Brandon Lawrence - Associate Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The University of Alabama-Birmingham announced last week it had received an appropriate amount of funding to reinstate its football program, hopefully by the 2016 season.
But now the program faces a completely different and equally as difficult challenge.
Since the university announced six months ago the decision to dissolve its football program because of budgetary concerns, more than 55 players have either graduated, quit football or transferred away from UAB to play at another university.
That leaves UAB coach Bill Clark and his staff with an immense amount of work to do over the course of the next year, quite literally to rebuild the program.
Still, it's a move in the right direction.
On Dec. 2, UAB announced it would no longer carry its football program, citing a lack of funding in the school's budget for the sport. But last week, the Conference USA member reversed its decision and reinstated the program to the university, potentially by the 2016 football season. That, of course, is predicated on multiple factors.
University president Ray Watts said unprecedented fan support led to the reversal of the decision, helped by the Birmingham City Council and UAB Football Foundation (among others) agreeing to donate $17.2 million over the next five years to reinstate football. An increase in student fees is expected to play a small role as well.
It was estimated the program needed $12.5 million-$14.5 million to upgrade its facilities, although Watts said there are no plans in the works to build a new football stadium on campus. The Blazers currently play at Legion Field, where they have called home since 1991.
Whatever the case, the university has seemingly made it work financially to the point of a grand return for UAB football just a half-year after the program was disbanded. But that's only part of the problem.
Six months is a long time, especially for student-athletes who were under the impression they no longer could play football at their school of choice. Some of the players who jumped ship were big names on last year's team, including linebacker and leading tackler Jake Ganus (transferred to Georgia), running back D.J. Vinson (South Alabama), wide receiver Jamari Staples (Louisville) and quarterback Cody Clements (South Alabama).
Jordan Howard also departed UAB after leading the team in rushing with 1,587 yards and 13 touchdowns. He transferred to Indiana, which is looking for a running back to replace the NFL-bound Tevin Coleman.
So funding isn't the only thing that is depleted. It appears Clark, who was hired prior to the 2014 season and tasked with building the program to a level of glory it has not yet reached, is going to have to do a significant amount and a different kind of rebuilding.
Kudos to Clark for announcing he would not coach anywhere else in 2015 on the off-chance UAB revitalized its program. He wants to be the coach in Birmingham, and he's going to get another shot.
"This is a critical first step toward UAB football's new path," Clark said. "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!"
Clark's first season in Birmingham should be considered a successful one as UAB finished 6-6 and was bowl eligible, although it didn't receive a bid. The Blazers were a mere 2-10 in 2013 - the season before Clark arrived on campus. Prior to that, they went 3-9 in both 2011 and '12. Their program's only postseason appearance was in the 2004 Hawaii Bowl, where they fell to the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, 59-40.
The 46-year-old Clark had one year of head coaching experience prior to his hire at UAB. Clark led FCS member Jacksonville State to an 11-4 record in 2013, which included a berth in the quarterfinal round of the national playoffs and a postseason exit at the hands of Eastern Washington. His Gamecocks picked up the first playoff victories in school history that year.
Clark stated he had several other coaching offers after UAB's program was disbanded, but because he was signed under contract for the next two years, he felt the best course of action was to see if the program would return.
"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," Clark said. "It is an exciting day for UAB and a true relief to know there is a future for UAB football."
The whole situation for UAB was unavoidable; if there's no money in the budget, then there's no money. That's the bottom line.
But Clark seemed optimistic over the last few months the program would be rejuvenated. Perhaps he had something to do with the number of donors that came out of the woodwork to support the program's return.
If Clark and the UAB administration hope to put a product on the field for the 2016 season, then everyone involved needs to start working as soon as humanly possible to land recruits.
It'll be a tough build - almost from the ground up. But if anyone can do it and do it with enthusiasm, it's Clark.