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UAB’s coach explains how to take a program from dead to conference champs in 4 years

In beating Middle Tennessee to win Conference USA, the Blazers wrote another chapter in an unprecedented story. In November, their coach told us how their rise happened.

UAB v Texas A&M Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

UAB football should not be where it is: Conference USA champions, with 10 wins after never winning more than eight games in a year in program history. But after beating Middle Tennessee in C-USA’s title game on Saturday, 27-25, that’s exactly where UAB is.

In December 2014, the program shut down after apparent backroom shenanigans by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, a body that had long given UAB fans reasons to think it didn’t like the program. The team stopped playing, and 66 players took an NCAA option to transfer elsewhere without having to sit out.

By June 2015, after half a year in a holding pattern, the Blazers were back. Head coach Bill Clark had stuck around, as he was under contract anyway to coach a team that didn’t exist. Public outcry against the board’s decision was strong, and so was fundraising to not just bring the program back, but build it a new practice facility.

“Literally, I’m basically finished,” Clark told SB Nation, describing his mindset at the time. “It’s just finding jobs for [players] and the coaches. Then I’ve gotta decide what I’m going to do. Quickly, almost immediately, the fans, alumni, even people of Birmingham, there was just an outcry toward … what happened … and then it was almost a daily roller coaster of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this?’ and ‘Can we bring the program back?’”

The program resumed play in 2017. But was it supposed to be like this?

“No,” Clark said. “I don’t think in my wildest dreams I could’ve hoped for this.”

Reviving the Blazers was the first part of the story. Making them vibrant and better than before was a whole other thing.

The program faced a few immediate problems that made it impossible to field a team in 2016 and would even make it a big undertaking to get back in 2017:

  • Most of the roster had gone elsewhere, leaving around two dozen players.
  • UAB had not signed a 2015 recruiting class. One player did, amazingly, sign with the school that winter: defensive lineman Garrett Marino, now a Piesman Trophy nominee.
  • The coaching staff was depleted, too, after some staffers found other work. A “skeleton crew and a bunch of young GAs” remained, Clark said.

Clark got to work assembling a coaching staff when the team came back, but that staff had a weird, two-pronged recruiting challenge.

It needed to sign enough warm bodies to restock almost a whole roster, and Clark wanted to find some older players so a bunch of freshmen wouldn’t get whomped.

“The only thing I could look at was SMU, which had been shut down, and they tried to come back with all freshmen,” Clark said. For two years, I don’t know if they won a game, which you can understand. They’re playing against so much older kids.”

SMU won four games over three years after it got the NCAA’s version of the death penalty in the late ‘80s. UAB had no interest in waiting that long.

“So I just really had the idea to go out and go really, really hard at the junior colleges,” Clark said.

The program initially took about a 50-man signing class in 2016, after the NCAA provided a waiver to let it have more than the 25 initial counters teams are typically allowed. UAB also got creative with scholarship distribution, assigning some of its signees to its unused 2015 allotment. About 40 of the team’s 2016 additions were from junior colleges, including running back DJ Law and others who appeared on Season 1 of Netflix’s Last Chance U.

The NCAA’s help was important here. The organization told UAB it would freeze the eligibility clock of players in the program while it was dormant. That meant Clark could sell JUCO prospects on spending a year at UAB instead of at schools they didn’t want to be at. In Birmingham, they could get acclimated without losing a year of playing time.

“The big thought on that was that these guys can get not just academically better, but they can also get physically better,” Clark said. “So a lot of people bypassed a lot of the kids we took because of injuries or whatever, and we chose to take guys, because we knew we had another year or two to really get their grades good or get ‘em better physically.”

Clark could also sell playing time, both to JUCO recruits and high school kids. The Blazers had 65 players on campus when they got together for spring practice in February ‘16, before a season they wouldn’t actually play. They added a 19-man class in February 2017, so they were close to 85 scholarship players ahead of their first season back.

UAB didn’t keep all of those players. Law was gone by February ‘17, for instance. But Clark had added so many players that he could field a viable team.

Then, there was a third part of the story, beyond saving the team and finding enough players: actually making it good.

The program’s long runway before its first real game in September ‘17 was important for cohesion. The JUCO recruiting approach meant UAB had a roster from all corners of the country, which had no experience as a unit. And JUCO’s very much an individual-over-team environment, where everyone’s just trying to get out.

“Just that lifestyle of ‘go get mine,’” Clark said. “It’s really about each individual more than it’s about the team at those junior colleges, so we had to change that mindset. It was a total overhaul of mindset, being a team, being a family. They did embrace it, though.”

UAB started 2017 with seven wins in 10 games before fading late. Working off rust and molding the team was a big lift, even after two years of workouts.

“As coaches, we think we can get stuff done in practice and scrimmages, but the difference between that and an FBS college football game and the competition and how hard it’s gonna be, and the week-in, week-out, we had nothing,” Clark said.

“Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for UAB. They still want the same W.”

Everything came together in 2018, for now and later.

The team’s solid, ranking 55th nationally in S&P+. It has a top-30 defense that’s held opponents to seven points or fewer in five of six games, including two shutouts.

A new practice facility opened in 2017, the byproduct of the fundraising drive that brought back the program. In 2021, a new stadium’s supposed to be done, meaning the Blazers can move out of old Legion Field. They’re recruiting better and in a more normal fashion now, up from No. 8 in C-USA last year to No. 4 this year.

“This should be a national team,” Clark said. “I’ve kind of used Boise as a model.”

He wants UAB to be a peer to Memphis and Houston, two teams that used to be in its conference. That might be a hard slog in the long term, but, well, the Blazers are better than both of those teams now, four years after the whole program died off. UAB becoming a top-tier non-power would be hard, but maybe not harder than what UAB’s already done.

“It was one of those things that if you had known it was that hard,” Clark said, “you might not have done it.”

Note: We published this story Nov. 8, but have lightly updated it following the Blazers’ Conference USA win.