UAB Football: An Obituary

I guess football at UAB was always doomed. I probably should have known that during my freshmen year, when an RA sheepishly admitted to me that were we more of a basketball school.

I had an inkling in 2006, before I even attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, when I read in the Birmingham News that a deal that would have made Jimbo Fisher the coach of the Blazers had been vetoed by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. The Board was led by Paul Bryant Jr., son of the legendary Crimson Tide coach.

And I certainly should have figured it would happen when, during my junior year of college, a proposal for an on-campus stadium was yet again nixed by the Board. The resignation of President Carol Z. Garrison, a staunch advocate for the football program and for more independence from UA Tuscaloosa, soon followed.

Interspersed between all this were the ten or so UAB games I attended off campus at Legion Field, which was located in a dilapidated part of town. The stadium seemed to earn its nickname, The Old Grey Lady, more and more each day.

Legion Field could generously be called half-full at those games, and comparisons to what I’d seen Florida Marlins and Montreal Expos “crowds” look like on TV often crept into my head.

I’d also heard for years that recruiting efforts were hurt by poor facilities, the lack of a true home field, the wicked UA Tuscaloosa Board, and the shortage of fans more eager to shout “Go Blazers” than “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle.”

But through it all, I never bought it. All I saw was a scrappy program that was one day going to prove everybody wrong. And I believed I would look back with pride at the decrepitude that was the early days of UAB football.

Even though games were sparsely attended, they had spirited crowds, and were certainly as much fun to be a part of as any Auburn game I’d been to, if not exactly as intense. Everyone there had a grand time, except, perhaps, for the Blazer players, who usually found themselves on the losing ends of games.

Though the teams weren’t great, many great players came through. Best of all during my time in school was Joe Webb, the current backup quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. I don’t think it would have been a stretch to call him the best quarterback in the state at the time, and he was certainly the most fun to watch, especially when he would turn what looked like a 20-yard sack into a 30-yard gain.

Then, of course, there is the most famous former Blazer in the NFL, Roddy White, who has starred in the pros far longer than many of his more high-profile peers from Alabama and Auburn.

There was also my brief experience within UAB athletics. Soon after graduation, I took a job tutoring UAB student-athletes. I had a particularly memorable conversation with a glum senior football player, who accused former head coach Neil Callaway—a man handpicked by the UAT Board shortly after it rejected Fisher—of being more of a babysitter than a coach.

But what I remember most were the wide-eyed freshmen and sophomores, who expressed a quiet confidence that things were about to turn around. My belief in the program, though cautious, was still strong. I thought those would be the guys who would finally overcome the obstacles at UAB, rather than use them as excuses.

The worst part of it now is that I was right.

Bill Clark looked like the right man to turn those proverbial lemons into lemonade and motivate his squad to win. A 6-6 record in 2014 may have been a disappointment for many schools in the state of Alabama, but for UAB, it was a triumph, and a sign of better things to come. What a cruel injustice it is to see that the result of this season’s success is the death of the program, with the denial of a bowl game adding insult to injury.

I don’t doubt that UAB football was not profitable, if not outright hemorrhaging money, and that this would have hampered the school’s ability to improve football infrastructure in the years to come. But many other athletic programs struggle financially, too. Perhaps the bigger picture of this story is that it exposes the ugly side of how UAB and UAT have been run, and it sheds light on the unglamorous business dealings of college football programs everywhere.

But for me, as many of my fellow UAB alumni and Birmingham natives have been passionately expressing, I feel that something I had some ownership of has been taken away from me.

And I will miss it.