The UAB Miracle on the Gridiron

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My alma mater, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), basically began from nothing in 1944. After two failed attempts at creating a functional medical school in Mobile and Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama gave it one last shot. Medical school deans across the country declined offers. But an Alabama native and hotshot hematologist named Roy Kracke (rhymes with “Rocky,” appropriately enough), turned down a premier job at what would become Sloan Kettering in New York City to come back home and create a medical school out of thin air.

Kracke had big dreams of a comprehensive university in Birmingham; the University of Alabama did not, to put it mildly. In the six years before Kracke died of a heart attack from the bitter infighting with UA’s president, he managed to plant the seeds for a world-class health sciences institution, UAB, which was not formally conceived until 1966. In one of the miracles of higher education in the late 20th and early 21st century, UAB has become one of the top 50 research universities in the United States (NSF 2015 data on research and development expenditures) and one of the top 150 universities in the world (CWUR 2017 rankings). UAB’s often resentful “mother” institution, the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (even though the two are as autonomous as, say, Georgia and Georgia Tech), is far behind, #181 and #387 in those two rankings, respectively.

You need to know this history in order to grasp what happened to UAB football, and bowling, and rifle, in 2014. You also need to know that in Alabama, football is more than even a religion. It is how the state is run. Football is power in Alabama, just as water is power in “Chinatown.” And because of that, the Alabama Crimson Tide’s rivalry against those who might, however slightly, threaten their power — and siphon any funds away from THE University’s campus — is beyond any college rivalry you’re probably familiar with. Because this isn’t about football. This is about control of a state.

In 2014, new UAB football coach Bill Clark led the Blazers to bowl eligibility. Attendance at games more than doubled. Then, three days later, the president of UAB, whose strings are pulled by the UA boosters and Bryant Bank employees who have dominated the UA System Board of Trustees for the past couple of decades, shut down the football program! And bowling, and rifle. That’s right, a bowl-eligible football team was shut down, and not because of any academic or NCAA problems. That’s a first.

The rationale for the shutdown, focusing on finances, did not survive outside scrutiny. Devoted UAB alums, supporters, a few impartial observers, and finally the Birmingham business community rose up and forced a resurrection — six long months afterward.

The football team was gone. The players had been picked up by other teams, including Jordan Howard by Indiana, who would soon star in the NFL for the Chicago Bears; and Jake Ganus by Georgia, where Ganus would become the MVP of the team his senior year and leading tackler.

Just about everything was gone, except the coach. Bill Clark, incredibly, remained at UAB even after his program was shut down out from under him. Nobody does that. That’s another first.

Imagine rebooting a football program from scratch. It’s been attempted only a few times at the major-college level, usually accompanied by tragedy. Here are the three examples I am aware of, and here’s how those reboots turned out (apologies to those who wince at the citation of two of the schools, but even approximate parallels are hard to come by):

  1. The most famous is probably Marshall, after their 1970 plane crash. Their football program had begun in 1895, though, so there was much history to the Thundering Herd’s program. What happened next, after the crash? Wikipedia: “Marshall spent a full 15 years recovering from the crash, was the nation’s worst football program in the 1970s, and did not have another winning season between 1964 and 1983.”
  2. That same year, 1970, a little over a month before the Marshall plane crash, about half of the Wichita State football team died in a plane crash, too. Like Marshall, Wichita State’s football program began early, in 1897. Wichita State was winless in 1970. The next year, 3–8. From 1972–1986, just two winning seasons. Then the football program was terminated, and has not been revived to this day.
  3. The “death penalty” was imposed on Southern Methodist in 1987 after the NCAA learned that SMU, which was already on probation, was still paying players. The SMU Mustangs had been famous, starting in 1915 and producing a national champion, a Heisman winner and future NFL stars. But by 1986 SMU was only 6–5 and did not go to a bowl, getting destroyed 41–0 by Arkansas at home in the season finale. The team would not play again until 1989, and in that year of the return SMU went 2–9. From Wikipedia: “Since 1989 SMU has defeated only 2 ranked teams, has had only 3 winning seasons” and is 59–164–3. [I believe those stats cover the period 1989–2008.]

Two of these teams were not good, and the plane crashes led to another decade-plus of losing. The third team was a rules-breaking powerhouse, and the death penalty turned it into a loser for the next two decades. Despite the long history of football at all three institutions, the disruptions were too much for the programs to overcome for many years.

So, back to Bill Clark at UAB. What were the chances, back on June 2, 2015, when football was revived (on a tight budget leash) at UAB, that the Blazers would have any success in their first year?

Zero.

Much older and more stable programs could not rebound, and one went defunct. UAB’s program was young, without the history, and under the shadow and thumb of a nearby powerhouse, even after resurrection.

You’d guess that that first season would be a tough, 0–12 or 1–11 kind of return, right?

Think again.

On Saturday November 4, 2017, Bill Clark led UAB to its sixth win and bowl eligibility at Legion Field in Birmingham, thrashing Rice 52–21 in its first season of #TheReturn.

UAB was bowl-eligible when it was shut down, without cause as it turned out, in 2014. And now UAB is bowl-eligible in its very first year back.

This has never been accomplished in major college football history. Period. Not even close. It’s a first.

In a world with any justice to it, Bill Clark is the National Coach of the Year, and the Decade. With apologies to Kirby Smart and others, what he’s done transcends any of their accomplishments. Or, to put it another way — would any of the successful coaches in 2017 have traded places with Bill Clark in December 2014, when his team was shut down out from under him? Would any of them stuck around to resurrect it and take it right back to where it was, and then some, three years later? Didn’t think so.

But those of us who know the history of UAB… how it was created against long odds, succeeded against even longer odds, and became one of the top research universities in the nation and world in spite of some of its own trustees… realize that this isn’t just a feel-good football-Cinderella story. It’s that, and more.

This is one more chapter of the UAB miracle. This chapter’s been played out on the gridiron, but the story goes all the way back to Dr. Roy Kracke in 1944, and all the way forward to the future.

Written by

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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