They killed the best team in UAB football history.
That’s what Shaq Jones knows in his heart, and that’s the memory that came rushing back on Tuesday when his reincarnated Blazers stepped onto Legion Field for the first time since their final game of the 2014 season.
Of the 64 players who participated in UAB’s first spring practice, Jones was one of three allowed to speak with reporters. Two of the three players were on the team when it was terminated by UAB president Ray Watts.
On his first day back, UAB coach Bill Clark apparently wanted to keep the message simple: It’s good to be here, but let’s not forget what happened.
Jones certainly hasn’t.
The linebacker was there on Dec. 2, 2014, when Watts hastily ended football before the team could be awarded a bowl game.
“Financial delta,” were Watts’ words. He later said “killing football is not what we set out to do.”
Essentially, he told his student-athletes they were accounting errors.
It was all nonsense, of course, and the spin and lies made so many people so incredibly angry that killing UAB football was the best thing to ever happen to the program.
The school is about to break ground on a new football operations building and covered practice field, and Clark is starting spring practice with the top-rated recruiting class in Conference USA despite the team not even playing games next season.
Think about that.
Most coaches try to sell prospects on immediate playing time. Clark hit the recruiting trail last year with absolutely nothing — no team, no facilities and no games — and he turned in the best recruiting class in school history.
This is not hyperbole: what’s happening in Birmingham is unprecedented in collegiate athletics.
Watts and the Alabama Board of Trustees made such a mess with UAB football, and their duplicity was so revolting, that the NCAA pushed through emergency measures when Watts and the BOT caved to the pressure of bringing back the program.
The NCAA allows for 25 scholarships per year for football. They felt so bad for UAB they let Clark sign 45 this year, and then gave everyone on the team eligibility waivers until the return in 2017. By then, Clark plans to have 85 players on scholarship, or the maximum amount.
In the South, the NCAA is best known for taking scholarships away. In the case of UAB, the NCAA is propping up a program after its own school and board of trustees cut out its legs.
“It’s going to make this program probably what it could have been and should have been,” Clark said. “I think it’s going to make this community proud, and it’s a national story. And that is 100 percent our goal, to be a national team.”
Everything that happened was for the best … it’s a nice sentiment if not magnanimous, but don’t tell that to Jones. He’s still mad.
Jones stayed on message for the cameras on Tuesday, but in a quiet moment away from the media scrum he expressed his anger. Never mind missing out on the bowl game in 2014, he says the Blazers were poised to make a run at the C-USA championship last season. Returning to Legion Field for spring practice reopened all those old wounds.
“Coming back here, and just to think about the things that we could have possibly done last year, it’s emotional because we had the potential to be great,” Jones said. “The two teams that played in the conference championship were Western Kentucky and Southern Miss, two teams that we defeated last year, and we were going to have multiple returning seniors.”
Watts and his cronies like Allen Bolton, UAB’s vice president for financial affairs and administration, used some funny math to explain away their decision to end football. Here are the only numbers that mattered:
Last season, former UAB linebacker Jake Ganus led Georgia with 101 tackles.
Former UAB linebacker T.J. McCollum led Western Kentucky with 106 tackles.
Former UAB running back Jordan Howard led Indiana in rushing (1,229 yards in nine games) and was second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (134.8) to Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (140.1).
Former UAB offensive lineman Victor Salako started at left tackle for Oklahoma State.
There are more examples, of course.
And they all make Jones furious.
“It was frustrating because those were guys who were here making big plays, but then they were making big plays for other teams,” Jones said.
Jones was recruited by Western Kentucky, Marshall and Western Michigan last season, but he stayed at UAB. Now, that decision could work out in his favor.
Jones says he is graduating in December with a degree in sociology. He’ll then be applying for graduate school. If he gets in, it’s free. Thanks to the NCAA’s kindness, Jones also has more than a year to prepare for his senior season in 2017.
“How many people get to go to school and have their undergraduate and graduate school paid for?” Jones said.
Not many, but players on UAB’s new team have that chance if they excel in the classroom. With no games in the fall, there will be no excuses.
“There is no restart button in life, but this is like a fresh start,” Jones said.