It’s halftime of the game against the Louisiana Tech University Bulldogs. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Blazers are facing a tough conference opponent on the road.
“We went into halftime. It was close. I can’t remember the score,” said UAB Head Football Coach Bill Clark. “One of those feelings coming out in the second half, I felt good. We won it going away in the fourth quarter, which is what you want to see. Finish. [Winning] it going away in the fourth quarter against a good team on the road, I thought, ‘That’s what a championship team looks like.’”
The Blazers were tied with the Bulldogs, 7-7, at the half, then scored 21 unanswered points after halftime to win 28-7 in that October game.
Clark knows what a championship team looks like because he has championship mettle, says everyone who knows him.
“Bill Clark is a winner,” said Royal Cup Coffee CEO Emeritus Hatton Smith, a key fundraiser for the team. “He’s won every place he’s been, from Prattville [High School] to Jacksonville [State University] and [at UAB]. With two years of no football, he kept most of his staff together. … He has remained loyal to the UAB program and has become a very valuable commodity. … We are very fortunate we have a winner as our football coach.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said, “Bill Clark represents not just the best of what UAB as a university offers but what [our city] offers. My favorite part is what he does off the field. … He’s intentional about character building. He believes in his students. [It’s not just about] coming here to play football, leaving early, … and attempting to go to the next level. Whether you go to the next level or not, [he tells student-athletes], ‘You need to complete school. You need to do your homework. You need to understand what community service means. You need to understand what giving back means. … The most important thing: You need to know what it means to be a part of the community.’”
Coach of the Year
The UAB football program was terminated after the 2014 season and reinstated in June 2015. After a two-season hiatus, in 2017 the team returned to the gridiron and went on to become one of the greatest college football comeback stories in recent history.
Clark, in addition to winning the prestigious Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award, was also named the 2018 Sporting News Coach of the Year. This season, the UAB Blazers finished 11-3; captured their first Conference USA (C-USA) championship and first division title; made their first back-to-back bowl trips; and won their first bowl game.
“I just give him a great deal of credit for UAB having football and for the team being so fabulous and having such a level of can-do spirit and enthusiasm,” said Birmingham City Council President Valerie Abbott. “He himself is a game-changer. He set the example by staying. To me, that was big. The guy was out of a job. He didn’t have a team. … He stayed, and he kept beating the drum for the team.”
Brian Hilson, President and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA), said, “Had he not stayed, I don’t know that we’d be having this conversation. I don’t know that the football program would be as successful as it’s been, but it’s even better because of him and the way he has handled it.”
Clark, 50, never wavered in his belief that UAB deserved a football team.
“It was really a belief in this city,” he said. “It was our community. UAB is intertwined with the community, and the community is intertwined with UAB, which is intertwined with our fans. All of these were intertwined together. … This is something we deserve.”
That’s a point Clark made to anyone who wanted to bring UAB football back to Birmingham.
“We should have these kinds of expectations — that we can do things great, that we can work together and we can pull together,” he said. “Being an Alabama guy and a guy from around the area [he was born in Anniston], I knew how special this was and how special our people are.”
Reviving a program that would need millions of dollars would take a special person, someone who grew up knowing what a team could mean to a community. That person was Clark.
“My dad was coach in Ohatchee and Piedmont, two small communities,” he said. “My mom played piano at [Oak Bowery Baptist Church in Ohatchee, where I grew up]. It was church and ball and school. That was all part of the community. It all went together. We [in Birmingham] are just on a bigger scale. It’s still a community.”
With that in mind, Clark pursued the return of the UAB football program with the tenacity of a linebacker rushing unabated toward a quarterback.
“I’ve had to be more than a coach,” he said. “To bring this program back, we had to raise money. … I was an [athletic director] when I was at Prattville, [and] I had to raise money all the time there. [Of course], when I was at [the University of] South Alabama, we started that program from nothing. … We had to build the facilities. We had to raise money. We had to create interest. We sold tickets. That’s why I talk about doing things the right way. When you do things the right way, people are going to get involved.”
Clark was adept not only at raising money but also recruiting, and he used his talents to assemble a coalition that would help provide both the funding and the foundation for the team’s return.
“When you’re recruiting, you’re selling. … You’re putting your best foot forward. You’re selling your school. You’re selling your city. You’re selling all these things, … [and] you’ve got other people doing it as well,” he said. “That’s the same thing we’re doing with our program. We’re selling it. What are the benefits of all this? What’s it going to do for the city? What’s it going to do for our community? You need to get involved.
“I think that was the pitch for us. This was about more than just UAB, even though UAB is the economic driver of this city, maybe the state. We are the number-one job producer in the state of Alabama. But it became a Birmingham thing.”
Setting the standard
Clark’s hard work paid off, and he has set the standard for others.
“I think Coach Clark’s commitment to the UAB football program is him saying he’s not afraid to take risks, he’s not afraid to fail, he’s not afraid to dare, [he has] a belief in this program,” Woodfin said. “Having a belief in those students and pushing those players sends a message to this nation and this world that UAB football not only is here to stay but is a winning program that produces a good product.”
Woodfin added that Clark pulled off a rare feat in the Birmingham area.
“When was the last time you saw the Birmingham business community respond the way it has as it relates to UAB football?” said Woodfin. “I think that was bigger than numbers. I think that was bigger than UAB. I think that was bigger than football. I think that was about what Coach Clark stands for and what he means to this community.”
Jack Williams, a longtime UAB supporter and former Alabama state representative, said, “Bill Clark deserves an incredible amount of credit not only for the success, obviously, that this team has had but [also for] the success this community has had in rallying together and building something really positive. They’ve put a great product on the field, and in the past two years Birmingham and Jefferson County have responded by supporting the games in numbers beyond what we had in any years previous.”
Clark is aware of the momentum sweeping the community, but he remains humble. Even today, the coach doesn’t forget his roots — his dad, the coach; his mom, the church pianist; his wife, the nurse turned educator; and the 18- to 22-year-olds he grooms to become men.
“That’s why I always talk about family,” Clark said. “When you think about family you think about these things: ‘I’ve got your back.’ ‘We’re going to work together.’ We’re not always going to agree, but when you know I love you and we’re doing this because we really care about each other, good things are going to happen.’”
This story originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.