How UAB engineered college football's greatest comeback

UAB has already clinched the Conference USA West Division title and could host the league's championship game. Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It's the question in the back of everyone's minds and yet there's no polite way of asking. So, here goes nothing: Why, Bill Clark, are you still at UAB?

At this, the 50-year-old coach of the most surprising team in college football smiles knowingly.

He knows there's no use denying the premise. No one would have blamed him had he left following the program's shutdown late in 2014. But for some reason he stayed, despite having other opportunities. He stayed through the vote to reinstate the program six months later; he stayed through the arduous two years it took to raise money, recruit and rebuild from scratch; and he stayed through the team's remarkable return last season in which the Blazers won eight games and Clark was tabbed as Conference USA's Coach of the Year.

"I don't know why," Clark said. "I've always been a sucker for reclamation projects."

This one has been a doozy, though. There was a time not too long ago when Clark walked out of the official adoption of the UAB Football Foundation -- a fundraising arm that should have been created decades earlier -- and said, "This is what it must have felt like to be one of the Founding Fathers." The group then went out and raised $27 million to help get the program back on its feet, which blew Clark away.

Now, with a C-USA West Division on his résumé and a 9-1 record in his back pocket, the investment appears to have been worth it. UAB is ranked in the Coaches Poll (No. 25) for the first time since 2004. Now, when Clark talks about the doubt he once experienced, it's in the past tense. He points out the window of his office on the second floor of a new football-only facility, past a new covered practice field, to their old beige football offices straight out of the 1970s, as if to say, That's where doubt used to live and that's where it will stay.

There are plans to tear the building down soon to make room for additional practice space.

But first, an opponent Saturday that ought to symbolize something: UAB, which at one time felt it couldn't justify the expense of a football program, will go toe-to-toe with a financial monolith in Texas A&M that committed $75 million to its new head coach, Jimbo Fisher, this offseason. According to the Dallas Morning News, the host Aggies are paying the Blazers $1.6 million, which covers the entirety of Clark's salary this year and then some.

When the game was originally scheduled in 2016, all UAB's administration could promise was a team with uniforms and helmets. And even then that was kind of iffy.

To come this far, to win a division title, is a "miracle," Clark said.

That his dream would come true -- and so fast -- is remarkable by any measure. But the idea that Clark would dare to aim so high is certainly not.

When he was first starting as a head coach at Prattville High in Central Alabama, back when only 18 players showed up for the start of preseason camp and three of them were freshmen kickers, he would break down every practice with a chant of "Champs!" Players looked at him as if he were from another planet -- "Like I was insane," Clark said -- not realizing they would eventually become a powerhouse, winning seven games that first season and nine the next. By the time Clark left for the University of South Alabama in 2007, he'd won back-to-back state titles.

At UAB, after the shutdown and with games nowhere on the horizon, he ended practice the very same way. Every day. Champs!

It was a bit of a pipe dream, of course. Clark admitted that compared to Prattville, the chant was a "little crazier" considering that it was a time when all he hoped for UAB was to be competitive, let alone win games. He wondered whether he'd have enough guys -- again -- to field a team. Recruiting so many transfers and junior college players was a calculated gamble that could have blown up in his face.

But to borrow a phrase from Lavar Ball, Clark wasn't afraid to speak his dream into existence. He went after the big-name players UAB wasn't accustomed to recruiting, and landed a few. And when he had all of them together, unlike a lot of coaches, he wasn't afraid to verbalize goals beyond the next week's game.

"To me," Clark said, "you're never going to get where you want to go if you don't talk about things. This is our goal, and it should be. Why not just say it?"

On the outside, it made no sense. UAB? Champs? Of what exactly?

But internally, players responded. Players like Collin Lisa, who was part of that 2014 team, left for Buffalo when the program was shut down, and returned after a year because he couldn't stand the cold and because he never really wanted to be anywhere else in the first place.

Lisa, the team's leading receiver this season, credited Clark's consistency throughout what has become known in social media circles as #TheReturn. "He coached the same when we didn't have a game for another 300 and something days to when we had a game in three days," he said. Every day the message was the same, and slowly players started to believe.

It wouldn't matter that high-profile recruits like former Ole Miss signee D.J. Law and former Alabama signee Brandon Hill didn't work out. It wouldn't matter that Jonathan Haden, the brother of former NFL first-round pick Joe Haden who started his career at Arizona, would miss all of this season with a torn ACL.

"This year, I knew we were going to be good," Lisa said. "From our workouts in the summer to the way our coaches coached us to the way players respond to coaching, there was no doubt."

So good, in fact, that their starting quarterback A.J. Erdely went down with a shoulder injury, Tyler Johnston III came in and the offense didn't miss a beat.

So good that the defense ranks in the top five nationally in seven categories, including No. 1 in sacks and No. 5 in total defense.

"We have depth at a lot of positions," Lisa said.

Whether UAB pulls off the David vs. Goliath-caliber upset of Texas A&M on Saturday is almost beside the point now. The Blazers are going to the C-USA championship game no matter what, and if the chips fall the right way they could be hosting it at their home stadium, Legion Field, where they're 12-0 since the program's return.

This week, maybe more so than any week in years, Clark said he has been able to stop and smell the roses.

In the back of his mind, though, there's more to do: a conference championship to win, a bowl game to play, a signing class to secure.

Clark isn't thinking about why he's still here or what opportunity might come his way next.

He's a sucker for a good reclamation project and this one isn't finished yet. That old eyesore of an office needs to come down soon to expand the practice field and a new stadium is scheduled to go up in 2021.

UAB is still building, and if you're looking for why Clark has stayed, that's as good a reason as any.