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Inside signing day at UAB

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It's a miserable start to the morning. All of downtown Birmingham feels empty, cold and wet. The sun hasn't come out, and the rain hasn't stopped since the night before, when tornadoes swept through the state. It's 5:30 a.m., yet Bill Clark is at the UAB football offices moving a mile a minute.

"You comin' in?" the 47-year-old coach asks in a syrupy Southern drawl, passing a BLAZER FOOTBALL COUNTDOWN clock that has been shut off for more than a year.

Mind you, he's leaving the building -- not entering it to start his day. He has already slurped down half a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee while waiting anxiously, like he does every day, in the parking lot for the doors to open. He has already fired off his first tweet of national signing day. "Game day!" it reads, which is both appropriate and wildly ironic. For now, though, it's just him and the janitorial staff moving quietly around the office, and he says he has somewhere else he needs to be. Then he has to shower, put on his suit and begin signing day in style.

At 7:01 a.m., the first signed letter of intent arrives. It's from Raylon Richardson, a 6-foot-5 receiver from Lithonia, Georgia.

By 8 a.m., Clark has already lost his sport coat and is wearing out the carpet between his office and that of his recruiting coordinator, a hard-charging 29-year-old named Taylor Edwards, who broke his glasses sprinting to the fax machine the night before and will celebrate his birthday the next day by chasing down targets for next year's class. It's a ping-pong match between the two men when everything gets going: Clark asks Edwards whether each letter of intent is in, and when it is, he comes back five minutes later wondering why the slow-to-rise compliance staff hasn't given them the all-clear to announce the signing.

"Can we talk about Tyler Marshall?" Clark asks impatiently. You can feel his eyes roll when he is told to hold off discussing their latest signee, a 6-foot-5 quarterback from Dothan, Alabama, who was offered by Mississippi State and drew interest from Louisville.

UAB has a livestream broadcast set up in the locker room that will run on the school's website, and all Clark wants to do is spread the good news. For seven months, he has worked tirelessly to convince players such as Marshall that UAB is the place they should be and the risk they should take and to make them believe in the history they could help make together. The fact that anyone said yes is a minor miracle for a program that was shut down at the end of the 2014 season and brought back less than seven months later.

Every player knows the deal: no football until 2017. Yet somehow, the conversations don't end there.

Other letters arrive from Tyler Johnston, a local quarterback from Spanish Fort who was named Mr. Football, and Donnie Lee, a 215-pound safety from a private school in Arkansas.

The last to sign is also the most dramatic: D.J. Law, former four-star running back out of Florida who signed simultaneous letters of intent with Utah, Ole Miss and a junior college in 2014. Now the wolves have circled again, trying to flip the UAB commit with last-minute promises. Assistant coach Heath Thomas bounces back and forth from his office, working the phones, trying to rein Law back in.

Shortly before 11 a.m., Thomas hangs up, exhausted, and gives Clark the good news.

"What?!" Clark shouts. "It's official?!"

There's a minor commotion, and soon Law's one and only fax of the day arrives at UAB.

A few minutes later, State Rep. Jack Williams stops in and tells the staff, "Merry Christmas!" A total of 17 players have signed and cleared compliance, and Clark is able to go on the livestream to tell the UAB faithful all about their 2016 class.

It's not about showing off at this point. Rather, by saying their names out loud, it's as if it has becomes real. The hashtag Clark uses so often on Twitter -- #TheReturn -- is no longer just a clever branding opportunity. Now it is a call to action that has been received across the country, with five players from California, three from Texas and two from New York. That's not to mention the early portion of the signing class, which shattered expectations by landing Greg Bryant, a former top-25 prospect from Florida who was dismissed by Notre Dame and had his pick of schools, Brandon Hill, a former Alabama transfer, and Clifton Garrett, a former top-50 prospect and LSU signee who played with the Tigers as a freshman before transferring.

"It's a good group," Clark says of the initial crop of 39 players, including early enrollees. "Nothing is going to be great until '17."

Still, there's the sense throughout the morning that Clark and his staff have done something remarkable. At a signing day afterparty, running backs coach Randy Pippin scarfs down a few appetizers near the bar and reflects on the past few months, calling the time spent recruiting an "adrenaline rush."

"We didn't coach in the fall," he says. "All we did was evaluate."

According to ESPN's Tom Luginbill, had the Blazers' class been eligible, it would have ranked among the best in Conference USA.

Clark is greeted on stage with a long applause. His message to those wary about the future of UAB football is straightforward and simple: "It is real. We are doing it. It's going to be great."

Demetrius Davis, a speedy running back from nearby Huffman High School, believed. He turned down offers from Memphis, Southern Miss and Western Kentucky, where he would have been eligible to play immediately. He says the atypical redshirt year he will go through at UAB was actually a selling point for him. Every player will get a waiver for a sixth year, though that didn't slow the negative recruiting pitches he heard from other schools.

"They were all saying, 'Ain't nothing for sure. At UAB, they shut the program down for a reason,'" Davis says. "But I just saw it coming. It was a big decision for me. I just let them say what they want to say."

A moment later, he adds: "I'm from Birmingham. I want to be part of The Return. It's never happened before, and I want to be a part of that. There's probably going to be a 30 for 30 on it."

With Davis' highlights playing in the background, Clark tells everyone how Davis, one of the crown jewels of the class, ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash. Figuring it was a clock malfunction, he was asked to run it again, and he clocked in at 4.3 seconds.

"The hardest people we have to sell is our local guys," Clark says. "Let's fight for those things. Let's keep doing what we're doing. I've said this before, but let's go get that stadium!"

There's momentum toward a new stadium to replace the rundown Legion Field, but nothing is set in stone yet. What is, however, is a $15 million, 46,000-square-foot, covered practice field and football operations building that will be approved for construction the next day.

Before, official visits were scheduled around not setting foot in their current building, which resembles a shoebox, compared to many Power 5 schools, and hasn't been renovated in decades. Moving forward, UAB will be able to show off its new digs to a generation of recruits that has shown it values facilities. Even though the renovations are not likely to be completed until the summer of 2017, simply having cranes in the air will signal to visitors that the aim to rebuild UAB football is more than a pile of sound bites.

"It's everything. That was the thing for me: Yes, I want to do it. Yes, I love Birmingham. But I'm not doing this again," Clark says in reference to how things were before the shutdown. "I told them the whole way that we all have to decide this is what we want to do. And that's when the business community came in, our people and alumni, and said, 'We're going to do this right.'"

But in talking about the future of UAB, you can't avoid the past. You see someone at the signing day party wearing a "Fire Ray Watts" shirt and remember how the school president became a villain when the football program was shut down. You can't forget the disbelief of coaches, after surpassing even the most optimistic expectations by going 6-6 in their first year, when they were told they'd have to find new jobs. Clark stayed in town to see what would happen next, and when football was reinstated, only a few of his assistants were able to return. That included Edwards, who spent the few months off working in Alabama's football recruiting office.

For now, Clark and his staff plan to hold their own scaled-down version of spring practice soon and will attempt to develop their roster without the benefit of preparation for actual games.

In the end, this is Clark's vision. Sipping coffee every morning before daybreak, he dreamed of how UAB might return, what it might look like, why it might come back even better. With the conviction of a true zealot, he went into recruits' homes and sold them on an admittedly risky endeavor.

"I've felt all along that this is one of those truly bigger than us situations," Clark says. "We're changing the community, the university, the town. The prayer has been: This is what we're supposed to do. This is how we're supposed to do it. Let it work."