Shortly before Alabama mounted a historic come-from-behind win against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game last Saturday, another Yellowhammer state team was putting the finishing touches on a conference title of its own.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham defeated Middle Tennessee State 27-25 for the Conference USA title.
The Blazers will move on to play Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl.
This conference championship is not only a victory for the players and coaches on the field, it also a moral win for those who stood up four years ago to save the UAB football program.
It was November of 2014, and I was covering the commercial real estate beat for the Birmingham Business Journal when I received a letter from former Birmingham sportscaster Herb Winches.
I don’t recall the exact contents of the letter, but the gist was clear.
He - and those who supported the letter - was convinced UAB President Ray Watts was about to end the football program, and they had raised a considerable amount of money to show a good faith commitment from the business community for the program.
What did all of this have to do with commercial real estate?
If you’re familiar at all with the city of Birmingham, you know that UAB is the chief economic driver of the city. Between the main hospital and Children’s of Alabama, it is by far the city’s No. 1 employer.
And the school owns a ton of real estate.
That morning, I attended an event at the Birmingham Crossplex where then Mayor William Bell was speaking. After the event, I approached Bell and asked him about the letter I had received and if the city was in talks with UAB about providing money to help save the football program.
Bell’s response was surprising.
Watts, the head of the city’s largest institution, was not returning Bell’s phone calls.
Bell was visibly frustrated and expressed his desire to help keep the football team intact, but as the days went on, it became clear to everyone that UAB was bent on nixing this program.
At a December 2, 2014 press conference, Watts, along with other UAB suits, announced the football program, along with bowling and rifle, had been cut.
He cited a report conducted by CarrSports, a consulting firm, which seemed to have started with a conclusion and worked its way backwards.
Most everyone saw right through it, including Rep. Jack Williams, who was the biggest cheerleader in the Alabama House of Representatives on behalf of the UAB program.
Williams would hold regular meetings with the media, other lawmakers and UAB alumni at the Jim ‘N Nick’s restaurant on Oxmoor Road. This group was determined to save their football program.
Watts obviously thought that December was a good time to announce, since students were going home for Christmas, and the campus would be quiet.
But that didn’t happen.
Protesters flooded the streets in front of the UAB building where Watts’ office was housed.
“Don’t believe him, he’s a liar!” one former UAB football player shouted to the media that had gathered on the other side of the street.
Watts, whose university was in the middle of a $1 billion pledge drive, was nowhere to be found. His parking space was empty for several days.
Everywhere he went, there were hecklers shouting “free UAB!”
When the UAB basketball team made ESPN during March Madness in 2015, the same protesters could be heard shouting “free UAB!”
It had become a total embarrassment for Watts and the college.
In the weeks following the cut, we heard a lot of conspiracy theories about why the program was shut down.
Chief among those was that Paul Bear Bryant’s son, Paul Jr., had wanted to shutter the program for decades, because it represented competition against the Tuscaloosa team.
Bryant was set to roll off the board after 2014, and it was said that the football program’s destruction was his legacy project.
Of course, no one provided any evidence, other than hearsay, to corroborate this.
For goodness sakes, there were tapes of then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley sweet talking his former Sunday school student.
You’d think there would be something to back up this claim, but I never saw it. So I never reported it.
That caused a lot of friction between the BBJ and the “Free UAB” crowd.
They seemed to think if they called and told us it was so, we should print it, and we should do it without using their names of course.
I do remember talking with one very reliable source during that time, and that was UAB Head Coach Bill Clark.
Clark was the man who was hired to run out the clock for the UAB football program.
He was only given a two-year contract by the university, and a year after the Blazers posted a 2-10; 1-7 record, he had shocked the world by leading the Blazers to bowl eligibility at 6-6.
I recall talking to Clark one morning, in perhaps his most vulnerable state. It was in the days leading up to the announcement.
Knowing that his program was about to be axed and his job eliminated, he refused to say one bad word about Watts or the university. The only thing he wanted to do was coach the Blazers.
Eventually, Watts would bend to pressure and admit that the protesters he had termed as the “vocal minority” were actually the majority.
He launched a committee to examine the viability of bringing UAB football back, and by the summer of 2015, it was announced that the Blazers would play on Legion Field once again, starting in 2017.
Clark also received a new contract, and plans are being finalized to bring a new football stadium to downtown Birmingham that will host the Blazers.
Who knows if Clark will stick around Birmingham forever?
There are certainly other Division I teams who would like to steal him away, but he will always be remembered as a winner in the Magic City.
When he took over the dying program, he won six games without any external support.
When he had no program, he kept recruiting.
And when he got his program back, he rose to conference champion in just two seasons.