Bill Clark, UAB starting over after program's abrupt revival

Toughest job in college football (1:44)

ESPN college football senior writer Mark Schlabach explains why UAB coach Bill Clark has the most difficult job in the sport. (1:44)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Jordan Howard, who led UAB in rushing last season, now leads FBS in rushing -- at Indiana.

Jake Ganus, the Blazers' leading tackler in each of the previous two seasons, is now a starting inside linebacker -- at Georgia.

Cody Clements, UAB's starting quarterback in 2014, is starting under center at South Alabama, and left tackle Victor Salako is now protecting quarterbacks at Oklahoma State.

Bill Clark, the man who coached them and recruited many of them to UAB, can only watch them play from afar. His former players are scattered across the country after UAB shuttered its program in December and then re-launched it six months later.

"It's bittersweet," Clark said. "I love to see them doing good and knew they would. But I think I'd be lying if I didn't say, 'What could have been.' I'm glad to see them doing well, no doubt."

Coming off his first season at UAB -- the Blazers' first non-losing campaign since 2004 -- Clark could have expected to head out on the recruiting trail armed with evidence the Blazers were on the rise.

Instead, after UAB president Ray Watts announced the school was dropping football, followed by an abrupt reversal of his decision and a reinstatement of the program, Clark is now charged with a completely different recruiting task: essentially rebuilding the Blazers from scratch.

With few players, even fewer assistants and a return set for 2017, Clark doesn't currently have a team and won't even coach in a game this season. Considering UAB's football program wasn't in great shape to begin with, he might have the most difficult job in college football.

"There's no playbook for this deal," Clark said. "I knew it was going to be demanding. But if you go from half-empty to half-full, you look at it and say it's more opportunities and more scholarships to fill."

"We don't have any players. ... We could put a group of people on the field next year in uniforms. That doesn't mean they'd be physically ready to play." UAB athletic director Mark Ingram

Just how many opportunities? Blazers athletic director Mark Ingram said just 13 scholarship players decided to remain at UAB, and 10 of those are scheduled to graduate during the 2015-16 school year. A few players, including senior linebacker Shaq Jones, have indicated they'll stick around and play in 2017.

"We don't have any players," Ingram said. "We don't have enough players to field a football team. We could put a group of people on the field next year in uniforms. That doesn't mean they'd be physically ready to play. I could take out an ad in the newspaper and find 105 guys to put on uniforms. That doesn't mean they'd be physically ready to play Marshall."

Since Watts announced on June 2 that UAB would bring back its football program, reversing his controversial decision from six months earlier to drop the school's football, rifle and bowling teams, Clark has been busy trying to reassemble his coaching staff, catching up in recruiting and working with UAB alumni and civic leaders to raise money for new facilities.

Last week, UAB signed Clark to a five-year contract extension that will pay him about $605,000 annually before incentives through the 2020 season, a development that was greeted with a pep rally on campus. Last season, after arriving from Jacksonville State to replace Garrick McGee, who resigned to be an assistant at Louisville, Clark guided the Blazers to a 6-6 record.

"I think [the new contract] makes it a lot easier and it shows that stability," Clark said. "It says everything. It says we're going to be here through the length of a recruiting period, and I think we'll do nothing but get better. It really tells the stability of our program."

Meanwhile, Clark and his assistants will also have to identify, recruit and sign the majority of the players for the 2017 team during the next 18 months as it prepares to return to the playing field as a member of Conference USA. The 13 players who stayed and 20 walk-ons attended the first team meeting last month.

Three assistants -- defensive coordinator Duwan Walker, defensive line coach David Reeves and offensive line coach Mike Bennefield -- decided to remain at UAB. Six other Blazers assistants left for other positions. Clark has been able to hire graduate assistants and analysts. He'll start to piece together the rest of his coaching staff after this season.

"Everybody else is gone," Clark said. "We've got a group of guys here that are working really hard."

Since the Blazers didn't think they'd have a team this past spring, Clark and his assistants weren't able to visit high schools and host important recruiting events such as junior days. They'll spend the next several months trying to catch up with other FBS programs on the recruiting trail.

"I thought it was best for us to play in 2017," Clark said. "We needed a year to get everybody. We're going to be FBS, and we're going to be in a great conference. We've got to try to get close to 85 players."

Former University of Memphis offensive lineman Tyler Jones, from Albertville, Alabama, was the first player to sign with UAB after it announced it was bringing back its team. One-time Arizona State signee Garrett Marino signed with the Blazers in August, and former Georgia defensive back Shaquille Jones, now at Iowa Western Community College, committed to sign in February.

