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UAB football program can't outrun past, escape shadow of Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- UAB coach Bill Clark produced one of college football’s biggest turnarounds this season, but the Blazers might have lost the only battle that mattered.

Clark told ESPN on Sunday he is worried the university and University of Alabama System board of trustees will pull the plug on UAB football, but he still hasn’t received official word from administrators.

For more than a month, after Clark and UAB football supporters learned of the university’s self-study into whether it was financially responsible for the Blazers to continue playing FBS football, they have been trying to sway public opinion in their favor.

“I hate the unknown,” Clark said earlier this month. “It’s the hardest part.”

Clark might finally get the answer about UAB’s football future, but it might not be the one he was hoping for.

If UAB drops its football program, it would be required to leave Conference USA in other sports, including men’s basketball. UAB and Southern Miss are the two longest-standing members of Conference USA, and the Blazers are scheduled to host the league’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments this spring.

On Saturday, the Blazers became bowl eligible by defeating Southern Mississippi 45-24 on the road to finish 6-6 in Clark’s first season. It was UAB’s best finish since it went 7-5 under Watson Brown in 2004. The Blazers lost 59-40 to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl in their only bowl appearance in school history.

"Some of the folks on that board would rather destroy UAB than beat Auburn."

Jack Williams,
Alabama state representative

Since then, UAB has won five games or fewer in each of the previous nine seasons. It went 2-10 under former coach Garrick McGee last season; he left to become Bobby Petrino’s offensive coordinator at Louisville, and Clark was hired from FCS program Jacksonville State.

Along with the on-field results, Clark also helped UAB’s attendance improve dramatically. The Blazers averaged 21,841 fans at six home games this season, which was fifth best among the 13 Conference USA members. UAB’s average attendance more than doubled after averaging 10,548 fans in 2013.

“We’re talking about making history,” Clark said earlier this month. “No matter what happened in the past, we’re here now. It’s going to change.”

Despite UAB’s success this season, it might not be able to outrun its woebegone past. Part of the problem, according to UAB football supporters and former players, is that the university doesn’t have its own board of trustees and is controlled by the University of Alabama System board, which oversees campuses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.

Thirteen of the 15 trustees received undergraduate or law degrees from the University of Alabama, including Paul W. Bryant Jr., the son of legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Only three board members have academic ties to UAB. One of them, Barbara Humphrey, is the wife of former Crimson Tide star running back Bobby Humphrey.

“Some of the folks on that board would rather destroy UAB than beat Auburn,” said Alabama state Rep. Jack Williams, an outspoken supporter of UAB football.

UAB football supporters have long argued the board of trustees has sought to hamper the program’s success. In 2006, UAB had reached an agreement with Jimbo Fisher to become its new football coach. But the board of trustees nixed the deal, and Fisher, who was then LSU’s offensive coordinator, went to Florida State the next season. He succeeded Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden in 2010 and guided FSU to a BCS national championship last season.

“Somebody made a decision,” Fisher told reporters in January, before the Seminoles defeated Auburn 34-31 in the BCS National Championship. “It’s funny in this business. You coulda went here. You coulda went there. Luckily, I’m glad they made that decision.”

In 2011, UAB officials sought to build a 30,000-seat stadium on campus to replace decaying Legion Field, but the board of trustees shot down the proposed project, saying it was fiscally irresponsible to spend $75 million on a stadium that would be used only a few times a week. At the time, the board said in a statement that it was “the wrong project at the wrong time.”

“I’ve never understood it,” said Justin Craft, a former UAB football player and financial planner in Birmingham. “If you look at it from a revenue standpoint, UAB, with its university and hospital, brings in more money than Tuscaloosa and Huntsville combined. There needs to be more representation on the board.”

"I just think the problem for UAB has always been the same. No matter how you slice it up or present it, it will only be the moon rotating around the Earth, and that Earth is Tuscaloosa."

SEC Network analyst Paul Finebaum, a former newspaper columnist and radio host in Birmingham

Alabama state Rep. John Rogers sponsored a bill in 2012 that would have created separate boards for UAB and Huntsville. He plans to present a proposal next year that would require equal representation on the board for the respective campuses. Even if the proposal passes, it might be too late to save UAB football.

Earlier this year, Craft and other former players formed the UAB Football Foundation to raise money to help build the Blazers an indoor practice facility. But during a meeting with UAB president Ray Watts, the former players were told they were welcome to raise money for the entire athletics department but not specifically for football.

After Craft realized Clark had only a three-year contract and that UAB hadn’t scheduled any nonconference games beyond the 2016 season, he became alarmed about the program’s future.

“Frankly, I couldn’t get any answers,” Craft said. “Neither could some of the other former players.”

The players wrote an open letter to Watts, and he responded by telling them UAB had contracted Bill Carr and Associates to conduct a campus-wide strategic study to determine whether it was financially responsible for UAB to keep playing football. Carr, a former athletic director at Florida, was supposed to complete his report near the end of football season.

“We had one hand tied behind our backs, and now we’ve got both hands tied behind our backs,” Clark said earlier this month. “We don’t mind working our tails off, but I do want to know. I’ve got to know.”

Now the Blazers are apparently getting ready to find out if they will have a program in the future.

“I just think the problem for UAB has always been the same,” said SEC Network analyst Paul Finebaum, a former newspaper columnist and radio host in Birmingham. “No matter how you slice it up or present it, it will only be the moon rotating around the Earth, and that Earth is Tuscaloosa. South Alabama has had some success, but it’s four hours away from Tuscaloosa and not 55 minutes.”

But for the critics who contend UAB could never get its football program off the ground even with more financial resources, the 2004 season might suggest otherwise.

Ten years ago, the Blazers defeated Baylor, Mississippi State and TCU by more than two touchdowns each in the same season. Either the Bears or the Horned Frogs (or both) might end up playing for a national championship this season in college football’s first four-team playoff.

“It wasn’t too long ago that we were on the same playing field in trying to strive to do bigger things,” Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, a former UAB player, told ESPN.com earlier this month. “At that point, we were beating those guys. Times have changed. Those guys are now premier teams. They’re winning a lot of games now. I think UAB can get to that level -- one day.”