UAB Blazers football
UAB Blazers football is the intercollegiate men's football program for the UAB Blazers' athletics department. Under head coach Bill Clark the blazers use Birmingham's Legion Field for home games and competes in Conference USA. The program was terminated in December 2014 as the result of a strategic review of university programs. After months of protest and grassroots fund-raising, UAB announced on June 1, 2015 that it planned to re-instate the program.
UAB's football program began as a club sport in 1989, and moved to NCAA Division III in 1991 under head coach Jim HIlyer. At the time, the prospect of moving up to Division I status seemed remote. Athletic director Gene Bartow had been promoting the idea that UAB should field a full-fledged team, but Alabama head coach Bill Curry expressed the view of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees that the Crimson Tide, which still played a few games at Legion Field each year, was Birmingham's home team, and that there would be no support for dividing that loyalty. On the other hand, Auburn coach Pat Dye expressed support for the possibility.
A change in NCAA rules forced UAB to advance to Division I much earlier than anyone expected in order to maintain the status of its successful UAB Blazers men's basketball program. Watson Brown was hired to succeed Hilyer, and he shepherded the team to Division I beginning in 1996. UAB joined the newly-formed Conference USA in 1999. Brown's 2000 UAB Blazers football team upset Nick Saban's LSU Tigers 13-10 at Baton Rouge on the way to an overall 7-4 record. During that year, Bartow retired and was succeeded by Herman Frazier as athletic director.
On April 19, 2002 University of Alabama trustee Joe Fine submitted a resolution, approved by the board, which required UAB to eliminate the operating deficit in its athletic department within two years or be shut down. That July Carol Garrison was named president of UAB. She initiated a strategic plan aimed at improving campus life for undergraduate students, including an on-campus stadium and improved facilities for the football team. Watson Brown assumed the role of athletic director with the departure of Frazier in 2003 and headed fund-raising efforts that reduced the athletic deficit from $7.6 million to about $5 million. Armed with tangible progress, Garrison presented her strategic plan to the Board of Trustees in July 2003 and won a resolution of support from the board.
The 2004 team, with star receiver Roddy White, went 7-4 with an upset of the Mississippi State Bulldogs and earned the Blazers their first Top 25 ranking and first bowl invitation. They lost to the University of Hawai'i in the Hawai'i Bowl a score of 59-40.
The 2006 season marked the debut of the "Battle for the Bones" trophy awarded to the winner of the annual rivalry with the Memphis Bulldogs. UAB's 35-29 victory over Memphis was a small bright spot in an otherwise disappointing 3-9 season which was also marred by disciplinary issues. Watson Brown stepped down as head coach to become full-time athletic director, then left that role in December to accept the head coaching job at Tennessee Tech in his home town of Cookeville, Tennessee.
UAB made offers to assistant Pat Sullivan and to LSU assistant Jimbo Fisher to step in as head football coach, but the Board of Trustees rejected both proposals as too expensive. Instead Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway was hired to succeed Brown.
Callaway's 2007 team went 2-9 and finished last in C-USA's East Division. In 2008 the team improved to 4-8 with help from dual-threat junior quarterback Joe Webb. During that year UA System chancellor Malcolm Portera reviewed a report on the possibility of dropping football at UAB which concluded that the Blazers' athletic budget was a smaller percentage of university revenues than many of its peers', but that too much of that budget was taken from internal sources such as student fees. No action was taken.
The next season the team improved to 5-7, welcoming nearly 27,000 to Legion Field for a nationally-televised 30-17 victory over Southern Miss. The 2010 UAB Blazers failed to maintain momentum, and dropped to 4-8 with blowout losses to Southern Methodist and Central Florida and a gut-wrenching double-overtime loss to Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. The Blazers continued to backpedal with a 3-9 2011 season which began with six straight losses followed by a 26-24 home game against Central Florida at which only 8,872 fans showed up. A detailed proposal presented by vice president Richard Margison for the financing of an on-campus football stadium was removed from the November 1, 2011 Board of Trustees' agenda by Finis St John IV without debate. Callaway, with a 18-42 record over five years, resigned under pressure on November 27.
