five football conference, including enrollment growth,” Craft said.
Craft and a few other influential business leaders met with UAB president Ray Watts six months after he pulled the plug on the program and within a few days of his expected decision on its possible reinstatement. “There was new support he had not seen before,” Craft said. “Candidly, I think it was a courageous decision he made.”
Clark waited about a year to hire many assistant coaches to ensure “it was real.” He largely had graduate assistants in key coaching positions until he knew the money was there.
Starting a roster nearly from scratch, Clark recruited more junior college players rather than high school seniors than he normally would, making UAB one of the older teams in the country this season with 30 players on its two-deep depth chart age 22 or older.
Nearly the entire team left for other scholarship offers, including offensive guard Daniel Anousheh, who transferred to CCU and started all 12 games for the Chanticleers in 2015 while earning his undergraduate degree in Conway.
The Blazers have 15 players who were members of the 2014 team, though most of those who remained were either injured or wanted to earn their degrees at UAB. A few could have played elsewhere, including 2014 starters in linebackers Shaq Jones and Tevin Crews and cornerback Darious Williams, and they were nearly as influential in recruiting incoming players as the coaching staff.
“[Crews] was one of our best recruiters. The whole senior group helped recruit the guys who are here,” Clark said. “We had a really good experience in ’14 prior to the shutdown. They had really struggled and turned it around and they really became a close-knit group. So those guys really sold the vision of what we had going before.”
The UAB program began in 1991 in NCAA Division III, moved up to the FCS level (then Division I-AA) in 1993 and transitioned to FBS (then Division I-A) in 1996.
The Blazers, who are 1-1, have competed in just one bowl game, the 2004 Hawaii Bowl, and Clark, 49, quickly turned the program around in his first year in 2014, going 6-6 following a 2-10 season to make the Blazers bowl-eligible for the first time in a decade.
A lack of support that has been reversed also helped kill the program. The team plays at historic Legion Field, which seats more 70,000, but in the dismal 2013 season the team averaged less than 11,000 spectators per game for its lowest showing as an FBS program. Clark’s 2014 team helped rejuvenate interest with nearly 22,000 per game.
More than 45,000 spectators at the 2017 season-opener against Alabama A&M two weeks ago – the team’s first game in 1,007 days – broke the school’s attendance record.
Craft credits Clark’s devotion and leadership for the revival, as well. Clark built Prattville High into a state power that won consecutive Alabama state championships at the top classification in his final two years in 2006-07 with a combined 30-0 record, spent five years as defensive coordinator at South Alabama, and went 11-4 in his one season at Jacksonville State in 2013 before moving to UAB.
“If we didn’t have the head coach we have in Bill Clark it wouldn’t have happened,” Craft said. “He’s a great man and great coach, and his vision and commitment for UAB football is what everybody bought into.”
Craft believes the city that saved the program can develop with it. “I think it’s time for Birmingham to grow,” he said. “Our peer cities like Charlotte, Nashville and Memphis, they’ve really taken off and Birmingham has been stagnant. As a community I think Birmingham is going through [growth].”
UAB has a story that many across the country are rooting for. “A lot of people want them to do well nationally because it’s a great story, you know,” CCU interim head coach Jamey Chadwell said. “I hope they do as well, just not Saturday.”