Clark's plan is to sign 25 first-year players -- a combination of high school seniors, junior college transfers and FBS transfers -- in February and then hold spring practice next year. The Blazers will be allowed to sign another 25 first-year players in February 2017, so they might have as many as 70 to 85 players on their roster when they return to the field in two years.

Ingram said the NCAA made a few concessions for UAB, such as waiving a rule that requires FBS teams to have at least 90 percent of their 85 scholarships awarded on a rolling two-year average.

"As much as people want to criticize the NCAA, we just can't say enough good things about the NCAA," Ingram said. "They said they wanted to help us as much as they could and not get caught up in details that could potentially hurt someone else."

Ingram said UAB won't over-sign players during the next two years, which was a concern of a few rival Conference USA programs.

"We don't want to sign 40 players a year for two years and then have 40 seniors roll off our roster," Ingram said. "It seems laughable for one of those teams to say it gives us an advantage. If we're willing to play with 65 guys on scholarship and play an FBS schedule, and the conference is willing to let us play in conference, why do you care?"

A few returning players, such as Jones, junior cornerback Jordan Petty, junior receiver J.J. Green, and sophomore offensive linemen Bryant Novick and Zach Sims, decided to remain at UAB. Center Lee Dufour returned to UAB after attending classes for one semester at South Alabama, and kicker Nick Vogel returned after spending the spring at Southern Miss.

Jones, the returning UAB linebacker who had 50 tackles and 12 ½ tackles for loss in 12 games last season, nearly transferred to Western Kentucky before deciding to stay. He also received interest from Arizona, Marshall, UCLA and West Virginia. Jones is scheduled to graduate with a bachelor's degree next spring, and then he plans to enroll in graduate school. Jones said he's willing to wait two years to play one more season at UAB.

"I originally came here to be a Blazer, and I want to finish it out here," Jones said. "I came to UAB to help it become a better program, and I'm going to see it through. UAB will be back."

Jones, from Lanett, Alabama, found another silver lining in the temporary shutdown of UAB's program: He was able to walk his 5-year-old son, Jamari, into his first day of kindergarten last month. If the Blazers had been in the middle of preseason camp, he might not have been able to return home to see it.

"To me, it's just a break," Jones said. "I didn't want to have to sit out, but I'm going to wait. I get to do all the hard work in football without the reward on Saturday. I might get a part-time job, and I'll put more emphasis on my education."

Other than finding players, Clark's most important task is improving UAB's football facilities. Watts decided to bring back the program after UAB supporters raised an estimated $27 million from private donors, the city of Birmingham, UAB's National Alumni Society and the UAB Undergraduate Student Government Association. The money is slowly starting to come in, and UAB is making plans to break ground on the construction of a new football facility and practice fields. Long-term goals might even include a new stadium (the Blazers currently play at oversized and crumbling Legion Field, which is nearly 90 years old), but the funding will probably have to come from outside sources.

"There's a community interest in a new stadium where the city or local developers might have a genuine interest in doing something," Ingram said. "If it comes to fruition, we'd be happy to play there. The most important thing -- even if we're still playing at Legion Field -- is that we improve our football building. We play six home games a year. We spend 359 days in our other facility."

For now, Clark and his small staff are bunkered down at their old offices, trying to rebuild a program that was in desperate need of a facelift.

This time, Clark will be able to put his own mark on it.

"It's always appealed to me," Clark said. "You want it to be yours and you want it to be right. I love history and all those things that go with it. I talk to our players about being a part of history. I think it's definitely the silver lining. You can say, 'Let's do it right and build these facilities and find the right players.'"

Notable UAB transfers

Cody Clements, QB, South Alabama

Clements has started three games for the Jaguars, completing 55 percent of his passes for 725 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. In last week's 34-27 overtime victory at San Diego State, he threw for 270 yards with two touchdowns.

Jake Ganus, LB, Georgia

Ganus has started three games at inside linebacker for the Bulldogs and is the team's fourth-leading tackler with 16 stops. After last week's 52-20 rout of South Carolina, Ganus proposed to his girlfriend on the field at Sanford Stadium. Yes, she accepted.

Jordan Howard, RB, Indiana

Howard, a junior from Gardendale, Alabama, leads FBS with 507 rushing yards in three games -- an average of 169 yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry -- with three touchdowns.

Collin Lisa, WR, Buffalo

Lisa, a sophomore from Alpharetta, Georgia, is the Bulls' second-leading receiver with eight catches for 85 yards.

TJ McCollum, LB, Western Kentucky

McCollum, a sophomore from Birmingham, Alabama, is the Hilltoppers' leading tackler with 27 stops in three games.

Victor Salako, OL, Oklahoma State

Salako, a junior, has started each of the first three games at left tackle for the Cowboys. He is responsible for protecting quarterback Mason Rudolph's blind side.