Callaway's replacement, Garrick McGee, had even less success in two seasons, going 5-19 before he resigned to join Bobby Petrino's staff at the University of Louisville. He was succeeded by Jacksonville State Gamecocks coach Bill Clark, who engineered a turnaround of fortunes for the 2014 UAB Blazers football team. The team became bowl eligible with a 6-6 record after defeating the Southern Miss Golden Eagles 45-24 on the road on November 29.
|Jim Hilyer||1991-1994||27-12-2 (.692)|
|Watson Brown||1995-2006||62-74 (.456)|
|Neil Callaway||2007- 2011||18-42 (.300)|
|Garrick McGee||2011-2013||5-19 (.208)|
|Bill Clark||2011-2013||6-6 (.500)|
Termination and reinstatement
The day after that win, speculation that the football program was again in peril rose to the fore. Under newly-appointed president Ray Watts the university was undergoing another strategic review of all programs. Meanwhile no long-term contracts had been approved and the administration had responded coolly to overtures from a newly-instituted UAB Football Foundation to generate more private support for the Blazers. Students and supporters rallied at the UAB Campus Green and in front of the UAB Administration Building seeking a statement of support from president Ray Watts. Two days later, on December 2, Watts announced that following its strategic planning process, the university would terminate the football, rifle and bowling programs at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year.
The backlash against the decision was immediate and prolonged. Criticism of the manner in which the announcement was handled was expanded to include evident shortcomings in the commissioned report which was used to justify terminating the programs. Numerous campus groups passed resolutions of "no confidence" in Watts' leadership, the Birmingham City Council and Mayor William Bell expressed dismay at the potential loss of the city's major football team, state representative Jack Williams introduced bills in the Alabama House of Representatives to force a return of football and restructure the board of trustees, and a Free UAB movement flourished on social media sites. Under fire, Watts directed the creation of a UAB Athletics Assessment Task Force to review the 2014 report and assess the level of community financial support for the possible return of the canceled programs.
The result of the Task Force's work was a revised report which indicated that UAB would need to find about $17 million to subsidize football, rifle and bowling teams over five years, with much of the cost coming from the need to re-institute programs that had been shuttered. The Task Force also generated millions of dollars in pledges, most of which were conditional on the return of the canceled programs. Additional pledged support came from the Birmingham City Council and the UAB Student Government Association, as well as from booster Jimmy Filler and a group of Birmingham business leaders.
Accordingly, on June 1 Watts announced that UAB was planning to reinstate football, rifle and soccer with athletic director Mark Ingram leading a campaign to raise additional funds for improved athletic facilities without issuing debt or increasing institutional support.
- Jake Arians, kicker, Buffalo Bills (2001)
- Kyle Bissinger, linebacker, New England Patriots (2007)
- Rodregis Brooks, cornerback, Indianapolis Colts (2001)
- Chris Brown, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars (2003)
- Pernell Davis, defensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles (1999)
- Josh Evans, defensive tackle, Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (1995-2001), New York Jets (2002-4)
- Carl Fair, running back, Cleveland Browns (2001)
- Eddie Freeman, defensive end/tackle, Kansas City Chiefs (2002-3)
- Darrell Hackney, quarterback, Cleveland Browns (2006), Denver Broncos (2007–)
- Chris Hubbard, offensive lineman, Pittsburgh Steelers (2013-)
- Otis Leverette, defensive end, Washington Redskins (2001-2), San Diego Chargers (2003), San Francisco 49ers (2004)
- Matt McCants, offensive lineman, New York Giants (2012-13), Oakland Raiders (2013-)
- J. J. Nelson, wide-receiver, special teams, Arizona Cardinals (2015-)
- Izell Reese, cornerback/safety, Dallas Cowboys (1998-2001), Denver Broncos (2002), Buffalo Bills (2003-4)
- Dainon Sydney, cornerback, Tennessee Titans (1998-2002), Buffalo Bills (2003)
- Joe Webb, quarterback/wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings (2010–)
- Bryan Thomas, defensive end, New York Jets (2002-)
- Corey White, running back, Green Bay Packers (2007)
- Roddy White, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons (2005-)
- Julius Wilson, offensive tackle, Miami Dolphins (2007-)
- Zac Woodfin, linebacker, Baltimore Ravens (2005-)
- Cook, Ben (December 17, 2006) "Alabama coaching search takes bizarre twist" Lindy'sSports.com
- Irvine, Steve (November 27, 2011) "Neil Callaway resigns as UAB's football coach." The Birmingham News
- Watts, Ray L. (December 2, 2014) "Message from the President: UAB Athletics Strategic Planning. UAB press release - accessed December 2, 2014
- Alexander, Alan (June 4, 2015) "How Birmingham's business elite helped bring back UAB football" Birmingham Business Journal
- UAB Blazers football website