UAB Football Reinstated; Finally Some Optimism

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President Ray Watts announced Monday afternoon that UAB football will be reinstated, though laid out no certain timetable for the complete return of a program that never needed to shuttered in the first place.

Should Watts announce the termination of UAB football once and for all, it would come as final twist of the knife for a program that has endured one misfortune after another — particularly in recent months. Tyler Cantrell, in his must-read column on the Alabama Board of Trustees‘ involvement in UAB football’s closure, stated it best: “as a 10-year UAB fan my heart still says no [to the reinstatement of UAB football].”

The reinstatement is a victory, sure, but the promising Blazers’ 2015 season had to be compromised and the future of the program thrown in doubt just to come to this realization. It’s a bit of a microcosm for the program’s existence, which is a constant, uphill battle.

Such pessimism from ardent supporters, students and alumni is heartbreaking, but was sadly cultivated over the years, and accelerated since 2013.

AL.com has a timeline of the events that led up to UAB football’s closure, announced last fall, but that only scratches the surface.

Former Bobby Petrino assistant Garrick McGee abandoned ship after just two seasons as head coach, reuniting with Petrino to serve as Louisville’s offensive coordinator. A head coach leaving for an assistant’s job of his own volition is a harsh assessment of a program’s value.

With just one bowl appearance in its history, and bitterness precluded UAB from playing in-state powers Auburn since 1996, or Alabama ever. The animus between Alabama and UAB football involves Blazer supporters’ mistrust of Paul Bryant Jr., an Alabama BoT member, and includes the BoT’s 2006 nixing of UAB hiring Jimbo Fisher.

No games with Auburn or Alabama denied UAB a substantial payday, though that could be made up with games against other power programs, like Ohio State, which the Blazers hung tough with in 2012. More importantly, however, UAB football was denied sharing the state’s brightest spotlights, and thus lost out on meaningful exposure.

But in hiring Bill Clark, UAB football finally got the head coach with the commitment and ability to help the Blazers start tapping into their potential. And, situated in one of the most talent-rich recruiting pools in the nation, that potential is lofty.

Clark finished 6-6 and bowl eligible in his debut season, showcasing local gems like running back Jordan Howard. Howard rushed for 1,587 yards and 13 touchdowns, and as a sophomore, had two more campaigns left as a Blazer.

The announced closure of the program sent Howard to Indiana, where he will finish his career. Twist of the knife.

Nevertheless, local products and an energetic new coach brought an average of more than 20,000 fans to Legion Field — a venue UAB football sorely needs to escape if the Blazers are indeed reinstated. A cornerstone of today’s decision could be the proposed on-campus stadium, which Paul Bryant Jr. publicly declared dead in 2011.

A more intimate, on-campus venue would do wonders for a reinstated UAB program, and perhaps fuel more successful seasons like 2014. Unfortunately, 2014 could have been even more successful.

Despite a record number of bowl games in the 2014 season, not one could invite the Blazers. Proponents of the bowl system — myself included — defend it based on its merits of tradition and offering opportunities to an abundance of student-athletes. In UAB’s case, the bowl system failed mightily.

What better farewell, temporary or otherwise, could the Blazers have had than to play in just the program’s second postseason, and perhaps secure its first bowl win? Instead, the knife was turned further.

Perhaps lost in conversations about television revenue, postseason selection processes, amateurism and sport’s place in education is just what college football means to a campus. Football can function as a vital part of the collegiate experience, building enduring memories and friendships.

Football functions pragmatically as well, creating devoted boosters when those students, who have fond memories of their fall Saturdays, become alumni. And a thriving football program helps create more of those happily donating alumni, something athletic directors at Lamar and South Alabama told me for a piece I wrote for NCAA.com in late 2010.

Both universities saw applications skyrocket when they added football in the late 2000s. Lamar just completed its first winning season in 2014, and South Alabama reached its first bowl game. Perhaps the state’s newcomer getting that bowl bid, with the same record and a future to look forward to, twisted the knife even more.

So if you sense pessimism emanating from UAB, it’s been built up through many tortuous years. Let’s help the Blazers finally get something to cheer about.