BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When they received word that UAB football was coming back, Lee Dufour and Nick Vogel — best friends and former roommates at the school — could not wait to share the news with each other.
Unfortunately, they heard about it at the exact same time.
“Literally the second that they announced football’s coming back, I called him and at the same time, he called me. The calls didn’t go through,” Dufour said, recalling the moment last June when UAB reversed its decision from December 2014 to drop its football program. “I was like, ‘Yes, we have to go back. Whatever we have to go through, we’re coming back.'”
Added Vogel: “We were both going nuts trying to call each other. We both missed a couple calls in a row until we got ahold of each other. We were overjoyed.”
Both players had found new college football programs after UAB’s implosion: offensive lineman Dufour at South Alabama and kicker Vogel at Southern Miss. And yet they missed the friendships and connections that formed in their short time in Birmingham.
They had promised each other they would return to UAB if it ever reinstated the football program, and this was the opportunity many thought would never come.
“That was my primary plan in life: it’s going to come back and I’m going to leave this place and go back to my home in Birmingham,” Vogel said. “I know that sounds completely insane, but when I made the deal with Lee, I was 100 percent behind it. I genuinely thought it would come back.”
Dufour and Vogel are among 16 players from the 2014 team who were back at UAB in time for its recently completed spring practice. However, many of their 2014 teammates with eligibility remaining did not return.
The group fanned out across the country after the season ended, finding new college homes from Montana to North Carolina and points in between. Headliners like Jake Ganus (Georgia), Jordan Howard (Indiana) and Victor Salako (Oklahoma State) became starters at Power 5 schools, but others struggled to find a situation comparable to what they left at UAB.
“I think we’re shell-shocked. I use the word trauma,” Ganus said. “No one’s crying about it anymore, but it was a big deal. It was a tough adjustment, and a lot of lives were ruined in a sense from this bad decision that was made. It worked out good for me, but a lot of people didn’t get as lucky as I did.”
Here’s a look back at how it all went down and where it’s going from here, from those who were in the middle of it:
“WE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THE NUMBERS”
UAB football players who were there that day remember Ray Watts’ announcement with absolute clarity. It was the moment in which their lives changed forever.
Seated in the same team meeting room where UAB president Watts made the announcement that the school could no longer afford to field a football team, the players’ anger over the situation lingers even 15 months later.
Linebacker Shaq Jones: “He walked in with his officers and we asked questions, and the only answers that we got were that the numbers didn’t add up. That was the most frustrating thing because we didn’t understand the numbers.”
As it turned out, neither did Watts and the consulting group that recommended pulling the plug on the program. Facing bitter protests from the Birmingham community — and its promise to provide better financial support — UAB agreed to reconsider its decision.
A second study showed that football can survive at UAB. In fact, Coach Bill Clark’s team is on better financial footing after the controversy, with an expansive football facility on the way and perhaps someday a new stadium if the city elects to replace rickety old Legion Field.
Athletic director Mark Ingram: “They thought, ‘I don’t want to go to games. Nobody cares. The team’s terrible. Nobody goes. It doesn’t matter. We’ll never miss it.’ And clearly once it was gone, everybody understood and realized it.
“It just took that, sadly, that we had to go through that ugliness to come out the other side. But we’re better for it. We’ve got more support than we’ve ever had, we’ve got people that are making gifts to our program who’ve never been to games. Maybe they’ve given to UAB, but they haven’t given to UAB athletics. Really, it’s remarkable.”
There is no blueprint for what Bill Clark is attempting as coach of the first FBS-level football program to disband since 1995.
Clark: “There’s so many stories within the stories, but we said that’s how it’s going to be in the movie someday: how did we really do this?”
“WE HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE GREAT”
Of course, the players were livid immediately after Watts shared the bad news.
With horrible facilities and an equivalent on-field product, UAB was a college football laughingstock before Clark took over and led the Blazers to a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2004.
Jones: “The two teams that were in the [2015 Conference USA] championship, Southern Miss and Western Kentucky, were both teams that we beat in 2014 during the season. There was just something that sticks with me, like I’m a little bit bitter because we had an opportunity to be great and it was kind of negated by one absurd decision.”
