When UAB president Ray Watts announced Monday that the university was reinstating its football program six months after it disbanded it, there was a huge sense of pride by the Birmingham community.
From the day Watts announced the program was leaving to the day he announced it was coming back, students, fans, boosters, alumni and former players banded together in a grassroots effort to secure the money to float the program for the next five years and create a strong foundation for the program moving forward.
“It’s just a very unprecedented situation, but it’s also a very optimistic situation,” Justin Craft, former player and head of UAB’s Football Foundation, told Yahoo Sports. “I think UAB’s gonna get a chance to do things the right way and make the investment that, for whatever reason, had not been made in the last 10 years. And I think once that happens, it’s just going to build on the momentum that’s here now. It’s a very exciting day for me as a former player and alumni and I’m just proud we get this opportunity.”
Craft said he and other boosters and alumni were hopeful the program was going to be reinstated because of the $17.2 million that had been raised for the next five years. Craft said part of that money came from the students, who voted to charge a $25 per semester fee for students to help support the program, as well as the efforts of more than 700 private donors that made pledges for the next five years.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” Craft said. “I think finally, the business community realized that this is a very good thing and it builds pride in our city and it builds pride amongst our students and helps us grow our campus.”
Now the issue is what to do with that money. Craft said they’re still ironing out exactly how the money will be distributed, but that the first priority is fixing up the facilities and giving coach Bill Clark a proper office. That, Craft said, will aid the program in recruiting and show a commitment to the future of UAB football.
The donors and university also have to figure out a way to pay for a new stadium. The team previously played at Legion Field, which was built in 1926 and looks like it hasn’t been renovated since its initial groundbreaking. While the team probably could still play there, a new stadium is definitely on the to-do list to bring the program to the same level as some of its Conference USA brethren.
UAB athletic director Mark Ingram told AL.com on Thursday that the school is looking at a 2017 return so that it wasn’t rushed to get a program back on the field.
While some of that has to do with revamping the facilities and securing a coaching staff, a lot of it also has to do with recruiting. Currently, UAB has no roster. All of its “star” players have either graduated or transferred. There are about 20-30 members (depending on who you ask) of the 2014 roster still on campus, but any of those players stayed because they had nowhere else to go. There’s also the issue of lost years of eligibility. Tha Associated Press reported that anyone who stayed on campus in 2015 would lose a year of eligibility. The NCAA would need to approve a waiver to allow those who stayed on campus to turn back their eligibility clock.
Watts said UAB is working with the NCAA to see what it can do in terms of recruiting. Current NCAA rules only allow teams to sign 25 players out of high school, but the Blazers could supplement that number with junior college transfers signed in December. In order to compete at the FBS level, UAB needs an average of 76 scholarship players on its roster during a two-year rolling timeframe.
If the NCAA allows the Blazers to sign a class for the 2015 season, that number is attainable by 2017. If not, the Blazers are going to have to get creative.
While there are many steps toward getting UAB back on the field, the universal opinion is that taking the time to take the steps the right way will ensure the future existence of UAB football.
“People will support and fund this team if it’s done the right way,” Craft said. “Bill Clark came in and did an amazing job as Conference USA Coach of the Year and it sort of revived that passion that everyone had. I think if we invest in it and do it the right way as this community has said they want to do, I think there’s a big opportunity here for UAB.
“I really believe five years from now people are going to look back at this as a very defining day that the university took this action.”
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