Why Bill Clark is walking away from the UAB football program he helped revive

When UAB shut down its football program, coach Bill Clark stuck around despite two years without games. Now he leaves the program better off than it has ever been. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A month ago, a man drove out to Bill Clark's home and dug a small hole near the mailbox, just big enough for a for sale sign to slide in. Up the driveway, Bill and Jennifer, who met on a blind date more than 30 years ago and have been together ever since, went through the motions every football coach and wife become familiar with: carefully pack up the valuables, clear out the personal effects, remove too many signs of life lest they turn off a prospective buyer.

But this wouldn't be like the dozens of moves that came before. This had the air of finality, coming a few weeks after Clark shocked the college football world -- and maybe even Jennifer -- when he announced he was stepping down at UAB, citing a chronic back condition that required surgery. Despite being only 53 years old and having successfully brought the football program back from the dead in 2014, fighting to rebuild it into something far better than it had ever been before, Clark said he was retiring as of Aug. 1.

Jennifer told him he'd go stir crazy without the daily grind of running a football team. He wasn't sure she was wrong. What would he do if he wasn't out on the road recruiting? What if he wasn't holed up in a dark room late at night poring over tape of practice or an upcoming opponent?

He hadn't planned for this. He'd gone out of his way to avoid this exact moment until finally he felt he had no choice.

They bought the darn house only two years ago. Besides being in a nice neighborhood less than 10 miles from the football offices downtown, it was far from perfect. They paid through the nose for a massive renovation, removing any trace of the 1960s wood-cabin vibe inside and creating the ideal setup for a future of football in the fall and summers with the grandkids. They bought a big-screen TV and comfy theater seats in the basement to watch movies together. Out back, they built an oasis around the pool, adding a state-of-the-art sound system, a lush grass yard to run around in and a nifty swingset with a slide and mini rock-climbing wall.

Clark is proud of that backyard. Leaving it will be hard.

Now, as he sits in the living room on Tuesday waiting for a call from his realtor to say the home is officially under contract, the only sign of grandchildren is the empty diaper box in a cubby over his left shoulder. His voice echoes off bare walls as he tries to explain to a reporter why he left UAB right as the program was hitting its stride, having won Conference USA championships in 2018 and 2020 and three consecutive West Division titles.

Breaking the news to players was difficult. He says he couldn't shake the feeling that he was letting them down. So why did he do it? Why give all of this up?

The short answer is that football has been his entire life, his favorite memories as a kid being in his dad's head-coach's office watching 16-millimeter film. He loved the strategy, the camaraderie, the competition. He knew then at 6 years old he wanted to be a coach, but he knew only one way to do it: first one in, last one out.

Dad warned him, "You're gonna burn out." And he was right.

"You talk to any coach and if they tell you this isn't true, they're lying: August till January, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, is too much," Clark says. "It just is. I don't care how much you love it."

His body told him to hang up the whistle a long time ago. The short answer is it took his mind a while to catch up.

But there's always more to the story.

IT'S A CRUEL TWIST of fate that what jump-started Clark's coaching career is the same thing bringing it to an early conclusion.

Back in the summer of 1983, between Clark's freshman and sophomore years at Piedmont High School in East Alabama, he was trying to bulk up for football season in the weight room when he squatted too much weight and tweaked his back. A tough kid and the son of a longtime high school football coach, he winced and played through it. But the pain only got worse and eventually he consulted a not-yet-famous local orthopedic surgeon named James Andrews.

Andrews, who would later work with athletes such as Michael Jordan and Brett Favre, examined Clark's back and told him simply, "You're done." No more football. He'd injured his spine and surgery, which was not as advanced as it is today, was a gamble. Bullheaded, Clark pushed ahead and told Andrews, "No."

It took time to sink in, years in fact. But Clark found the silver lining in an early end to his playing days: he'd always wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and coach, and this way he'd get a head start. At 22 years old, he became the offensive line coach at his alma mater Piedmont High.

For 17 years, he worked his way up the high school ranks, eventually becoming head coach at powerhouse Prattville High -- a suburb of the state capital in Montgomery -- where they went 106-11 and won back-to-back state titles. His back never stopped hurting, of course. There was one camp at the University of Florida where he overdid it while teaching press coverage and had to stand up on the bus for the entire ride home from Gainesville. Sitting was too painful.

The pain never fully subsided, coming and going and every once in a while hitting like a bolt of lightning, making him fall flat on his face. But he was on the carousel of coaching, going and going and going, and he couldn't step off for surgery and rehab. So he climbed higher, becoming defensive coordinator at the University of South Alabama in 2008. Five years later, he took over as head coach at his alma mater Jacksonville State, which competes in the FCS.

They went 11-4 that first season and UAB hired him away, making him an FBS coach. He went 6-6 during his first season in Birmingham, but at the end of the year the rug was pulled out from under him. In December of 2014, UAB president Ray Watts shut down the program, citing the financial strain it caused the university.

An uproar from alumni and boosters followed, money was raised and six months later, the program was reinstated. The damage was done, though. Players and coaches had already left -- pretty much all of them. The Blazers wouldn't compete for two more seasons. The only one who remained was Clark, despite having opportunities elsewhere.

He and a makeshift staff worked out of a dumpy, single-story cinder-block building, rebuilding a program from scratch that wasn't very good to begin with. Since the team's inception in 1996, UAB had only three winning seasons and no bowl wins.