Their anger and disappointment has been well documented in dozens of news pieces, interviews and YouTube videos. As has the desperate situation the players faced, needing to find another football program a few weeks before spring classes started.
Ganus: “My class, we were there for three years. We endured 3-9 and 2-10 seasons before we even got to six wins. We’ve been through about as much as a football team could and then they shut us down and we have to go move. You’ve got to go pack your house up, you’ve got to go find a house in two weeks and find a school in two weeks. We’ve been through a lot and most of us are just 19-, 20-year-old kids just trying to figure it out. … I still have as many bitter feelings as probably anybody.”
Offensive lineman Hayden Naumann: “This is home. That’s what it feels like. You go somewhere for a year and you have friends there and you make friends, it’s nice. But when you devote four years of your life and some arms and limbs, it feels like, it really feels like home. You play with guys, you fight with guys, you bleed with guys and you have some fun and some bad times with them, so you become brothers with them.”
“I HAD TO HAVE SOME FAITH”
UAB’s displaced players spread throughout the country, to a total of 41 different programs at all levels of college football. Some were instant-impact players for Power 5 programs. Many more became starters for programs large and small.
LB Tevin Crews: “We didn’t have scrubs here.”
While players were catching on with new programs, UAB spent six months reconsidering its decision. Determined to reverse the outcome, boosters and local business leaders volunteered financial commitments that were uncommon before.
Ingram: “Since [a key summer meeting with Birmingham business leaders], a lot of others say, ‘OK, here’s what I’m doing: I’m supporting Birmingham.’ Because they might be an Auburn fan or a Clemson fan or an Alabama fan, but I’m supporting Birmingham with a platform of UAB football.”
Last June, UAB announced that football could in fact return, having raised $17.5 million in necessary operating capital. Clark later agreed to a five-year contract, provided that UAB promised to nurture the program.
Clark: “I said, ‘I’m not doing it if it’s not going to be done right. I can’t die again.’ Literally that’s what it was: it was a death. I wanted to do it. I’m an Alabama guy, I love Birmingham. I would not have left my alma mater [Jacksonville State] if I didn’t see this could be everything we want it to be. … But it was, ‘I’ve got to hear from the administration that y’all are in now.’ I had to hear it from our community, and of course, I had to have some faith, too.”
“THE FIRST TIME I’VE SEEN A PROMISE COME THROUGH”
Clark’s vision starts at UAB football’s ground zero: the building that houses the program. Prior to Clark’s arrival, the football facilities were a complete disaster, and a $1 million locker-room renovation in the summer of 2014 made only a modest improvement.
K Ty Long, 2014 senior now with Pittsburgh Steelers: “That old locker room we had was terrible. We had mold in the showers and all that stuff. I’ll tell people about it and they’re like, ‘No way.’ And I understand because it sounds crazy, and it was.”
Ganus: “People don’t know what the old facilities were like when I was a freshman. Our locker room was underneath Bartow Arena, and we were walking a mile to get to practice. People who played at UAB know, but no one else really knows the crap we had to go through. Every year I was there, I was told I was getting something — a turf field or a bubble or whatever it was — and we never got it. Coach Clark came and he said, ‘We’re going to get a locker room’ and we got a locker room. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a promise come through with regards to facilities.”
Part of Clark’s agreement to return was a new all-purpose practice facility to house the football program. UAB has already gotten the ball rolling on the $15.3 million facility — Ingram said earlier this month that boosters have raised about half of the necessary capital — and the university board will review final plans for the building later this summer. If all goes according to plan, Clark and his staff will move into the new building next July, about a month before preseason camp begins.
Dufour: “Oh man, we cannot wait at all. That’s the offensive line room right [attached to the team meeting room]. Half the time, the air conditioning doesn’t work. You’ve got a bunch of guys that just got done working out, go to watch film and it’s about 100 degrees in there.”
Clark: “This is what you’ve got to have. One, everybody else is doing it, so you’re keeping up with the Joneses. But two, we’ve got all this other stuff: we’ve got this town, we’ve got this great community, we’ve got this school that’s unbelievable academically. I didn’t do that, but my daily life is reflected by this [building] and it basically tells kids, ‘It is important, we are committed, we’re going to do it correctly and I can buy into that.'”
