Forget rebuilding, UAB is looking to win big in its first year back

UAB marks return to football with spring game (0:54)

John Anderson reviews what led to the University of Alabama-Birmingham bringing back football following a two-year hiatus. (0:54)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- UAB coach Bill Clark loaded the buses up late Saturday morning and waited to see what was on the other side.

Two and a half years had led to this moment: a 2.5-mile drive from downtown Birmingham toward Legion Field. When he arrived, he'd know right away whether the long fight back from the program's shutdown following the 2014 season was worth it. It was either validation or soul-crushing denial that he was about to feel.

All signs were pointing in the right direction. A new state-of-the art football-operations building was nearing completion. A covered practice field was almost done. There were even rumors of a new stadium on the horizon. Donors were writing the big checks they'd promised, and the administration was saying and doing all the right things since reinstating the program in July 2015. But for all the talk and money spent, Clark wondered. He'd heard people question why anyone would show up for a glorified scrimmage in April.

Someone asked him whether he was nervous and he said, "I've been nervous. It's real."

Approaching the stadium, unable to see what was on the other side, he felt that. So imagine his relief when the buses began turning the corner and crowded parking lots came into view. When he saw the band, cheerleaders and hundreds upon hundreds of fans lined up to greet the team two hours before kickoff of the spring game, his emotions got the best of him. This was why he'd stuck it out through the shutdown and turned down other jobs. At one point, he turned to his wife and told her he was glad he had sunglasses on. No one needed to see him cry.

"I know what I hear every day that I'm out, I know what I hear from UAB faculty and the students now and how this is UAB's year. It's totally different," he said. "But to see it, you know just to see it, was big."

All told, 7,822 people came to see UAB's spring game. And while that figure doesn't compare to in-state powerhouses such as Alabama and Auburn, it's something for a program from Conference USA. It was a school record for attendance, in fact, and more than the reported numbers from spring games at BYU and Colorado.

Quarterback A.J. Erdely put on a good show, throwing for 108 yards and rushing for 59 more, but even he caught himself looking up at the crowd during the second half, taking it all in. Collin Lisa, who led all receivers with 115 yards and a touchdown, said it felt like deja vu from his first game as a freshman back in 2014.

"I had to take a step back for a second and think, 'I'm really back now and this is really happening,'" Lisa said.

Saturday's game wasn't some cruel April Fool's joke. It was real, honest-to-goodness football being played by a UAB program once left for dead. It felt normal for a group of players and coaches who hadn't experienced anything close to normal in a long, long time.

"We've all got a grasp of what we're working toward," said linebacker Shaq Jones "It's go time. We're excited. Sept. 2, we'll put on a show."

It's Thursday morning, a week and a half before the spring game, and the sun is just coming up over the skyline of downtown Birmingham. It's a crisp 52 degrees and the wind is blowing pollen off the trees like snowflakes.

Before the shutdown, this scene would have been a lot less idyllic. Rain earlier would have left the field flooded for days. It was only 80 yards long back then, athletic director Mark Ingram explains, and it could never take on water. The field opposite it, he says, had a 10-foot incline from one end zone to the other and was surrounded by a square track (yes, square).

Now, the field is a state-of-the-art turf, and a new covered practice field is under construction where that ridiculous track used to be. A dozen men in hard hats are on top of the green, steel structure at the start of practice, installing the metal roof.

Offensive coordinator Les Koenning, who was a longtime Power 5 assistant and offensive coordinator at Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, pops his head out of the crumbling, old football offices, shakes out his camo UAB cap and puts it on. A couple of minutes later, Clark saunters out in a lime-green pullover and gets mic'd up for the start of practice.

There's a quarterback battle going on between the veteran, Erdley, and the freshman, Tyler Johnston, who was Mr. Football in the state of Alabama and went undefeated as a starter at Spanish Fort High School. Donnie Lee, who began the spring at linebacker, is working out with the running backs and looking every bit the part of a between-the-tackles workhorse.

Beyond practice, though, is where the real action is going on.

A couple of days later, Clark grabs the keys to a golf cart, making sure it's the premium cart with the wood-grain dash. This is the one they use for recruiting, he says, grinning.

Whizzing around campus, Clark talks about how important it was to get projects such as the covered practice field and football-operations building going. At one point, he was thinking about renting a dump truck and parking it on the side of the road just to hint at the work about to take place. But now, as he pulls up to a construction site, he's greeted by upwards of 130 men working.

More than 100 recruits were on campus the previous weekend, and this was the No. 1 thing he was able to show them: progress. When he first saw the green, steel frame of the new practice field go up in late February, he nearly wrecked his car driving home from the airport.

