The Team without a Game

October is one of the best months of the year for sports fans.  The baseball playoffs open next week, College Basketball practice begins this weekend and College Football moves into the most critical time of the season.  October conference games separate potential champions from those just hoping to get to November and get it over.

College Football will be played all across the country this weekend, but in Birmingham, Alabama, Saturday won’t have a game, but instead will simply be another practice day as the team without a game counts down to its rebirth next September.

The University of Alabama-Birmingham isn’t about to be confused with a football powerhouse.  The program started in 1991 as a Division III program.  The University itself didn’t have athletics until Gene Bartow was hired from UCLA in the late 70s as the basketball coach and athletic director to start UAB athletics from scratch.  It’s football program however is the classic example of what happens when egos get in the way of common sense, and opportunities for student-athletes.

On November 29, 2014, for just the second time in its brief football history, UAB became bowl eligible.  Just three days later on December 2, 2014, the school shuttered its football program.  At the time, UAB President Ray Watts said it was due to financial concerns and the rising costs of being a “competitive” football program.  Those in Alabama will tell you that he reason for dismantling UAB football – and becoming the first Division I school to do so since Pacific dropped the sport in 1995 – was due to a decades old grudge from the son of an Alabama legend.

There’s no question that Paul “Bear” Bryant is Alabama football and there’s no mistaking his place in the history of the sport.  But, much like his contemporaries in those days, Bryant was the typical college football coach.  He bent NCAA rules like everyone else did in those days.  Hey, it ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.  He was also instrumental in training Danny Ford, Jackie Sherrill and Cheatin’ Charlie Pell as assistant coaches.  All three of those guys ran afoul of the NCAA at one point or another as head coaches.

Bryant collected a roster of the best players at a time when you could literally sign as many as you wanted, which led to numerous SEC and National Championships.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Joe Namath to leave Western Pennsylvania to run the wishbone offense in Alabama, but he did.  Was that a coincidence?  I doubt it.  Gene Bartow didn’t doubt Bryant’s bending of the rules either and said as much to the NCAA in a letter he sent to them in his capacity as the A.D. at UAB.  The investigation didn’t go anywhere, but it did ruffle the features of one Paul Bryant, Jr., the Bear’s son, and opened an all-out assault on UAB football by “Baby Bear”.

Bryant, Jr. is one of the most powerful people in the State of Alabama.  He’s a multi-millionaire having founded “Bryant Bank” where he remains the Chairman of the Board.  He’s made money over the years not only in banking, but in owning Dog and Horse Racing Tracks, a Cement Company (Ready Mix USA), and a catfish farm.  There’s nothing wrong with getting rich in this world.  It’s what America is all about.  He was also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees over the University of Alabama System of which UAB is a part.  It’s from this position that those in the know will tell you Bryant, Jr. did all he could to kill UAB football until he succeeded in 2014.

UAB started football as a Division III school in 1991.  In 1993, though the NCAA passed legislation prohibiting schools from being multi-divisional.  Gone were the days of playing Division I basketball and Division III football.  UAB jumped to FCS (then I-AA) in 1993 and played as an FCS Independent for two years.  In 1996, they made the jump to I-A and joined Conference USA in 1999.  They qualified for just one bowl game, the Hawaii Bowl in 1999.  In fairness, they played in a relic of stadium – Legion Field – which was half-empty most of the time and they were largely overshadowed by their powerful neighbor in nearby Tuscaloosa, but they did provide an opportunity for an athlete maybe not big enough or fast enough for the SEC to play college football.  And let’s face it the NFL’s scouting is so sophisticated that if you can play in the NFL, they will find you.

In 2006 politics started creeping into the UAB program.  Watson Brown (Mack Brown’s brother who has taken some of the worst jobs in college football) resigned at UAB to go to Tennessee Tech.  UAB wanted to promote his offensive coordinator Pat Sullivan – a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from Auburn – to head coach.  The Trustees said no.  They then set their sights on then-LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher.  Again, the Trustees said no.  Fisher has proven to be a pretty fair head coach at Florida State.  Left scrambling, UAB settled on Georgia Offensive Coordinator Neal Calloway and the tailspin began.  Calloway won just 18 games in his tenure.  When he was fired, Arkansas Offensive Coordinator Garrick McGee took over as the first African-American Head Coach at the school.  He lasted only two years and the first chance he saw to get out he took it joining his old boss Bobby Petrino at Louisville.  When you don’t win games, and you don’t have financial support you don’t get butts in the seats and that’s why UAB football was losing money at a rapid rate.  In 2011, the school proposed a new on-campus stadium.  The Trustees killed that idea as well.