So Clark recruited junior college castoffs since high school players wouldn't give them the time of day. And somehow, someway, it worked. A team that had been snuffed out, a team that had absolutely no business competing at the FBS level, went 8-5 and appeared in the Bahamas Bowl during their first season in 2017.

Clark and a core group of fundraisers got a new football facility built and grinned devilishly as that cinder-block hell hole was demolished. They finished first in the Conference USA West division the next three seasons and, in 2021, they played their first game in the new $175 million Protective Stadium.

The stadium was Clark's baby, his dream come true. He wanted to play in it so badly -- it represented the culmination of him not just rebuilding UAB football but turning it into something entirely new and better -- that he pushed off earlier thoughts of dealing with his bad back.

"The BYU game was the last one," Clark says, recalling the Independence Bowl win over the No. 13 team in the country. "It was a kind of validation, 'Yeah. We can do this.'

"Given time, I can focus on me."

Dylan Hopkins zips in a clutch TD to give UAB the lead

Dylan Hopkins throws a dime to Trea Shropshire for a 14-yard passing TD to put the Blazers on top late in the fourth quarter.

So he finally made time for the conversations he'd been dreading -- the visit with his doctors, the calls to surgeons, to trainers, to former patients, to anyone he could think of with some familiarity with what he was going through. He talked to a doctor in Texas and California. He called Tiger Woods' surgeon. He called Peyton Manning's too.

"To a man," Clark says, "they said, 'Fusion.'"

That word fusion -- as in spinal fusion -- hit him like an unsuspecting receiver getting clotheslined by a linebacker over the middle. Clark had been making all those calls in search of an offramp, for someone to tell him fusion wasn't necessary and that if it was, the repercussions wouldn't be as serious as he thought.

But, no, it was needed. They'd fuse his vertebrae and dig out the crushed nerve, which caused him to walk with limp. It would take a solid six months of minimal physical activity to heal.

Clark swallowed hard and set a surgery date for June 1.

Then he canceled.

"I wasn't ready," he says. "I thought, 'I'm gonna make it through.' But I can't. So then it became, 'How do I leave [UAB] in the best shape?'"

On June 24, Clark announced that he was stepping down. But not just that. In a nifty bit of maneuvering, Clark took it upon himself to name offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent as the interim head coach. Three days later -- because how do you conduct a coaching search with the season a month away? -- UAB rubber-stamped the decision.

Vincent was in the room when the program was eliminated in 2014. He left during the shutdown, rejoining the team in 2018.

"This is personal to me," Vincent says. "I've been here in the lowest lows now to the highest highs and the championships and the bowl wins. So to be able to lead this team and to be a part of all the history and the tradition and where this program is now, it's a big deal and it's a moment and it's an opportunity that this team is ready for, that I'm ready for."

IT HAS BEEN THREE WEEKS since his surgery and Clark is already up and walking. He answers the front door of his home for one of the last times wearing a small Velcro back brace, which he discards almost immediately.

He's feeling great all things considered, he says, and expects a full recovery.

He only changed his voicemail message this past weekend after a former player reminded him it said he was the coach at UAB. "Man," the player said, "it's weird."

Still, Clark talks to Vincent regularly and wants to be a resource for the rest of the staff.

"I'm not looking at film right now" he says, "but you know that could happen. I might look at a little bit here and there. But it's their team.

"I will stay engaged. I promised them that."

Which raises the question: How retired is he really? Granted, his recovery will take a while, but six months isn't forever. Why not take a sabbatical instead of walking away from UAB completely?

Clark is careful as he talks about his future. He wants to work on his foundation, supporting Children's Harbor, and helping build up the city of Birmingham. As for football, he plans to run an annual coaches clinic and might do some consulting work on the side.

He used the word "retirement" purposefully, he says, but he isn't closing the door on a return to coaching, either.

"It's uncharted territory," Clark says. "When October gets here and jobs start being talked about, how do I feel? And that's why I've left the door open. I just don't know."

Clark and UAB took the steps necessary to restart the program. They now have the new football facility and stadium they desperately needed. But in a year the program will move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, where they'll be among the lowest-funded programs. To succeed in a more competitive conference, in the era of NIL, means stepping up in a way that runs contrary to more than 50 years of history. Operating in the same University of Alabama system as the behemoth school to the south in Tuscaloosa, athletic support hasn't always flowed consistently in the direction of Birmingham. There's a joke among ardent UAB supporters that if you were to slice open school administrators an elephant would come running out -- a nod to the Alabama Crimson Tide's mascot.

While Clark is leaving open the possibility of returning to coaching one day, that doesn't include a comeback at UAB.

"I've done what I need to do there," he says. "My dream is that our guys there have a great year. That's my dream because then it stays in the family.

"I don't want to hurt our UAB fans' feelings, but I just don't think so. I don't even know if I'm going to coach again."

He says he had big-time Power 5 offers in the past -- including some interest from Auburn in 2020 that he cut off before the offer stage -- but he wasn't ready to leave UAB. Now that he has turned the page and will have some time off to reflect on what he wants over the next few months, he's open-minded.

Given the right alignment with a school president and athletic director, and the right commitment in terms of resources, maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

Maybe he sells his house, moves to the lake full time and gets his fix of football by being a sounding board to others. Maybe he can be content in his mid-50s knowing he accomplished something extraordinary at UAB, that he went out on a high note, that he made a difference.

"I guess I'll have to see," Clark says. "I've left it open because I'm going to be the first one to say, 'Never say never.' I'm planning to be healed. I did this to be able to walk and work out.

"But at the same time, you know, I plan on being happy."