The Blazers' coach has achieved unprecedented success two years after program hiatus
Election season may have passed a month ago, but college football needs one final campaign push: UAB Blazers coach Bill Clark for National Coach of the Year.
The Football Writers Association of America named Clark one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award, the winner of which will be unveiled on Dec. 13. The rest of the field is Army's Jeff Monken; Fresno State's Jeff Tedford; UCF's Josh Heupel; and all four College Football Playoff head coaches, Nick Saban of Alabama; Dabo Swinney of Clemson; Brian Kelly of Notre Dame; and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma.
All eight, including Clark, led their teams to at least 10 wins. Six won conference championships, Clark among them. The only two that did not, Kelly and Monken, coach independent programs.
Impressive as a 10-3 finish and Conference USA championship may be on their own, the records alone do not spell out such an open-and-shut case for Clark. However, his candidacy is a story of unprecedented commitment and perseverance resulting in historic achievement for his program.
Clark received a shout-out from one of his fellow finalists and College Football Playoff participant, Notre Dame's Kelly. Kelly coached the Fighting Irish to their first-ever playoff berth, just two years removed from a 4-8 finish.
"Coach Clark at UAB, there's a program that for two years was not playing football two years ago," Kelly said in his Cotton Bowl announcement press conference.
Coming back from a disappointing season is impressive, but it's nothing comparable to resurrecting a program from extinction. While the Fighting Irish limped to the finish line in 2016, UAB had yet to reach the starting blocks in the second year of a hiatus birthed from a closure.
UAB president Ray Watts announced the shuttering of UAB football in December 2014, citing fiscal strain. The decision wasn't without rumblings about the Blazers' relationship with another UA system member, however: The one in Tuscaloosa, which dominates the national college football conversation, and that has its own coach up for the same award as Clark.
Alabama and UAB have a football relationship that can be best described as nonexistent, though murmurs of acrimony gained relevance in 2014. Almost a quarter-century earlier, legendary Blazers basketball coach and athletic director Gene Bartow sent the NCAA a letter accusing Alabama athletics of violating rules. Bartow publicly apologized, but the episode was an oft-cited source of speculation when the UA Board of Trustees, which included Paul Bryant Jr., opted to close UAB football.
One could make a case Nick Saban deserves a Coach of the Year Award any and every campaign, his Crimson Tide playing against college football history as much as they do their weekly opponents. But in 2018, Saban's only the second-most deserving in his own state.
Since the Crimson Tide won't play the Blazers on the field — athletic director Greg Byrne reiterated at SEC meetings in May 2017, three months before UAB returned to competition, the Tide will not play in-state opponents other than Auburn — Clark garnering more votes than Saban is UAB's chance to beat 'Bama.
Of course, Clark's candidacy isn't so shallow as to be a minor settling of political scores. The coach has earned recognition on the football field.
In the same manner Alabama competes against history — both the illustrious past of Tide football, and in comparison to the all-time great programs of college football lore — so, too, does Clark's UAB. Only, the context is dramatically different.
Before Clark accepted the position after an FCS Playoffs run at Jacksonville State, UAB played in one bowl game in its previous 23 seasons. The Blazers finished .500 or better just six times — and three of those finishes came when the program was either non-scholarship Div. III, or a Div. I-AA independent.
Clark's second Blazers teams in 2014 snapped a nine-season run of sub-.500 finishes, going 6-6 and 4-4 in Conference USA competition. UAB held out hope for a bowl bid that never came that season, a sprinkling of salt into the fresh wound opened with the announced closure.
Clark already accomplished more by reaching .500 and bowl eligibility than many of his predecessors, and his team attracted an average home-game audience more than double the preceding years. With no job to return to as of that year's coaching carousel, perhaps he could have parlayed his success into a position elsewhere.
There's little doubt his work since could turn into other job opportunities, particularly if he wins national hardware. As he was during a two-year layoff, however, Clark is remaining committed to UAB. The coach signed a five-year contract extension last week, keeping him in Birmingham with or without a Coach of the Year trophy.
Clark already deserved Coach of the Year and interest from other programs after the 2017 season, going 8-5 with just the second bowl appearance in program history in the Blazers' return from hiatus.
Simply having an FBS-caliber roster in 2017 was a master class in recruiting. NCAA open-transfer rules precipitated an exodus in 2015, with noteworthy names like Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears spending a year at Indiana. Jake Ganus was a standout for Georgia. Jamari Staples became a primary pass-catching target for Lamar Jackson in his Heisman-winning 2016 season at Louisville. Georgia State owes some credit for its first-ever bowl berth to UAB, with ex-Blazers Bobby Baker Jr. and Alonzo McGee playing key roles in 2015.
Those who Clark kept in the fold to spend two years without playing a game were rewarded, though, like Tevin Crews and Darius Williams. The stars of the UAB defense earned All-Conference USA honors a season ago. An influx of newcomers also buoyed UAB immediately — particularly on the defensive side, where the Blazers paved their way to 10 wins in 2018.
"On defense, they're outstanding," said Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher on the SEC teleconference call last month. "Top five in every category in football [on] defense. I mean, these guys have shut everybody down.
"It'll be like playing an SEC team," Fisher added.
High praise indeed for a program birthed and long-struggling in the shadow of the SEC. But heading into bowl season with national ranks of ninth in scoring defense (17.3 ppg, just a point behind Kentucky); 20th in rushing defense (118.5 ypg, 1.5 behind No. 19 Alabama); and 16th in passing defense (181.3 ypg, 0.8 behind No. 15 Georgia), UAB lives up to the billing.
And while they may not be SEC, the Blazers represent C-USA well. The final and decisive point on Clark's national Coach of the Year resume came Saturday with a thrilling, 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Championship Game. Running back Spencer Brown, a sophomore, rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown, while freshman quarterback Tyler Johnston III passed for a touchdown and rushed for another. Sophomores Kristopher Moll and Brontae Harris were crucial for the UAB defense, suggesting the Blazers are set up for continued success in the immediate future.
The first conference title of any kind in UAB history could not provide a more perfect final stump speech for Clark's candidacy.
(Top photo courtesy of uabsports.com)