In 2014, the school actually made a positive move in hiring Bill Clark away from FCS power Jacksonville State to be the head coach.  In his first year he took UAB to a 6-6 record and eligible for the post-season.   Then came the hammer.  Watts announced that UAB would be dropping its football team leaving coaches without jobs and players scrambling for a place to continue their football careers.  The videos of that meeting and its aftermath are heart-breaking.  These are players who came to UAB because that’s where their opportunity was and in a flash they had it pulled from them.  When you are 18-22 years old you don’t often put things in perspective like you do in later years and that had to be the worst day of those kids’ lives, even though the reality is, they’ll have much worse. UAB also pissed off Conference USA with the move.  The league’s bylaws require a school to offer football in order to stay in the league.  Had they shuttered the program permanently Conference USA was going to kick them out.  And don’t think for 10 seconds they couldn’t have replaced them quickly with a school like Liberty dying to move to FBS.

Watts vehemently denied that the Trustees and particularly “Baby Bear” killed the program, but those in Alabama will declare “bullshit” on that. The truth is that there are very few Division I football programs at the FCS and FBS levels who make lots of money from playing the sport.  It’s expensive to finance and other schools make it work because if there is one thing – and one thing only – that alumni can identify with it’s the football team.  It’s topic one of conversation and the reason schools like Mercer and Kennesaw State have recently added the sport at the FCS level.  It’s the reason why perennially losing programs like Virginia Military Institute – which hasn’t had a winning season since 1981 – continue playing.  The identity of most schools is tied to football regardless of the number of wins.

Whether it was public outcry or the fact that at age 70 “Baby Bear” was forced to retire from the Board of Trustees, UAB reversed its decision in 2015 and revived the program.  The idea was to start playing in 2016, but that proved unworkable.  Clark, who was still working under contract without a team to coach, had to rebuild his coaching staff and find some players as UAB had just 15 holdovers at the time.

Clark and his coaches went mining the Junior Colleges and seeking FBS transfers and opened fall practice this year with over 100 players, but at least 40 were walk-ons.  Ask Virginia Tech how walk-ons can have an impact on your program. Each week UAB goes to practice like everyone else, but on Saturdays when other schools play, UAB participates in full pad scrimmages.  The school hosted one open scrimmage in late August and it will have a Homecoming Scrimmage on October 20th also open to the public.

The school received a commitment from Legacy Community Federal Credit Union for $4.2 million dollars to be used to help fund a $22 million dollar football operations center which will include a covered practice field comprised of field-turf.  When they return to the field, they’ll still be forced to play at ancient Legion Field, but the school and the City of Birmingham are discussing a new downtown stadium for the team. It’s a shame that politics got in the way of what is supposed to be the most important thing, the student-athletes, but at least in this case when UAB returns to the field they won’t have to worry about the time their former athletic director “poked the bear”.

Week 5 has three top 10 match-ups and it begins tonight in Seattle, Washington when 10th ranked Washington hosts 7th ranked Stanford.  Both Stanford and Washington enter this game tied for the longest winning streaks in the PAC-12 at seven games.  It’s the first time two top 10 teams meet at Husky Stadium since 1997.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan it’s 8th ranked Wisconsin and 5th ranked Michigan in an afternoon game at the “Big House.”  This will be the first meeting between the two schools where both are ranked in the top 10 and it’s more important to Michigan than Wisconsin.  With a loss Wisconsin can probably still win the Big Ten West.  Michigan would be left with no margin of error with both Michigan State and Ohio State left to play.

Then there’s a little ACC tackle football game in Clemson, South Carolina on Saturday night between third ranked Louisville and 5th ranked Clemson.  Regardless of the hype surrounding this one, this is just the third time these two schools have ever played.  Clemson has won both of the previous meetings, but only by a combined 9 points.  Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson has already scored 25 touchdowns this season as his team leads the nation in both total offense and scoring offense.

