UAB's Remarkable Return Leads to Bahamas Bowl Berth

In 2014, The University of Alabama-Birmingham had just finished one of its best seasons yet. New head coach Bill Clark led his team to a 6–6 record, which might not be as impressive compared to top-dog schools like Alabama or Clemson or Notre Dame, but for a small school that had a 2–10 record the previous season, it was a big deal. Three days after UAB’s victory against Conference USA foe Southern Mississippi, Ray Watts, the president of UAB, stepped up to the podium in the sports building and announced that he was killing the UAB football program. For a lot of people, that day changed their lives. 

Financial issues were the main reason for the decision Watts made. The facilities at UAB were considered among the worst in the FBS, and it would've taken a lot of money to repair them, which the university didn't have. A small fanbase and poor redults helped justify Watts’s decision to end the program, which was viewed by some as a waste of money, since UAB’s main athletic focus is basketball. 

But the shutting down of the program negatively impacted many people. Shaq Jones, a UAB linebacker, was a freshman at the time. “I was sad because I didn’t think I would play football again,” Jones said. 

But Coach Clark worked hard to bring the program back. He, along with players, students, and staff,  took part in fundraising and protests, such as going to the administrative office demanding answers. And all the while, he still did his job. He could’ve left to go to another school, but he stayed at UAB, still holding practices and recruiting players. Clark won Conference USA Coach of the Year in 2014.

Finally, Watts announced the program was taking “small steps” to bring the program back. Many protests—not just by people associated with the university, but by the Birmingham community as a whole—played a part in the decision. “To see [the program] come to fruition after it was shut down was a good surprise,” Clark said. 

Players, staff and fans were thrilled the program was being brought back. “When they brought it back, I was so happy, I couldn’t be happier because it was something dear to me and I was able to stick around and watch it grow into what it is today,” Jones said. This season, Jones has had 55 tackles, with three sacks and a forced fumble. In April, he will attend the NFL combine and hopes to be drafted. 

Clark was named Conference USA Coach of the Year again this season. He also was picked as national coach of the year by ESPN football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, the Bleacher Report, and CBS. He was also nominated for Coach of the Year by the FWAA and the Maxwell Football Club, and was nominated for the Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award. “It’s a team honor. It’s a reflection of all of the coaches’ hard work, but it was a big honor,” he said. 

This season—the revival season—UAB went 8–4. The Blazers scored wins over Alabama A&M in the season opener, Coastal Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Southern Mississippi, Rice, Texas-San Antonio, Texas-El Paso, and an upset win over Louisiana Tech in week 5. Their four losses are to Ball State, North Texas, Charlotte and Florida, all of which were away games. Quarterback A.J. Erdely completed 181 passes out of 293 attempts for 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, and he also had 295 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. 

After the emotional roller coaster the past few years, the players and staff are very excited to go to the Bahamas Bowl, where they will be playing the Ohio University Bobcats. If you talk to almost any staff member or player on the UAB team, they’ll say they weren’t surprised at their performance this season. “Oh, I’m just proud of them,” Clark says. “You know, we went out to win every game. I think we were picked 130th in the country, so these guys have done such a great job. We’ve got one more game to play, so we have the expectation to go win that game as well.”

Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

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