While they are still more than a year away from officially playing again, UAB coach Bill Clark has been putting his players through spring drills. (Courtesy UAB Athletics)
Bill Clark, First Spring Football Practice Since Program Reinsta

SPRING FOOTBALL 2016 | Blazing a new trail: Road back for UAB football begins now

The spring schedule is a little wacky, granted, but it’s been a wacky year. While most football programs this week are starting to shake out the cobwebs and reconvene for drills, Alabama-Birmingham — remember them? — has been going strong for two weeks now.

“We’ll be back next year to a lot more normal time frame,” UAB head coach Bill Clark said. “We’ve got the Conference USA (men’s basketball) championship game (March 12). I really feel we’ll be in the championship game, so I didn’t want to have an event that day.”

They’ll wrap up officially next weekend, but the unofficial closer, the major event, is slated for Saturday, with practice open to the public, followed by a flag-football game played by UAB alums.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a ‘spring game,’” Clark said. “It’s more of a ‘spring practice.’ I’ll have my headset and I’ll give everybody an idea what’s going on on the field. It’ll look spring-game like in some ways. We’re not tackling to the ground. We just don’t have the numbers to take (that) chance.”

Of course, it’s something of an epiphany that they have any numbers at all, given hindsight. If fans spot him these days, they stop and thank Clark at airports, at the grocery store, at Wal-Mart. Thanks for staying. Thanks for fighting. Thanks for sticking it out.

“This is really a feel-good story that isn’t made up,” Clark said. “You’re really doing this for the community.”

A community and a program joined, arm-in-arm, like perhaps never before. In December 2014, after Clark’s Blazers were 6-6 in his initial season at the helm, UAB officials dropped the hammer, announcing that they were shuttering football as part of a swath of cost-cutting moves.

When enough anger and checks — but mostly the checks — came through this past June, the school changed course and re-instated the program. A reported $27 million was raised through private funds, and the NCAA cleared the Blazers to rejoin the Football Bowl Subdivision, and Conference USA, in the fall of 2017. #TheReturn — as they’re calling it — was on.

“At first — and I’ll just kind of take you back — at first, it was, ‘Let’s get guys in here, let’s establish our culture back,’” Clark said. “Let’s (say), ‘This is where we’re headed.’ We did a good job with that.”

With safety, purpose and a target date (The Blazers host Alabama A&M on Sept. 2, 2017) in hand, Clark and his staff hit the road, turning over stones, spreading the gospel of green and gold. When the dust settled on national signing day early last month, 247Sports.com had rated UAB’s haul of 45 players as No. 66 in the country. While that number wasn’t the sexiest on a national scale, the site ranked it second only to Marshall among C-USA schools.

“As competitive as coaches are, we need something to shoot for,” Clark said. “So that’s exciting. It’s not the end-all, but it’s exciting and it’s kind of obviously gratifying. But just a little.”

There were second chances: Ex-Notre Dame signee Greg Bryant, a wunderkind tailback out of Florida; linebacker Clifton Garrett (ex-LSU); and offensive lineman Brandon Hill (ex-Alabama). And depth: six UAB finds ranked within 247’s Top 150 nationally, including wideout Xavier Ubosi (94), defensive end Noah Jones (119), and quarterback/athlete Sederian Copeland (123).

“It was critical,” Clark said. “It went well. The proof will be, ‘Can you keep all the players doing what they’re supposed to do all the way to ’17?’ Did we sign the right guys? Did we hold on to them? Did they make their grades?

“Our guys did such a good job of finding players. Going to June and where we are now, it was like it was a lifetime ago. From being shut down, from going from no football to a Top 50-60 class — we need to keep everything positive. It’s exciting. But it’s going to finally get (closer). We’re going to look up, and it’s going to be summer (2017).”

Which beats the pants off of where they were 12 months ago, a program on the block, kids and coaches tossed to the wind. Even Clark considered his options. Who wouldn’t?

“You have a good year, especially given what the expectation was, and then all of a sudden (the shuttering announcement) happens,” the coach recalled. “It took me a while to kind of get my bearing. I wasn’t ready (to jump). I’ve been an assistant and I’ve been a head coach for a number of years. I said, ‘Do I want to be a coordinator at an SEC school or do I want to be a head coach?’

“I was (asking), ‘Am I really committed to this place?’ And I (was). And that kind of answered that question for me. But yeah, you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t tempted.”

Fragments are still scattered about the lawn, but the frame is finally taking shape again. Having stared at the brink, the Blazers reassessed. And retrenched. The first infrastructure question was answered with a new 46,000-square foot practice-field-and-football-ops building in the works. The second would be a makeover — or replacement — of old Legion Field.

You’re not in the arms race if you’re not building something, somewhere, and the beeps of backing trucks has the locals excited again. Plus, it gives Clark something to sell to families and boosters beyond a 2017 schedule magnet.

“Let’s be honest, this recruiting gets pretty nasty sometimes,” Clark said. “Sometimes, we were fighting against, ‘Well, are they really (playing)? Well, this could happen, that could happen.’ Once we got past that, everybody saw where we were headed, that made it so much easier.

“It’s been satisfying. It has been really (fun) just to see a lot of things come to fruition, like the things that were wrong here (before). And, of course, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Clark has walked this road before, sort of, as the first defensive coordinator at South Alabama when the Jaguars launched football from scratch in 2009 — eventually transitioning to the FBS in the fall of 2012.

“So there are a lot of similarities,” the coach said. “We had no history there and we’ve got a ton of history here. But even with all the similarities … when we were going to the FBS, we did it in five years. (Here), we’re doing it in two.”

So he seizes each day, starting at 4 a.m.-ish, relishing the moment. A little carpe in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other.

“I’m usually up waiting in the parking lot for Dunkin’ Donuts to get open,” Clark cracked. “I’m usually asleep by 11 p.m. I usually can go to sleep. I just can’t stay asleep.”

A new dawn beckons. Even better for the Blazers, tomorrow does, too.

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