The last time I spoke to UAB head football coach Bill Clark, he was working out of a ‘70s-themed office just off University Boulevard that he jokingly referred to as “the dentist’s office.” I remember there was a little water fountain in the hall that barely worked; it had narrow, low-ceilinged hallways snaking to the back where the coaches stuffed themselves into a space that had been converted into a film room. I also remember thinking how crazy it was that Bill Clark was sticking around, not trying to get another job. After all, UAB football had just been in the morgue and was getting ready for the funeral procession.
Now it seems like Clark has gotten the last laugh, and he was the genius all along. His UAB Blazers sit comfortably at 3-1, tied with Louisiana Tech, whom they meet this Saturday in Ruston, La., for tops in Conference USA West.
Once dead, the UAB program is now alive and kicking. This past Saturday night, Clark’s Blazers trounced the Charlotte 49ers at Birmingham’s historic Legion Field, 28-7. The defense was stout, allowing only 271 yards of offense. Offensively, Clark has a good quarterback in A.J. Erdely and an all-conference running back in Spencer Brown, but more importantly, Clark—and this football team—has something to prove.
Forasmuch as folks still like to make UAB football out to be a joke, the fact is that Clark has reversed course and turned the Blazers into a quality Division I program. A contender, if you will.
The perception among the college football elitists of this state is that UAB football is rinky-dink and the only people who go to games are counterculture oddballs akin to Robert Downey Jr’s character in the movie Back to School. Because of the way UAB football was once treated, fandom had a cultish appeal. And so, as I arrived at the stadium, I didn’t expect to be wowed.
As it turns out, the stands at Legion Field were not filled to capacity this Saturday night, and as I snapped photos I noticed large swatches of empty bleachers. But contrary to a common perception that you have to be an Alabama or an Auburn fan if you live in this state, I discovered that plenty of people do care about watching this UAB team. And as hard as it is for some people to believe, yes, there is such thing as a UAB fan.
When I pulled up to the stadium, my first reaction to the gala on Graymont was the feeling of surprise. A hive of activity was taking place outside the stadium. This wasn’t the same atmosphere I experienced as a young boy in 1993, when Alabama and Tennessee tangled on the Third Saturday in October, but I noticed people walking to and fro, chatting, tailgating. Little tents boasting sorority letters had been set up and underneath them gussied-up Greeks enjoyed the pregame revelry. There was a place marked off for the fan experience—outside, free Conecuh sausage samples were served on toothpicks and inside were several massive jumpy inflatables for kids, vendors hawking their wares, corn hole, and three big alumni tents.
“This is major college football,” I thought to myself. “Not bad—for UAB.”
As I walked inside the stadium, I noticed an array of pageantry. The stadium corridors were filled with food vendors selling polish sausage, funnel cakes, ribs, barbecue, and freshly squeezed lemonade. On the field, the full squad of Blazer cheerleaders, male and female alike, shook their pom-poms and thumped their megaphones, encouraging the crowd.
The Golden Girls dance team and Blaze, the dragon mascot, electrified fans with their cheers and choreographed routines. The UAB band high-stepped and cut north and south with their plumed hats, the color guard twisted their flags in unison, and the Blazerettes flashed their shimmery dancewear. All pretty impressive, I might add.
And if you’re still thinking UAB football is a joke, you should note that last year, the Blazers led (that’s right—led) Conference USA in total attendance, averaging 26,375 across six home games. On Sept. 29 against Charlotte, the west side of the stadium—the home side—offered another healthy dose of fans, perhaps 25,000-plus. And believe it or not, they were far from hushed. Fans wearing their hunter green UAB shirts dotted the stadium. One T-shirt read: Blazers for Life.
Of course, this could not rival the deafening 101K-strong at Bryant-Denny Stadium or the singsong chants of “The Swamp” in Gainesville, but the atmosphere was nevertheless robust. (Historically, the largest crowd for a UAB game was the return game for the program on Sept 2, 2017, versus Alabama A&M. That day 45,212 showed up to see the Blazers walk through the tunnel again like Lazarus and trot out onto the field.)
Since UAB’s ceremonious return, Clark has directed the Blazers’ come-uppance unassumingly and without tremendous spectacle. And in the process, UAB has crept up the Conference USA ladder like a night burglar.
Many die-hard Alabama and Auburn fans feel that the presence of UAB athletics is like when you’re on a date and someone wants to tag along as the third wheel. To their chagrin, Clark is Bartowing his program into that discussion again (imagine Clark coming up between Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn, patting them on the shoulders and saying, “Hello, boys!” in his native Annistonian drawl).
This is not to say that UAB is on Alabama or Auburn’s level–yet–but enough talent exists on University Boulevard to make a run at another bowl game.
In the history of their program, the Blazers have seen the glory of the mountaintop and the despair of the valley. On Sept. 23, 2000, UAB defeated a Saban-led LSU in a 13-10 head-scratcher in Baton Rouge. Fourteen years later, the program was canceled.
Now what is in store for UAB? A conference championship? A one-loss season? Valhalla?
For now, Clark seems to be content with the support he’s received from the Birmingham community. “I really feel like it’s become a community thing,” Clark said after the Charlotte game. “And that’s all we wanted all along. People to get behind us. We know some of the other programs in the state—how well represented they are—but we’re proud of it. It’s fun to be a part of where we’re headed and what’s going on with our school. I think our recruits are starting to see that, so the future’s bright.”
As any good coach, he wishes his team was 4-0, not 3-1, but he has to realize how far his program has come.
Besides, the $22 million football center, completed in 2017, got him out of the dentist’s office. H&A
All photos by Al Blanton
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