UAB faces big game, murky future for program
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) The UAB Blazers are preparing for potentially one of their biggest games amid fears that the program will soon be eliminated.
The Blazers (5-5) can become eligible for only their second bowl berth with a win over No. 18 Marshall on Saturday or the following week at Southern Miss even as the university is determining the program's fate.
University President Dr. Ray Watts said in a recent statement that a yearlong planning study of a number of departments includes evaluating the financial viability of football.
Boosters and former players feel football is in jeopardy at a time when first-year coach Bill Clark has revitalized the team. Clark is working under only a three-year contract, at $600,000 annually, and UAB hasn't scheduled any nonconference games after the 2016 season.
''The new coach came in and they're winning a lot of games this year, a lot more'' than past years, said Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who played for UAB. ''They're about to be bowl eligible. This is a good step for them. So to say they want to end the program when a guy is just taking over, it's kind of tough. It's putting them in a bad situation.''
Clark and athletic director Brian Mackin declined interview requests to discuss the future of the program.
Retired Birmingham businessman and longtime UAB supporter Jimmy Filler started a foundation last month supporting football. Former UAB athletes serving on the board include White and golfer Graeme McDowell.
''This is not about money,'' Filler said. ''They're going to say it's about money but in every football program in Conference USA and most of the other ones that are not in big conferences, they all lose money. But it's a part of college life. Athletics is the key. It's also going to hurt our city.''
No Football Bowl Subdivision school has dropped football since Pacific in 1995.
UAB's only FBS postseason game was at the Hawaii Bowl in 2004. The past two coaches, Neil Callaway and Garrick McGee, went a combined 23-61.
Then came Clark, a former high school coach and South Alabama assistant who made a successful debut as a college head coach for FCS Jacksonville State in 2013. Upon his hiring, Clark said he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't sense the administration was committed to football.
''I had to see how important football was here and that's what I saw,'' he said at his introductory news conference. ''I see there is a commitment here.''
The football building is modest compared to many FBS programs, including fledgling South Alabama. When it rains, the Blazers still have to either practice at Legion Field or Birmingham-Southern.
Former UAB player Justin Craft said Clark is ''doing more with less than probably any coach in FBS.''
Craft said he ''absolutely'' thinks UAB football can be saved, but left with a bad feeling after he and others met with Watts and Mackin several weeks ago.
''The foundation and the city were stepping up to help invest in UAB football, which is something that has been needed for 20 years,'' Craft said. ''There hasn't been any capital investment made in that time. We thought that if you bring free money, you would think that a president and an AD would be very accepting of that, and frankly we were not met in a very positive manner.
''We were basically told that if we were looking to invest in the entire athletic department, then that was great. But if it was just football, we were premature. I certainly was confused by that.''
With the Blazers winning more, attendance has nearly doubled from last season, from a league-worst 10,548 fans per game to 20,138 so far.
Like Craft, White believes the program can be saved.
''We've just got to keep going, keep pressing the issue,'' the Falcons receiver said. ''UAB has had some good days, had some bad days. Right now, they've got some good players, they've got a good coach. If he can get out there and win some games, you can get people to come to the games. I think he can absolutely do that.''
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report.