Video by: UAB Visual Content
Shaq Jones missed the butterflies. For three years running, the outside linebacker awoke on fall Saturdays feeling a whirling mix of giddy anticipation and slight nausea, centered just below the number on his jersey. The butterflies served as a call to action—to focus his mind through meditation, to visualize himself on the field making plays from practice. But they also reminded him how lucky he was to play college football.
Then, suddenly, the whirling stopped. Jones could sleep late on Saturdays if he wanted.
Now the Blazers are back. And Jones isn’t the only one with butterflies. Because this time, all of Birmingham is ready to run out of the tunnel and hear the roar of a game-day crowd. They want it to be the loudest roar. They know how lucky they are to play college football.
Head coach Bill Clark is an optimistic person, but you can forgive him for feeling a little trepidation after the June 2015 announcement that UAB football would return. Coaches and players from his previous team had scattered across the country. His training facility needed an upgrade. At first, he didn’t know when the team would resume play — and when he did find out, he faced the challenge of recruiting players who wouldn’t compete for two years.
Clark quickly learned to view his blank slate as an advantage. “We got to build it back the way we wanted,” says the coach, who arrived at UAB before the 2014 season. That promise of a fresh start also became a central appeal to new players. “The NCAA allowed us to freeze eligibility clocks,” Clark says. “That gave us a chance to find some guys coming off an injury or needing help with grades. Maybe they were a late bloomer in high school. We found all these different stories across the country.” The program and the players would reinvent themselves together.
To that end, Clark and his coaching staff have invested a lot into each student-athlete: building physical strength and speed, improving nutrition, providing tutors and support to help players grow academically. He also is cultivating a sense of empathy and commitment to the community. Players visit patients at Children’s of Alabama and help out at a local homeless shelter. And they partner with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham to mentor middle- and high-school boys—a connection that also benefits players by showing them the importance of taking responsibility for someone else, Clark says.
Still, he faced a challenge in molding a team out of a collection of individual athletes, including some new to Alabama. Fortunately, Clark got help from Jones and 11 other players returning from his 2014 team. These veterans have acted “almost like coaches” to the new guys, Clark says. “They’ve told them what UAB football looks like, and how our supporters fought for us. I’ve seen a real change. They’re becoming a family.”
Another of those returning players, linebacker Tevin Crews, started working out as soon as he heard the news that football would resume. The Bibb County, Alabama, native completed his communication management degree in 2015; now he’s about a year away from finishing a business management degree. He says team practices resemble those from 2014, though now he can feel the weight of history accompanying UAB’s comeback. “It’s understood that this season is important to the community,” Crews says. “All of those people fought for us to come back. We want to give them something in return.”
“We talk a lot about playing for more than just yourself,” Clark adds.
Building an advantage
Before the doors officially opened to the new Football Operations Center and Legacy Pavilion, Director of Athletics Mark Ingram liked to take visitors to a special spot. It’s the balcony off Clark’s office, overlooking the expanse of the Legacy Pavilion field and, just beyond, UAB’s original football facility.
The difference between old and new is shocking. The entirety of the old concrete-block buildings could fit inside a corner of the soaring Legacy Pavilion.
Ingram beams just thinking about it. He knows Birmingham has something special—arguably one of the best football training complexes in the nation. He’s eager to see how the new spaces will shape the coaches’ ability to prepare the team for games, as well as their prospects for recruiting future Blazers. Ingram believes he got a preview the day the first outdoor practice field opened. The players were giddy, running and throwing the football like kids. “It’s thrilling to see how much our athletes appreciate new facilities,” he says. “It puts them in a position to be more successful. It energizes them.”
Clark, who helped design the new facilities, still gets chills when he steps inside. “As a university, we’ve decided to be first class in everything we do, and this is a great example,” he says. “We’re acting like a national team.”
Blazer football players visit the Football Operations Center for the first time in July 2017. The 46,000-square-foot facility houses a weight room, locker rooms, training facilities, meeting/film rooms, offices, and a lobby spotlighting famous Blazers who have played in the NFL.
The football complex—and the team’s return—are another landmark in Birmingham’s revitalization, following developments such as Railroad Park, Regions Field, Uptown, and the Rotary Trail, Ingram says. With their wallets and their feet, the people of Birmingham “stepped up” to ensure the success of each project, he adds.
“The donors get the credit for all of this,” Ingram says, pointing at the new buildings. Led by Hatton Smith, chair of the UAB Athletics Campaign Committee, “we’ve raised more than $43 million in 18 months,” Ingram says. “The support we have right now has made us the envy of every college sports program in the country.” Contributions have poured in from all kinds of energized supporters—civic and business leaders, city councils throughout the region, UAB students and alumni, fans old and new, even a 5-year-old Ohio boy who donated his $1 allowance.
The newfound support proves that the community understands how Blazer athletics contribute to UAB’s success—raising its visibility, helping with recruitment, and firing up student life. And it shows that they grasp the importance of the Blazers and UAB to Birmingham, Ingram says. The team represents the city. Its success is UAB’s success is Birmingham’s success.
Back in the game
Even with confidence in the Blazers at an all-time high, Clark admits he wakes up at night strategizing ways to win games. He worries if his team will remember how to succeed on the road, how to keep up the momentum past the first game, and how to build upon a loss. But he is happy with how the players handled last fall, training and scrimmaging as if they had a game each week, then reviewing results and watching videos of other teams. Two years away from competition has given players time to build their strength and confidence—along with the element of surprise. Opposing teams don’t entirely know what to expect from this new Blazer team.
One thing fans will recognize, however, is the exciting, “up-tempo offense” that earned the Blazers a bowl-eligible 6-6 record in 2014, Clark says. “We may run the ball more in one game and throw it more in the next.” And when the other team has the ball, “we have to run a multiple defense because offenses are so good.” He also wants to build on past successes in special teams. (In 2014, UAB’s All-American J.J. Nelson led the country in kickoff returns.) “I want a well-balanced team that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, doesn’t beat itself, protects the football, and is sound.”
Kicking off the future
What happens to Blazer football after September 2? Clark, along with Jones, Crews, the growing army of fans, and any aspiring screenwriters envisioning a movie about the comeback, naturally want a winning season—perhaps even a Conference USA championship and a bowl game. Clark also is looking ahead to a potential new home for the Blazers in a downtown stadium.
Right now, though, he wants to see fans in the seats cheering on his players who have worked so hard. “I say this all the time to the team: ‘You get what you put in. You get what you work for,’” Clark says. “We need the community to get involved, the same way they did to bring the program back. If they believe in our team, our university, and our city, then they need to be there.”
Ingram agrees. He sees football’s return as a step forward for the entire UAB athletic program. He wants to reintroduce Birmingham to the 17 other teams representing the city around the country—and he wants them to benefit from the support and enthusiasm football has inspired. Already, football donors have provided gifts to update the student-athlete academic center and build a weight room for the men’s and women’s basketball and golf teams. But more remains to be done. “If you see what our competitors have, this is not a time to rest,” Ingram says. Falling behind means falling to the bottom in recruiting and performance, he adds. “All of our student-athletes deserve a world-class experience that mirrors the world-class education they’re receiving.”
None of these tasks are small. But it could be argued that Clark and company already have done the impossible.
“Our team motto is ‘Do it better than it’s ever been done before,’” Clark says. “That’s how we handle every single day. How we get up. How we eat. How we work out. How we go to class. How we treat other people.
“We’re going to keep working hard,” adds the coach. “We never quit.”