"That tells everybody it's real," Clark says. "It's a 70-foot billboard that says, 'UAB.'"

Clark, wearing his personalized hard hat, pumps his fist when he notices that drywall has begun going up on the first level of the 46,000-square-foot, $22 million football facility. The newly installed glass windows, he says, make all the difference.

There will be a fuel station, player's lounge, fire pit, pool tables, basketball court, cryogenics machine and enormous hot and cold tubs. NFL scouts will be able to have a room all to themselves, and Clark's personal office will triple in size, including a wrap-around deck and a dedicated bathroom and shower.

UAB wasn't known for much other than mediocrity before the program's shutdown, and afterward, the return from exile has been the prevailing narrative. But Clark is looking forward. He wants to win now and build for the future at the same time.

A year ago, Clark was selling recruits on a dream. Now, he has evidence he can point to. And in a few months, he'll have the results of an actual football season.

"There's a worry that if I ask for something nice or we build something nice that people are going to have more expectations," he says. "No, because you're not going to have higher expectations than I have for myself. So we're here to compete and win. And I think anything less than that is a mistake."

Remember, this is the same coach who at the end of his first day of practice at Prattville (Ala.) High School broke it down with a chant of "State champs!" There were only 20-something players that day, and he says they all looked at him like he was insane. In the end, though, Clark would win two state championships and post a record of 107-11 before moving into the college ranks, where he helped build another program from scratch as defensive coordinator at upstart South Alabama, which went from unclassified to FCS to FBS in the span of only four seasons.

UAB didn't start back with nothing, but it was close. Many players understandably transferred, including current Chicago Bears star Jordan Howard, leaving roughly 30 players on campus when the program was reinstated. It was a fight to get players to buy into the vision early, but it's getting easier every day.

"We've got all the pieces," Clark says, "if we pull them together."

Come July, they'll be able to tear down the old football offices and move into their new ones. Clark wants to be the one to level the building himself, but Ingram has thought of a neat (and cathartic) fundraising opportunity: buy a sledgehammer for $100, take a swing and keep the memento.

Either way, UAB is leaving its past behind.

"We've got to keep focused and level-headed," Clark says of the race to the season-opener. "But we want excitement. It's a balancing act."

"Ninety seconds! Ninety seconds!"

UAB defensive line coach Kyle Tatum is walking and talking, wearing holes in the carpet as he paces around his corner of the locker room prior to Saturday's scrimmage. He's a nervous bundle of excitement, giving constant reminders to play with energy and focus, to force turnovers and change the line of scrimmage.

Everyone is locked in. Clark wanted to recreate as much of a game atmosphere as possible, so everything from the pregame meal to the walk-through was what they'll experience on Saturdays in the fall.

"The whole nation is watching today!" Tatum shouts. "They open their laptop and see UAB!"

And what they saw, if they looked closely at the live stream, was a team with arguably more speed and size than before the program's shutdown. There's more maturity, too. Clark estimates that 50 to 60 percent of the roster is made up of transfer students, whether from a four-year or junior college. Kalin Heath transferred from Kansas State, Will Dawkins from Indiana and Teko Powell from Illinois. Speedy former Arizona running back/receiver Jonathan Haden, the brother of star NFL cornerback Joe Haden, has the look of a difference-maker on offense.

UAB football was given a second chance, and Clark says he wanted players who understood that concept, as well. What's more, he knew from studying other startup programs, including SMU's return from a two-year suspension in 1989, that fielding a team of freshmen wouldn't work. "It wouldn't be fair to them," he says. "They'd get killed."

Besides, Clark isn't interested in growing pains or a slow rise from the ashes. He's in a win-now mode, and with good reason. A losing season, as he sees it, would threaten all the momentum and support that's been built over the past 2 1/2 years.

When Clark talks to fans and alumni, he likes to joke that, "Not only have I been undefeated one year, I've been undefeated two years." But speaking to a group in January, he had a man in the crowd jab back, "Yeah, and you haven't won a game either."

"You're right," Clark said. "It's real now."

It didn't happen the way anyone envisioned, but UAB football has become a national brand since the program's shutdown. Pivoting that brand from the little engine that could to a perennial conference contender, however, won't be easy.

Clark had a long, 2.5-year runway to get UAB off the ground. In the beginning it felt like the clock was moving at half-speed, but now it's picking up steam, racing past signing day and spring practice.

Saturday's scrimmage might have ended with the Green team beating Gold 49-7, but the number that mattered most was in big letters on the stadium's JumboTron: "Countdown to kickoff: 154 days."

"We know the judgment is coming," Clark says.

The fans are in.

The donors are in.

The administration is in.

The only thing left to do now is win, and make it all worth it.