I never thought football would actually return to my alma mater. I certainly hoped the program could be saved, but all I did to help the cause was attend one protest, and click “Like” on the “Save UAB Football” Facebook page. Last year, I commented on the poignancy of a great injustice done to an already downtrodden program, but my half-assed activism spoke to the fact that I didn’t really see any reason to be hopeful. There lay the UAB Blazers, martyrs to the strange business that is college football.
Now, just a few months later, I’m pleasantly surprised to know that the one or two hours I devoted to saving UAB football may have actually made a difference. If I wasn’t personally responsible, then thousands of other Blazers fans, players, and alumni—who didn’t give up quite so easily—should be commended for refusing to follow the script that UAB President Ray Watts and University of Alabama board of trustees member Paul Bryant Jr. had written. After taking the upcoming season off (which presents a perfect opportunity to sell some “UAB Football Undefeated 2015” shirts), Blazers football will return, possibly in time for the 2016 season.
It would have been convenient for those in charge if the men’s basketball team had suffered through another mediocre season. Instead, the team won a Conference USA title, and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where they scored their first Big Dance win in ten years, a dramatic first-round upset of third-seeded Iowa State. UAB athletics had a banner year, making it that much easier for the campus community to galvanize support, and more difficult for the Board to stand by their decision. That support was on display at the Conference USA tournament, which, inconveniently enough for the powers that be, was played in Birmingham. Chants of “Fire Ray Watts” and signs that read “#FreeUAB” brought further attention and pressure to restore football.
It also put focus on the damage that shutting down football would have done to the basketball team, long considered UAB’s signature athletic program. Conference USA membership requires participation in football, and it became an inescapable fact that UAB was going to be booted from the league if it shut down its football program. As many big wins as the basketball team has earned in its history, it likely would have had to settle for membership in an inferior conference, like the Atlantic Sun or the Big South. Diminished strength of schedule would have meant lower postseason seeding, which would have made future March Madness upset bids all the more improbable.
The public outcry continued far longer than most anyone anticipated, and the issue dominated local headlines throughout the winter and spring. But the even bigger surprise was how quickly this public pressure led to a reversal of what seemed like a done deal. The whole thing seemed to prove that sustained, laser-focused grassroots efforts really can defeat muscle-flexing, opaque government systems, at least once in a while.
But for UAB fans, joy is only a small part of the emotional equation. Some columnists have argued that UAB football’s death and subsequent revival is the best thing to happen to the program since its inception. Interest in the team is greater than ever, both locally and nationally. If cavernous Legion Field doesn’t set a new attendance record at the next UAB home game, it will be both a surprise and a massive disappointment. But the question of when the program will return is one of the first that has to be answered. Fall 2016? 2017? No one seems sure.
Even if this turns out to be one of the best accidental marketing schemes of all time, the momentum gained last season, in which the program completed its first bowl-eligible campaign since 2004, has been stymied. And for UAB football, momentum has always been elusive. The program won’t enjoy the recruiting boost that bowl eligibility brings. The core of talent from the 2014 team has been gutted; some of the school’s top players landed in the ACC, SEC, and Big 12. Head coach Bill Clark will be returning, but his rebuilding effort will be far more literal than it was when he first took the job.
While there seems to be nowhere for the program to go but up, the same problems that have lingered for years still remain. The players, coaches, and fans will still have to contend with the school’s low-rent football facilities, with their chipped paint in the locker rooms and reported mildew in the showers. Legion Field is nearly 90 years old, and its off-campus, crime-ridden location is far from ideal. Although the University of Alabama Board of Trustees begrudgingly agreed to revive football, they seem as uninterested as ever in solving these problems.
Not to be forgotten in the news of football’s return at UAB is that the women’s bowling and rifle teams were also reinstated. So, even if Legion Field remains empty for another few years, UAB football fans can be proud that they’ve made a few bowlers and sharpshooters happy in the process of saving their team. Though, given all of the tensions that have come to a boil between the high-ranking folks at the University of Alabama and the UAB faithful, it’s more than a little surprising that anyone in Tuscaloosa agreed to supply UAB students with guns.