Football, LSU vs. UAB, 9/7/13

LSU sophomore safety Micah Eugene (34) tackles UAB freshman running back Jordon Howard (7) on Sept. 7, 2013 during the Tigers' 56-17 victory against the Blazers in Tiger Stadium.

Sure, LSU has had a quick rebuild, but did they have someone kickstart their heart to keep them from dying? If you want first-hand experience, look no further than its opponents this Saturday in UAB.

On Nov. 29, 2014, UAB won its final game of the year against Southern Miss to finish the season 6-6 and gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2004. However, a few days later, the Blazers would hear the worst thing any football team could even imagine. UAB’s president, Ray Watts, announced to the group of players in that same room that the university would be ending its football program as soon as the 2014-15 season concluded.

As the rationale for the university’s decision, Watts cited exorbitant operational costs and substantial investments that would be necessary to make UAB football financially sustainable.

"While this will be a challenging transition for the UAB family, the financial picture made our decision very clear," Watts said. "We will not cut the current athletic budget, but in order to invest at least another $49 million to keep football over the next five years, we would have to redirect funds away from other critical areas of importance like education, research, patient care or student services."

“This is one of the most difficult days I have had to endure in my personal as well as coaching career,” former UAB Head Coach Bill Clark said in a statement following the Watts’ decision to end the football program. “I am absolutely heartbroken for my players and assistant coaches. These coaches and players have done a tremendous job and worked extremely hard for this university, to achieve six wins and be bowl eligible.”

When this decision was announced, there was major backlash. After all, UAB is located in Birmingham, the largest city in the football-crazed state of Alabama. There were mass protests all throughout the campus from outraged students. On January 15, 2015, a two-thirds majority of the UAB faculty senate voted no-confidence in the leadership of Watts as president of the university.

Even though Watts got much of the backlash, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees got most of the blame.

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees oversees the flagship school, the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa and other schools. UAB fans have complained for years that the board has held down the Blazers athletic programs, mostly football. 

UAB tried to hire future national champion head coach Jimbo Fisher, but funds were denied at the time, with no public comment from the board. UAB played in one of the most debilitated facilities in the FBS, the city-owned and aging Legion Field. A proposal for a smaller-sized stadium was denied as "the wrong project at the wrong time" according to the board.

When a local business arranged to upgrade the poor practice turf at no cost, UA trustee Finis St. John had the project killed, according to an report.

Clark even created a plan for a $10 million practice facility funded substantially through private donations from local businesspeople to replace the fields that routinely flooded. The mayor of Birmingham supported the project. However, the board never approved, and just mere months after killing football, greenlit a $4.5 million soccer complex.

In 2011, St. John even implied publicly that UAB shouldn't have athletics because he and other members of the board felt like the medical school should be UAB's focus, not football. 

After mounting backlash from students, athletes and members of the Birmingham community, the university announced that football would be reinstated on June 1, 2015, with plans to compete in 2016. However, they would move their competing year to the 2017 season.

Even though most of its roster were made up of true freshman and transfers, there was still some continuity going into the 2017 season. Clark and most of the coaching staff from 2014 returned, as well as some holdovers from the 2014 team.

Many people expected UAB to finish last place due to the fact that the Blazers haven’t played a game in two years. However, Clark and the Blazers had other plans. After winning their first game against Alabama A&M 38-7 for their first win since 2014, they only kept making history. The Blazers finished the regular season 8-4 and were only one victory away from advancing to the Conference USA championship. Although UAB ended up losing in the Bahamas Bowl to Ohio 41-7, the Blazers defied expectations.

The following season not only did the Blazers keep winning, but they did something that no other Blazer team has done. In 2019, UAB went 11-3 and won its first conference title, defeating Middle Tennessee State 27-25 in the Conference USA Championship. The Blazers went on to win their first bowl game when, beating Northern Illinois 37-13 in the Boca Raton Bowl.

UAB then advanced to the Conference USA Championship for the next two years, in 2019 and 2020, winning in the latter year against Marshall 22-13. UAB is still the only Conference USA program to advance to the title game three years in a row.

From UAB’s first season as a Division I program in 1996, to 2013, the Blazers only had two winning seasons, one bowl appearance and zero conference title appearances. When Clark took over the program in 2014, the Blazers have appeared in three conference championships, winning two, appearing in five bowl games and zero losing seasons.

Even though Clark retired prior to this season due to health issues, he is responsible for helping UAB become a consistent mid-major program that was once struggling and was declared medically dead until being brought back to life.

Interim Head Coach Bryan Vincent will be hoping to lead the Blazers to an upset victory over LSU in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, something the Blazers did in 2000 against the Tigers back when Nick Saban was in his first year as LSU's head coach.

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