BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With no games to play, the UAB football players spend hours sweating on the practice field and in the weight room.
They’re motivated by something else.
The Blazers can see the new, all-encompassing football building and covered field begin to take shape, eventually curtailing the time-consuming treks for workouts and across campus to eat. A new stadium in the next few years seems like a distinct possibility, too.
A program shut down for lack of financial support in December 2014 is coming back bigger and better, only the wins are coming on the balance sheet instead of the field. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a program that just a short time ago might have been gone for good.
“The football facilities that we’ve had are beyond antiquated so we really in our view are creating these for the first time,” UAB athletic director Mark Ingram said. “We’ve been operating here with nearly nothing in terms of football facilities and now we’re going to have this dramatic, impressive training center that we’ve not had.
In football, UAB has long been the poor neighbor to wealthy Southeastern Conference programs Auburn and Alabama — both athletic 1 percenters — with their mammoth stadiums and luxurious accommodations. UAB isn’t seeking to match Alabama’s built-in spa, plush player lounge area or 37,000-square-foot weight room.
But the Blazers haven’t had anything like a level playing field with other Conference USA programs, either. That, at least, is changing.
Just as most teams were gearing up for their first games, UAB broke ground on a two-story, 46,000-square-foot two-story facility that will include offices, meeting rooms, locker rooms, weight rooms and a dining area. It’s scheduled to open in July 2017, less than two months before the team’s first game back.
“Now, you can taste it,” Blazers coach Bill Clark said. “We’re so close to being just like every other program.”
In the Birmingham community, UAB proves the saying that you don’t know what you have until you lose it.
University President Ray Watts announced that the school was shutting down football, rifle and bowling in a cost-cutting move shortly after Clark’s initial team became bowl eligible for the first time in a decade.
Following a groundswell of support from business leaders, fans and alumni, Watts resurrected all three the following June. The football team will resume play next season against a full FBS and Conference USA schedule.
The first game will be Sept. 2 against Alabama A&M, but the initial schedule also includes the kind of lucrative guarantee game with Florida that helps every lower and mid-level program make ends meet.
UAB raised more than $40 million in a 15-month period after football’s resurrection. It’s enough to move out of the cramped, high school-like football building next door to the locker room and team meeting area (where Watts told players of their program’s demise). With no covered turf field, the team used to have to travel to other schools to practice in poor weather.
By comparison, Ingram said the team had typically received about $2.5 million a year in donations.
“We were over budget by $1 million a year for at least 10 straight years,” he said. Ingram, a former Tennessee player and administrator, has seen the impact of improved football facilities at four previous stops.
“When you put a great coach and coaching staff together and give them a great sales tool to sell to the recruits, that’s how you end up with great players and great teams,” he said.
An even bigger upgrade could be in the works. The Blazers have played their games at 89-year-old Legion Field.
The Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex board of directors has hired a Kansas City firm to explore an estimated $174 million stadium downtown that would seat up to 55,000.
UAB, which signed a multi-year deal with Under Armour in September, had already built a new locker room upon Clark’s hiring. He said he wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise and it was part of his first discussion with school officials.
“I just immediately said, ‘I don’t believe y’all are serious. Don’t waste my time. I’ve got a good job. I’m happy,'” said Clark, then the head coach at FCS Jacksonville State. “And it was like, ‘No, we’re 100 percent. The first thing we’re doing, we’re building a new locker room. And we did. And that was a game changer for these kids.
“This whole new building and knocking this one down, that’s what we needed.”
Linebacker Shaq Jones looked into transferring to schools like Western Michigan, Marshall and Western Kentucky after UAB shut down football, but opted to stay close to his child.
But the visits drove home how far behind UAB’s facilities were, including from a recruit’s point of view.
“Everything was top level,” Jones said. “It was amazing. To know that we’re going to have those things is great for us, because I was drawn to those things and I’m pretty sure that we’re going to have guys that will be drawn to the things we’ll have here.”
UAB is banking on it.
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