By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
“You cannot separate faith from life, as we go about our daily lives,” Clark says. “I believe that God has a plan for each of us. We do not always know what the plan is. But if we are doing what we need to do, while allowing our faith and character to lead us, we will end up on the path laid out for us.” He finds the importance of God’s purpose in his favorite Bible verse, Romans 8:28. Clark’s purpose is being a football coach; it is his calling.
Clark’s Christian faith has deep, Baptist, Southern roots. His early years consisted of church, family, school, and community. “Life was not complex. It was as simple as God, family, apple pie, and the American flag,” he recalls. Clark’s mother, Judy, was the pianist at Oak Bowery Baptist Church in Ohatchee, Ala. “When the church doors opened, we were there,” he recalls. “I was saved in the third grade at a tent revival. I tell my kids that you haven’t lived until you have attended a tent revival in Alabama on an August evening, with wood chips on the floor and all.” Clark’s father Ragan Clark was a math teacher and the high school football coach. “Dad was tough and old school. But he was also a man of faith.” Clark’s mother quit teaching to take care of Clark and his older brother, Tony. “So we were far from rich but taught to be appreciative,” Clark describes.
When Clark was nine, the family moved to Piedmont, Ala. where his father took the head high school football coach position, and his mother became the pianist at Piedmont Baptist Church. Clark played football and graduated from Piedmont High School. In 1990 he graduated from Jacksonville State University with a degree in Physical Education.
Clark met his wife Jennifer on a blind date in Oxford, Ala. The couple had similar backgrounds. “Jennifer grew up in Ragland Methodist Church where her father led the music. So just like me, when the doors were open she was there.” Jennifer’s past life also includes being both a nurse and a teacher. “Being a football coach’s wife is a sacrificial calling,” Clark describes. “Both Jennifer and Mom embraced the calling.”
Jennifer has been there through seven of his eight previous football coaching positions while raising their two children, Katie and Jacob. “I could not be more proud of them,” Clark says.
Clark and his family belong to the Church of the Highlands. “We have always been a very close family, and our faith is very important to us.” Katie is now married to Justin Spinks and works as the communications and council liaison for the Greater Birmingham Association of Home Builders. Jacob attends UAB and is on the UAB Football Team. Jennifer continues to dedicate herself to supporting Clark and the program by helping other coaches’ wives and getting to know the players and their parents.
You will not find Clark on a golf course or a fishing boat. He has no hobbies. Instead he dedicates his life to his faith, family, and football.
Clark is dedicated to developing an excellent football program at UAB. But his definition of excellence is more than winning football games. “The football team must strive to be a national football program that holds its players to the highest standards of academic achievement and personal integrity possible,” he says. And he is building the program on his six pillars of excellence: academics, character education, training, sports education, recruiting, and coaching retention. To further support his vision, the UAB Football Honorary Coaches organization and Football Excellence Fund was formed.
UAB football first kicked off in 1991, the same year I entered UAB for my undergrad degree. I was on campus over the next three years working towards this degree and my masters degree as the team played losing seasons. Yet sitting in a box at Legion Field 23 years later, when UAB played Troy University, it was fun to watch them win. As guests of Troy Chancellor Jack Hawkins, my husband, Kevin said to Hawkins, “Looks like UAB has a football coach.” Hawkins replied, “Afraid so.” The future of UAB football looked bright.
But since that day the UAB football program has lost a lot and gained much. After UAB President Ray Watts met with the UAB football team on December 2, 2014, closing UAB football, I joined the closed Facebook group, “Save UAB Football.” This group along with UAB students and the Birmingham community fought hard to bring football back. “Justin Craft, a former player and Don Hire were behind the scenes,” Clark says. “And the ‘Gang of Seven’: Hatton Smith, Tommy Brigham, Mike Goodrich Jr., Miller Gorrie, Jimmy Lee, Craft O’Neal and Robert Simon helped guarantee the fund and create the UAB Athletics Foundation.” Unlike the rest of us, Tim Alexander fought from his wheel chair. And his goal is to be able to walk out of the tunnel with the 2017 UAB football team. But no one could have saved UAB football without Coach Clark’s commitment to stay.
Clark’s faith led him to take the high road, even in devastating disappointment. “On days when I wanted to say or do things, I would pray for the best way to handle it,” Clark recalls. His prayers were answered when UAB football, bowling, and rifle were reinstated six months later.
However, no one could replace the lost players and two football seasons. And the same needs for facilities and a place to practice remained the same as they were when Clark arrived at UAB in 2014. Yet Clark did not dwell on this. Instead he looked forward to what he can control, including signing a new five-year contract.
Once again UAB football is a start-up. And Clark is in the position of an entrepreneur who needs talent, funds, and facilities to develop his “product.” The UAB family quickly raised the $17.2 million needed to reinstate football, bowling and rifle. Ground broke in June 2016 on a covered facility with two adjoining fields for practicing. And since that time $42 million more has been raised. The program also needs a stadium nearby, rather than its current home, Legion Field. “With the passage of Amendment 14, local tax dollars can now be used to build a Birmingham stadium. We would love to be the chief tenant,” Clark says. “And in a perfect world we could be playing there in 2018.” But Clark is not focused on 2018. With the past behind them, he and his UAB football team are like any other team—getting ready for the 2017 season.
Tags: january 2017