Out of a Blaze


uab-footballThe Phoenix returns as a dragon.

By Joey Kennedy

The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees and UAB President Ray Watts thought Blazer football would disappear with barely a sizzle. 

But Blaze isn’t a fire-breathing dragon for nothing.

Two years after the trustees and Watts forced UAB to end its football program, the Blazers are back, and in big-sizzle way.

The ham-handed way Watts killed the football, bowling, and rifle programs still is incomprehensible. That football, bowling, and rifle have returned is a credit to UAB students, faculty, alumni, supporters, and the Birmingham business community.

More than two years ago, Watts stepped into a big pile of Blazer poo. To his credit, Watts scraped off his loafers and eventually helped UAB athletics recover.

The return of UAB football, though, isn’t Watts’ victory—unless one considers Watts’ messy murder as being the genesis of the resurrection.

At no time in my 17 years as an instructor at UAB have I witnessed more student outrage than I did after Watts and the UA trustees killed football. That outrage spread to the faculty, alumni, and the Birmingham community.

Sadly, in the wake of football’s death, we were reminded again of the tight grip the Alabama-Tuscaloosa trustees have on UAB’s throat—UAB, which brings more money into the system than UAT and Alabama-Huntsville combined.

True, UAB’s football program was only moderately successful (and that’s being kind), and the limited success was because UAB’s dedicated coaches made it so, despite all the efforts by Tuscaloosa to cripple the program. There was little trustee support for better facilities, even if the Alabama system didn’t have to pay for them. 

But not even Bryant-sized opposition to Blazer football was prepared for what happened next.

In two years, not only is UAB football (and rifle and bowling) back, but back bigger and better than ever.

Thanks to Coach Bill Clark for not abandoning the program, after UAB and the trustees abandoned him. Now, Clark has a contract through 2020 and a chance to rebuild a program better than he ever could have imagined.

While Clark stood his ground, thousands of UAB supporters gave Clark solid ground to stand on. Two were alums Phyllis Aderholt Rodgers and her husband, Justin. They are prime examples of the supporters who wouldn’t let UAB football die a silent death—out of love for the university, its athletics, and, especially, football. “It’s our school,” says Phyllis. “We love it so much, and we believe in it.”

Football is especially important in the South, the Rodgers say, and students at UAB deserve the full college experience.

UAB has long worked to build an athletic tradition. The Blazer basketball program has a history of success, despite frowns from Tuscaloosa. Maybe that’s because the only time UAB and Alabama-Tuscaloosa played in basketball, UAB won. 

Yet, as Justin points out, the hurdles put up by the trustees kept UAB from having a decent chance in football. “Our hands were tied behind our backs in a lot of cases and in a lot of ways,” he says. “They wouldn’t even allow UAB to have a checking account for football. Any donations had to go to UAB athletics. They wouldn’t allow any infrastructure to be built.”

Now, much of that is just bad history.UAB’s new football operations center includes three practice fields. The old, small, decrepit UAB football building is dwarfed by the new complex, which includes administrative and coaches’ offices, meeting rooms, film rooms, and state-of-the-art weight and training rooms.

Across the street, the new Collat School of Business is going up. This month, UAB breaks ground on a new Arts and Sciences Building. UAB’s enrollment continues to rise; it’s already the state’s third largest university. If you haven’t driven across UAB’s campus in a while, do it, and see what’s going on.

UAT may be the flagship, but UAB is the starship.

For the rebirth of UAB football, Justin credits many supporters who maybe hadn’t come forward in years past.

“But the final kicker was the business people who said, ‘we have it covered,’” Justin says. To bring back football, Watts declared, the community would have to step forward. At least $20 million would have to be pledged and collected. Maybe Watts and the trustees didn’t believe it could happen.

Happen it did, though. More than $20 million came in before the trustees could say “Blazers dead.” The football operations center alone cost $22.5 million, and UAB has raised more than $43 million for football, bowling, and rifle since 2015.

“Money talks,” says Justin. “Those people not only said it, but said it monetarily, and we as fans continued to do whatever we could.”

“The UA Board of Trustees were not expecting the backlash they got,” says Phyllis.

And why would they? The trustees have for so long quashed efforts toward UAB independence, they didn’t expect much more than a whimper. And, true, UAB football, while having decent attendance by Conference USA standards, didn’t seem to have a lot of community support.

Yet, a sleeping Blazer was awakened. Killing UAB football may be the best thing that’s happened to UAB football. “Sometimes you have to come out of the ashes to reach a higher level,” says Justin. “We really didn’t have the support maybe that we needed without being shaken up.”

Phyllis agrees: “There’s just so much more interest now than there ever was. I just foresee the future getting even better.” 

The mythical Phoenix is a bird, gaining new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. On Birmingham’s Southside, the Phoenix is green and gold, a football-toting dragon, returning in flaming glory with a Blaze.

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