Ganus: “I’m still skeptical about everything. I want there to be shovels in the dirt, I want things to get moving, I want that building to get built as soon as possible just before someone can say no. That’s just the kind of fear, I guess you could say, that was instilled in me when I was there, just that it would get shut down or, ‘Oh, let’s wait six months. Let’s wait a year.'”
“HE’S COMMITTED TO THIS PROGRAM”
Another big step is restocking the roster. The NCAA granted some relief, allowing UAB to sign 30 scholarship players (the typical limit is 25) in the 2016-17 academic year. ESPN rated the Blazers’ signing class as the best in Conference USA, which was a remarkable haul since it was still 19 months until UAB played its next game.
Still, the Blazers recently held spring practice with just 67 players (scholarship players and walk-ons), well below the scholarship limit of 85. Many of the 2014 players who returned to the team did so because of Clark’s presence.
Crews: “I trust any and everything that man says because he was in there. He shed more tears than I did when Ray Watts stood in this room and said, ‘We don’t care enough for you guys to have you around.’ … This man probably while he was standing in the back of the room, his phone was ringing with coaches from other schools, but he stayed here. He stayed honest with us through it all.”
Jones: “He’s committed to this program. He’s committed to doing things the right way. One of his slogans that he always preaches and says to us is doing things better than it’s ever been done before. I honestly believe that here at UAB, we’re going to be doing things better than it’s ever been done before in the history of this program. It made coming back easier.”
“FAMILY’S ALL YOU GOT”
Clark expects approximately 30 scholarship players to arrive this summer, providing an infusion of talent that will allow UAB to practice like a typical FBS program this fall. They will scrimmage a few times at Legion Field, providing a game-like atmosphere for a team that must wait another year before playing again.
P Hunter Mullins, a 2014 senior and part-time UAB coach: “We were able to get this thing back quick enough that I think that us taking ’16 off and coming back ’17, we’re going to be rolling. People are going to have a lot of things to say about practice, but Coach Clark has us practicing like this is the season.”
Clark: “We want to practice, we want to have scrimmages and then hopefully we look up and it’s like December and January and we’re like everybody else.”
They will officially return on Sept. 2, 2017, when Alabama A&M visits Legion Field. Later that fall, the Blazers will face SEC heavyweight Florida. Even against the Gators, UAB will be playing for more than the sizable paycheck it will receive for making the trip.
Clark: “We went to Mississippi State [in 2014], that was one of our big deals. We’re going to play to win. Can we hold up? Can we last for four quarters? Of course they just happened to be No. 1 for about seven weeks last year, but that’s why you play FBS football and play those kind of folks. So yeah, that’s exciting for our kids and they’re already looking forward to that. We’ve got plenty to do just worrying about Alabama A&M in the first game.”
That represents understandable apprehension for a coach whose program will have been dormant for two seasons, although newfound optimism abounds. UAB football hit rock bottom 15 months ago, but now, the Blazers are willing to discuss goals that once seemed laughable.
Ingram: “If we don’t talk about winning a championship, we never will. A Major League Baseball player cannot hit a home run if he can’t close his eyes and see himself do it. I believe that. So if we aren’t talking about it from an attitude standpoint: ‘When we come back, we want to win the conference, of course we’re going to go to a bowl and we’re going to start talking about the College Football Playoff. That’ll be next. Quickly. Not in 30 years. No, no, no. We want to win.”
Dufour: “All I know is that I’m going to tell everybody I know this story: all my kids, grandkids, my whole family. I think I’ll look back on it as an experience that made me stronger as a man. It taught me that you can’t take anything for granted. In the blink of an eye, everything can change and you’ve got to be able to react to what’s going on in your life and just keep strong.
“And family’s all you’ve got. These brothers I had in here, we got separated, but we all kept in touch and nothing’s going to change the relationship that we had. In the end, it makes you a stronger person. It’s unique to college football entirely, but it’s going to be something I carry with me for my entire life.”