By Roger ShulerRobert Vaden's ability to hit the three-point shot has given opposing basketball coaches plenty to think about. College football coaches are just happy he chose hoops over the pigskin.
Vaden quickly became the centerpiece of head coach Mike Davis's second UAB basketball team after sitting out the 2006-2007 season as a transfer from Indiana University. Vaden grew up in Indianapolis and spent his first two seasons under Davis at Indiana, making the Big Ten Conference All-Freshman team in 2005 and earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2006. When Davis left Indiana and returned to his home state to coach at UAB, Vaden decided to follow him.
It is ironic that Vaden wound up playing college basketball in a football-oriented state, because he showed potential as a quarterback. During his first two years at Pike High School in Indianapolis, Vaden played football, and it's not hard to imagine the lanky athlete being a serious threat on the gridiron. "I was a quarterback, and we mostly ran the shotgun, throwing it around a lot," Vaden says, smiling as he recalls those days. "But I realized basketball was the best sport for me, so I gave up football."
Davis is certainly glad he did. Vaden was named first team All-Conference USA and was the league's Newcomer of the Year. He started all 60 games during his two seasons at Indiana, one of the most storied programs in college basketball, and picked up with the same kind of consistent performance at UAB. Vaden led the Blazers in scoring, minutes played, and three-point shooting. He broke the school single-season records for three-pointers made and attempted and for scoring by a junior.
One reason for Vaden's outstanding season: There was less of him to see. Vaden weighed about 235 pounds during his Indiana career, but Lou DeNeen, the new strength and conditioning coach for the UAB men's program, helped Vaden slim down to 213 pounds. After averaging 13.5 points as a sophomore at Indiana, he increased his scoring by almost eight points a game at UAB. Basketball, though, is not about statistics for Vaden. "I like to play as a team," he says. "For me, it's not about scoring all of the points. I like to make the extra pass, and if the opportunity is there to make a steal, I like to go for it."
Two Indiana basketball icons, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, are Vaden's role models. "I admire the way they played the game," he says. "Oscar Robertson is from Indianapolis, so he's definitely someone I've looked up to. I've gotten to meet both of them and shake their hands." In an age when players and coaches tend to move around a lot, Vaden has shown remarkable loyalty to another role model: Mike Davis. Robert Head, Vaden's father, died the summer before Vaden's sophomore year following a battle with cancer, and Davis provided the support Vaden needed during a difficult time.
"I like the way Coach Davis treats people," Vaden says. "He treats me like a son, and he's become a father figure for me. He was there for me when my father died, and that meant a lot."
Was it hard to leave Indiana, where the Hoosiers are a statewide obsession? "Indiana is one of the top 10 programs in the nation, but I went there mainly to play for Coach Davis," Vaden says. "When he left, I knew I wanted to go wherever he went."
The move from Bloomington to Birmingham has required some adjustment. "It's a pretty big change culturally," Vaden says. "Bloomington is a college town, and when you play on the basketball team at Indiana, you can feel like you are in a fishbowl. Birmingham is a bigger city, and we don't get as much attention here as we did at IU. I think this is probably better for me."