There’s another fairly important ACC game in Tallahassee, Florida this weekend as North Carolina visits Florida State.  North Carolina is 3-1 and 1-0 in the ACC after beating Pitt by a single point last week, but Florida State has won 15 of the 18 meetings between these two schools.  North Carolina faces an important game next weekend at home against Virginia Tech, and can survive a loss this weekend and still make the ACC title game, but can’t survive back to back losses to the Seminoles and Hokies.

Va. Tech has the weekend off.  Virginia meanwhile heads to Duke to face their oldest opponent.  These two schools first met in 1890 and have played every season since 1963.  Virginia holds the all-time series lead 34-33 which includes a rare win by a Mike London coached team last year.

After three non-conference games, it’s time for West Virginia to jump into the Big XII pool this weekend with a home date against Kansas State.  West Virginia has beaten two decent teams in Missouri and BYU, along with FCS Youngstown State.  The Big XII is an entirely different game.  After another open date next week, over the following 6 weeks, WVU goes to Texas Tech, hosts TCU, travels to Oklahoma State, gets basically another bye-week against Kansas, and then faces Texas and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks.  They first need to solve the riddle of Kansas State.  K-State leads the overall series 5-1 and since WVU joined the Big XII, they’ve yet to beat the Wildcats.

In Athens, Georgia, the SEC East is essentially there for the taking for Tennessee as they face Georgia.  After beating Florida by running off 35 straight points last week, the Volunteers play their first “true” road game because Bristol certainly doesn’t count.  A win here all but clinches the SEC East title for Tennessee as they’ll hold the tie-breaker over both Florida and Georgia and the rest of the SEC East isn’t any good.  However, Tennessee hasn’t won in Athens since 2006.

And for the 45th year, the three-way battle between Army, Navy and Air Force for the commander-in-chief’s trophy opens this weekend when Air Force hosts Navy in Colorado Springs.  Air Force leads the overall series with Navy, but the Midshipmen have won 10 of the last 13 commander-in-chief’s trophies.  The other three in that span were won by Air Force.  Together Navy and Air Force have combined to win the last 19 trophies.  Army hasn’t won it since 1996.

Our FCS game of the week takes us to the Grand Strand of South Carolina where 10th ranked Coastal Carolina hosts 15th ranked Charleston Southern.  Coastal Carolina is a team without a league this year.  They are transitioning to the Sun Belt Conference for 2017 and are playing this year as an FCS Independent after the Big South kicked them out for 2016.  Coastal may be coached by one of the most interesting stories in all of College Football.  Head Coach Joe Moglia is in his 5th season at Coastal Carolina.  He started his coaching career in high school in 1968, eventually moving up to serve as Defensive Coordinator at Dartmouth and Lafayette.  In 1983, he moved into the business world to feed his family by working at Merrill Lynch for 17 years.  In 2001 he became the CEO of Ameritrade.  He remained CEO until 2008 and remains the Chairman of the Board to this day. He got back into coaching in a consultant role at Nebraska in 2009 before coming to Coastal Carolina in 2012.  All this economics graduate from Fordham has done is win 41 games and three conference titles.

Division II takes us to Goodwell, Oklahoma where the 6th ranked Lions of Texas A&M-Commerce face unranked Oklahoma Panhandle State.  Yes, Oklahoma Panhandle State is in the panhandle of Oklahoma and like some other Southwestern schools has a rodeo team for both men and women.  Texas A&M-Commerce is located just 60 miles from Downtown Dallas and is off to a 4-0 start and their number 6 ranking is tied for the highest in school history.

For Division III we go to Pella, Iowa where the 24th ranked Dutch of Central College host the University of Dubuque.  Central is off to a 4-0 start and holds a place as one of Division III’s best program.  The Dutch have won 30 Iowa Conference Championships, appeared in the Division III playoffs 30 times and haven’t had a losing season since 1960.  Among their alums are former CBS Correspondent Harry Smith and their hometown of Pella is known for being the Corporate Headquarters of Pella Corporation which manufacturers windows and doors.  Dubuque’s most famous alum is actor Tony Danza.

Finally, the NAIA game of the Week takes us to Waleska, Georgia where the 5th ranked Eagles of Reinhardt University hosts Bluefield College.  Reinhardt is off to a 5-0 start while Bluefield, which just revived its football program in 2011 is still struggling coming into this game at 0-5.

Have a great weekend everyone…

 

 

 

 

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