Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at email@example.com.
Clark, Blazers are bowl eligible
Nov. 9, 2017
Alabama is the No. 1 team in the nation … or No. 2, according to which poll you favor. Auburn has moved back into the Top 10 and plays Georgia, the No. 2 team in the nation … or No. 1, according to which poll you favor, this week at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Jacksonville State is the No. 2 team in the nation in the latest NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll and Troy University, which earlier this season knocked off LSU at Tiger Stadium at night (yes, that’s a big deal — the win, especially considering the when and where) is tied for second place in the Sun Belt Conference standings.
All of those are good stories, good vibes for college football fans in the state of Alabama.
But none is the best story.
That belongs to Bill Clark and the UAB Blazers. What Clark has accomplished at UAB is no less than amazing. He had the program on the rise and then, on Dec. 2, 2014, school president Ray Watts decided to disband the football program (and other sports), a decision that was not received well by a vocal and strong segment of the UAB community, nor that of the Birmingham community for that matter.
With consistent pressure and promises of support, Watts announced in June of 2015 the football program would be reinstated. In September of 2015 school officials announced Clark had signed a contract extension to continue as UAB’s head football coach. It would prove to be the best decision the school has made since hiring Gene Bartow as the school’s head basketball coach and athletics director back in the early stages of the school’s athletics program history.
Clark had options. He could have gone elsewhere. He had just arrived from Jacksonville State where he led the team to an 11-4 record and a spot in the FCS national quarterfinals. Prior to that he had spent five seasons as defensive coordinator at South Alabama on the heels of an ultra-successful stint as head coach at Prattville High School where he led the Lions to a gaudy 107-11 record and several state titles during his tenure.
And yet all that may pale in comparison to what he is accomplishing this season. In the Blazers’ first season since being disbanded — of having a program, then not having a program, then starting from scratch again — he has them bowl eligible — with three games to play. Last week, UAB slammed Rice to go to 6-3 on the year.
This is a team that was picked by almost everyone who produces such polls as the last-place team in the country in the preseason. Those who ranked all 130 Division 1 football teams from No. 1 to No. 130 usually started with Alabama at No. 1 and UAB at No. 130. It was a lock. A school that didn’t field a football team the previous two seasons would surely struggle to regain its football footing. It would need time to rebuild, to readjust, reshape its roster and to re-establish itself. It would be a team fellow Conference USA teams wanted to play right now, figuring the Blazers as an easy mark at this stage of its return.
Everybody was wrong. The Blazers are currently 4-2 in Conference USA and in second place in the West Division standings behind 5-1 leader North Texas.
Up next for UAB is Texas-San Antonio (5-3 overall, 2-3 in conference play), followed by a trip to Gainesville to face the suddenly flailing Florida Gators (3-5, 3-4). Talk about grabbing some headlines; if UAB can pull off a win at Florida, even a struggling Florida team, the few people who haven’t paid attention to the Blazers’ rise will certainly be paying attention after that. Along with everyone else.
The final regular season game for the Blazers is against Texas-El Paso, which is winless in nine games and has ditched its head coach and brought in Mike Price, to finish out the season. It is possible — a long shot, but possible — the Blazers could finish the regular season at 9-3, though 8-4 is perhaps more probable.
But consider that — 8-4; after re-starting the program, rebuilding the roster. It’s quite the accomplishment, quite the story.
Clark should be a legitimate candidate for National Coach of the Year. His tenacity and his dedication — remaining with the program when he could have easily taken another job — should be recognized. He’s certainly getting attention now. Without question Ads at other schools, especially those seeking a new head football coach, are taking notice. Rumors suggest Clark may be on the short list at Ole Miss. Others schools have supposedly expressed interest as well.
Clark recently signed, and earned, a contract extension that will pay him $900,000 now and eventually escalate to more than $1 million on the back end of the deal that goes through the 2022 season. If Clark is still around at the end of that contract it may be the best news the Blazers’ program has received since announcing football was returning.
There are many who have played a key role in the return and success of UAB’s football program. Many stepped forward in a financial way to help the school build a new football facility (the school previously had the worst facilities in Division I football), covered outdoor practice field and other amenities and the administration had to step up its support too. Thousands more fans are attending UAB games at the Old Gray Lady, Legion Field, and there is talk of building a new downtown stadium for the Blazers’ use.
But make no mistake, Bill Clark is the chief architect of UAB’s return, especially of the success it is enjoying, and everyone should (finally) be paying attention.