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UAB Blazers catch fire only two seasons after football program returns

In the Summer 2017 issue, Champion chronicled how the Birmingham community came together to bring back UAB football.

By any measure of reason, University of Alabama at Birmingham football should not be using the term “champion” just yet.

Anyone who followed UAB football’s demise and rebirth — or at least read about it in Champion’s feature, “Lost and Found,” in the Summer 2017 issue — should understand this. The school shut down its football program in 2014 amid financial concerns, a crumbling stadium, practice facilities that were subpar for many high schools, and a track record of struggles on the field and in the stands, where 71,000-seat Legion Field often drew fewer than 10,000 fans.

But students and alumni protested the decision — on the campus, in the stands at basketball games, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and anywhere else where people would hear them. A group of local business and civic leaders rose to back a revived program. Together, they shattered fundraising records and raised a new state-of-the-art practice facility. And after two falls with no football, the game was back in Birmingham.

And that’s where a feel-good, Hollywood-worthy story should’ve hit pause while the realities of rebooting a program took over. Because before the term “champion” could be considered, a roster needed to be rebuilt, depth developed, experience gained, lessons from hard losses applied to heartening wins. Winning is a process. At least it’s supposed to be.

Except UAB skipped a few steps and kept its feel-good story rocketing upward. In its first season back, it went 8-5 and qualified for just the second bowl game in program history. This year, it won nine regular-season games, earned its first national ranking since 2004, won the Conference USA title, and won the Boca Raton Bowl— the first bowl victory in the program’s history.

“It’s hard to put into words,” coach Bill Clark said after the Blazers beat Southern Mississippi to win the West Division. “To come from where we have and starting a program over. … There are no other words for it. It’s just huge. It’s that good.”

It seems all the pain came in keeping the program out of an early grave. Everything since, capped with this champion feeling, has been pleasure.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.