When UAB returns to the football field starting with the 2017 season, Blazers coach Bill Clark said Wednesday at Conference USA media day, "You're going to really see a different UAB."
The NCAA informed UAB on Monday that the Blazers can resume football in two years at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level and will not be subject to FBS requirements for a waiting period of three years. UAB also will be eligible for a postseason bowl and the Conference USA championship in 2017.
“I am so excited that UAB football will return to FBS competition in 2017,” Clark said. “Like our fans, I wanted to light the scoreboard much sooner, but doing it right is more important than doing it fast, and this was our best option."
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On June 1, just shy of six months after announcing that they would cut football and two other sports in a cost-saving move, UAB reinstated the three programs.
"We feel like all this has given us a national footprint," Clark said. "We've got to use that as a strength.
"Our people have really stepped out there and said this is important to them for our school but also for the city of Birmingham, which is such a great place and such a great sports town, and it's specific to football," he added. "That's one of the things I think that people need to know about if they didn't. Obviously they saw the fight to get it back. And then of course building this family, building this family back together. That was probably one of the most special experiences of my coaching life, 28 years, for this group to be so hungry for what happened with us. It was a neat deal."
Clark said Wednesday he's received calls from players across the country interested in joining the program. This week, Memphis offensive lineman Tyler Jones signed a financial aid agreement to attend UAB. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder from Albertville, Ala., redshirted as a freshman last season with the Tigers.
"It's obviously a big deal to get the first one," said Clark, who led UAB to six wins and bowl eligibility in 2014.
Meanwhile, rifle will resume competing with the upcoming 2015-16 season and become a mixed rifle squad with coed participation and bowling will return to competition for the 2016-17 academic year.
With the June 1 announcement, Conference USA said the board will not take action against the school's membership, which was to be voted on June 8 in Dallas. Conference bylaws state its members must play football at the FBS level or be transitioning to remain.
When he announced his original decision on Dec. 2, 2014, UAB president Ray Watts cited the rapidly increasing costs to field a competitive football team. Legions of fans rose up in defense of the program, including boosters who raised millions to bring the program back. After the initial announcement last year, 53 Birmingham-area cities and towns passed resolutions asking for the program to be reinstated.
Players who transferred from UAB after the December announcement called the program's reinstatement "bittersweet."
According to the Associated Press via AL.com, UAB will cap its subsidizing of athletics to $14.49 million for each of the next five years, about $200,000 less than the university paid in 2014.
The City of Birmingham and UAB's National Alumni Society have each pledged contributions to athletics while student government leaders will raise student fees. Those total $5.3 million with the balance of money coming from private donors.
One thing that's not on the table: UAB building an on-campus stadium to replace aging Legion Field. Watts said that's up to the city and community to fund.
"We believe that a stadium is best addressed by the city and our communities here and by our community leaders," Watts said, citing a new baseball field that houses Birmingham's Class AA franchise.
"We will be happy to play in any new, modern facility that the city might choose to build. We leave the specific type of facility and the exact location up to the mayor and city leaders and community leaders."
Conference USA issued a statement regarding the return of UAB that said: "We are very pleased with the decision to bring back the football program at UAB. As a conference we are committed to football, and we welcome the good news that the UAB football program has been given another chance. From all indications, this program will now be able to count on a very strong foundation of community support upon which it will begin the re-building that will position it well for success into the future. Although the lengthy evaluation process was challenging, this final outcome makes it worth the wait. We look forward to working with our colleagues in Birmingham as they plan this exciting new chapter in UAB football."
Former players were thrilled with the decision. Ty Long, the team's former kicker who signed with the Redskins after the NFL Draft, thanked the fans for supporting the team. "UAB family this wouldn't have happened without every single one of us! I want every supporter to know they are apart of this!" Kennard Backman, drafted by the Packers last month, tweeted "Glad they brought football back to Birmingham, but they separated my brothas already smh."
UAB administrators reviewed a 97-page report released to the public on May 18 by College Sports Solution, which concluded the athletic department would have an annual deficit of $3.165 million if it reinstated football, rifle and bowling. The school-commissioned report added that reinstating the sports also "would foster much goodwill and stimulate a substantial amount of spiritual and financial support from alumni, donors, ticket holders, friends, students, faculty and the community."
The CarrSports report, which was the basis for UAB's decision to drop football, said the school would need to spend $49 million over a five-year period to be competitive in football.
Yet another study, by California-based consultant OSKR and partly funded by anonymous UAB football boosters, said UAB's decision to end football was "ill advised."
FBS attendance dropped 2.3% in 2014 UAB had the second-biggest increase, from 10,548 fans per game to 21,841. "We will consider the (CSS) report's findings, along with other important, valuable and mission-critical data, in order to make the best decision for UAB going forward, guided by our vision, mission and strategic plan," Watts said.
The Birmingham City Council approved a resolution pledging $500,000 to UAB football if officials reinstate the program and UAB football boosters have reportedly pledged $6 million to bring back football. Supporters also have been waging a crowd-funding campaign via social media.
Some of the Twitter reaction to the football's return:
On the cover: UAB head coach Bill Clark is eager to bring his team back in 2017. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)