Six months after announcing that UAB would drop its football program, university president Ray Watts made a surprising about-face on Monday, restoring the Blazers' program.
Here's a look at some of the unresolved issues and questions UAB faces as it attempts to revive its football program:
1. Why did Watts change his mind?
Watts' controversial decision to drop football six months ago was largely based on the results of a self-study compiled by CarrSports Consulting, which estimated UAB's athletic expenses would increase to $38.5 million by 2019 while revenue would grow by less than $1 million. UAB already subsidizes nearly $20 million to its athletics department -- roughly two-thirds of its annual operating budget -- and the university said it would need an extra $49 million for future football operating costs. Based on UAB's history of fundraising and outside support, Watts didn't believe the Blazers could raise enough money to keep the football program from piling up massive debt.
After Watts announced UAB was dropping football, rifle and bowling, 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. Justin Craft, a former UAB football player and chair of the Task Force Subcommittee for Public/Private Support, helped raise more than $17.2 million from 600 private donors to cover future operating shortages.
2. So when will UAB's football team return to the field?
Only one thing is clear: The Blazers won't play football this coming season. Watts and new athletic director Mark Ingram said during a news conference in Birmingham on Monday that the program would return to competition "as soon as possible," maybe as early as 2016.
Keep in mind that Watts and Ingram want to construct new football facilities (mainly a new field house and synthetic turf practice fields) and improve existing ones before the Blazers return to competition. Watts said UAB won't increase its existing financial support of athletics and won't borrow money to build facilities, so donations have to be in place before construction begins. Also, most of UAB's players from the 2014 season have transferred to other schools, and many of coach Bill Clark's assistants left for other jobs. With so much work to do, returning to the field during the 2017 season -- or even later -- might be a more realistic option for UAB.
SMU, the last program to drop (because of an NCAA death penalty) and then reinstate football, took nine seasons before it registered a winning record.
3. Where will UAB get players?
After Watts dropped the football program in December, more than 50 UAB players transferred to other schools, including most of its best players. Wide receiver Jamari Staples left for Louisville, linebacker Jake Ganus transferred to Georgia and offensive lineman Victor Salako landed at Oklahoma State.
According to people familiar with the situation, about 25 to 30 UAB football players are still enrolled at the school. The Blazers can apply for an NCAA waiver to sign more than 25 prospects next February. They also might be able to add up to 25 early enrollees and transfers in January; those players would count toward UAB's 2015 scholarship allotment, which it obviously didn't use.
4. Who will coach UAB's football team?
Clark, who guided the Blazers to a 6-6 record in 2014, remains under contract with UAB and doesn't plan to coach at another school this coming season. Clark's contract with UAB expires at the end of the 2016 season, and UAB supporters who helped raise money to save the program want to sign him to a long-term extension.
Clark, who couldn't be reached for comment, released a statement through UAB on Monday: "Like all UAB supporters, I am thrilled with today's news. This is a critical first step toward UAB football's new path. It takes tremendous commitment and support to run a successful football program. We have a lot of work to do but we start anew today!
"I sincerely appreciate all of the people who have reached out to voice their support for the program and me personally; it means a lot to me and my family. It is an exciting day for UAB and a true relief to know there is a future for UAB football."
If Clark decides to remain at UAB, he'll have to fill several spots on his coaching staff. UAB offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent and tight ends coach Richard Owens left for the same positions at South Alabama, and receivers coach Cornelius Williams accepted the same job at Troy. Alabama hired former Blazers running backs coach Jody Wright as its director of player personnel.
5. Will the Blazers remain in Conference USA?
Without football, UAB would have been forced to find a new conference home for its other sports. Conference USA bylaws require its members to field an FBS football program, so the return of UAB football was welcomed by the league.
Conference USA released the following statement on Monday: "We are very pleased with the decision to bring back the football program at UAB. As a conference we are committed to football, and we welcome the good news that the UAB football program has been given another chance. From all indications, this program will now be able to count on a very strong foundation of community support upon which it will begin the re-building that will position it well for success into the future."
Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky has indicated the conference will grant UAB a one-year reprieve from its bylaws, which would allow the Blazers' other sports teams to continue to compete in the league during the 2015-16 seasons.
It's not clear what will happen to UAB's other sports if the school doesn't have a football team ready to go in 2016. Also, there's a chance the Blazers might be forced to compete as an FCS program for one season -- as other FBS startup programs have been forced to do -- when they're ready to return to competition.
ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported Monday that UAB will not be eligible to compete in a bowl game until the 2017 season at the earliest without an NCAA waiver.
6. Who is most responsible for the return of UAB football?
Several people spearheaded the #FreeUAB movement, from state Rep. Jack Williams to UAB boosters Jimmy Filler and Don Hire. But perhaps no one was more instrumental than Craft, a former UAB player and current financial planner from Birmingham, who spent hundreds of hours over the past six months raising money from private donors to restore the program. As chairman of the Task Force Subcommittee for Public/Private Support, Craft was able to personally secure an estimated $7.5 million in financial pledges.
Filler launched the UAB Football Foundation, which secured pledges of $7.5 million to build an on-campus football stadium for the Blazers. The current plan is for UAB's team to continue playing at Legion Field in Birmingham.
7. What has to happen for UAB football to survive (and potentially thrive)?
UAB football supporters might have won their bitter battle with Watts and the University of Alabama board of trustees (which oversees UA campuses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa), but their work has only started. While Craft and others have secured enough money to cover future operational costs, more donations are needed to pay for the construction of new facilities.
UAB football supporters will also have to sustain the interest in the program over the next several years. Last year, UAB's average attendance doubled to more than 21,000, but fans will have to continue to show up for games -- even if the Blazers struggle during their first few seasons back on the field.