Jake's College Football Coach of the Year: Bill Clark
Earlier this month, the prestigious Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award went to the (at the time) University of Central Florida's Scott Frost. Although there are many smaller entities that hand out their own Coach of the Year award, this is the big kahuna in the eyes of the NCAA and coaches everywhere. The Heisman of coaching if you will.
It was a fantastic season for Frost and his 12-0, AAC champion squad, and they will face Auburn in the Peach Bowl on January 1st as a result. No one can deny that Frost did amazing things at UCF before bolting for Nebraska. This season will go down as quite possibly the best all time for UCF. It's hard to argue with him being named Coach of the Year, but that's exactly what I intend to do.
You see, Coach of the Year rewards someone who not only did amazing things with his squad but usually exceeded expectations as well. However, this only addresses on-field play, and I think this year's award should be much more than that. College coaches are called on to produce a high quality product on the field that will make boosters and administration happy. But what about the coaches who blow past expectations off the field? Shouldn't we be giving more credence to coaches who achieved good results on the field but ascended Mt. Everest off it too? I certainly think so, and that's what leads me back to my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The home of the UAB Blazers.
In 2017, Bill Clark's 8-4 UAB Blazers didn't win their division. They didn't win their conference. Heck, they were probably the 4th best team in their own state this season. They're playing in a bowl game that not many people will be watching next Friday against the Ohio Bobcats. All that being said, UAB and Bill Clark have one of the most amazing stories to tell this season. One that I believe makes Clark the undisputed Coach of the Year. Come with me down the rabbit hole, folks.
Our journey begins 4 Decembers ago....
UAB FOOTBALL: THE RISE BUT MOSTLY THE FALL
It's December of 2013. The lowly UAB Blazers have just completed a woeful 2-10 season, and the school has decided to fire Head Coach Garrick McGee who compiled a pitiful 5-19 record over the course of two seasons. Unfortunately, this kind of ineptitude is not uncommon for UAB. In fact, 2004 was the last time this team even cracked a .500 or better mark. For those keeping score at home, the 2004 season was the program's lone bowl appearance. Winning and UAB football are not synonymous in 2013.
Enter: Jacksonville State's head man Bill Clark.
Now, before we get too much farther, let's find out exactly who this Bill Clark fella is.
Bill Clark is a legendary Alabama high school football coach who guided the Prattville Lions (my mother, 4 uncles, and multiple cousins' alma mater) to an astonishing 107-11 record over 9 years that also included 2 6A titles. For those who don't know, 6A was our top tier of high school ball until a few years ago when 7A was added. Have you ever heard of Hoover High School? The ones that got an MTV reality show called "Two a Days" featuring current Tennessee Head Coach and former Hoover DC Jeremy Pruitt? Yeah. You can thank Bill Clark for Hoover's brief lack of success in the 2000s.
After Prattville, Clark helped start the University of South Alabama's football program in 2009 where he successfully led the Jaguar defense for 5 years before taking the head coaching job at FCS Jacksonville State. With the Gamecocks, Clark guided the school to the quarterfinals of the 2013 FCS playoffs, which was one of their best finishes ever. Needless to say, Clark had made a name for himself in the state of Alabama.
And then, UAB came calling.
Fast forward to the end of the 2014 season. Ok, so Clark didn't take the Blazers from 2-10 to 10-2, but he did manage to go 6-6 thanks to a strong running game behind some random guy no one's ever heard of named Jordan Howard.
Yep. THAT Jordan Howard. But this isn't about current NFL stars. It's about Bill Clark. Though 6-6 is not good enough at many FBS schools these days, it was the Blazer's best finish since 2004, and they are also bowl eligible for the first time since then. Although they would get passed up for a bowl, it seems like things are turning around for Bill's Blazers.
And then we get to Dec. 2, 2014.
UAB president Ray Watts did the impossible, and managed to steal the state's focus away from Auburn or Alabama in the month of December. Watts confirmed a report made a few days earlier in a Sports Illustrated article saying that due to a lack of support and financial constraints of competing at the FBS level, UAB would be ending their football program effective immediately. It would be the first FBS program to drop football entirely in nearly 20 years (Pacific did it in 1995).
Now, I can sit here and hash out what happened or didn't happened. Who said what, who promised what money, and other conspiracy theories surrounding the program's demise, but I'll let you google that yourself. That's not what this piece is about.
Back to Bill Clark.
Being a native of Birmingham, AL, I was lucky enough to have a front row seat to the media circus surrounding this news. Multiple outlets in the local media and all over the state cried foul for one reason or another. Many students and alumni protested the decision. It seemed like Watts was attempting to steal away part of Birmingham's identity, which...is funny to me because Legion Field was never even close to full on gameday. In fact, most UAB students and alumni I knew would forgo Saturdays in north Birmingham to head to either Tuscaloosa or Auburn for a major college football experience. UAB seemed to always be an after thought to me, so it was curious that so many people suddenly felt impassioned about the program.
Anyways, that's another story. Back to the point. After awhile, the clamoring and promises of future financial support worked, and by June of 2015, UAB had their football program back.
Great! Let's get back on the field, Blazers!
Not so fast. After UAB announced the end of their program, the players obviously were given free reign to disperse, and anyone with talent landed at another FBS or FCS program. This team had no roster, no coaching staff, and needed lots of money. So, Watts announced that the Blazers would resume play in 2017, which would give them about a year and a half to put the whole thing back together again. One of the first (and smartest) things President Watts did was go back and get Bill Clark.
Fast forward to 2017. UAB resumes football in the fall. They have their 2nd best season ever in program history at 8-4, get invited to the Bahamas Bowl, finish 2nd in their division, Clark wins C-USA Coach of the Year, AND UAB completed their brand new football operations facility. It's gorgeous, by the way. See what can happen when you put your mind to it, UAB?
Now that we have some historical context, let's get down to why Bill Clark should have been voted Coach of the Year across the board.
WHY BILL CLARK?
1. The record
As mentioned previously, UAB has won 8 games or more ONE TIME since the program's inception in 1991. So, that means in UAB's first year back in major college football, they not only managed to become bowl eligible for the second time ever, but they had their best season ever at the FBS level. Their 9-2 record from 1993 was at the 1-AA (currently FCS) level. Holy cabooses, that's amazing!
2. Renewed interest in the program
Ok, so this has little to do with on-field performance, but Coach Clark was instrumental in drumming support back up for the program. Not only did he jump back into the program that nixed the whole thing a year before, but he did so with gusto and the enthusiasm that made the players buy back in immediately. Kudos to Clark for having faith in the program and community. Also, if the head coach is willing to get behind this thing, how can the alumni, students, and boosters NOT be inspired by that?
3. THEY LITERALLY DID NOT PLAY FOOTBALL THE LAST TWO SEASONS
UAB did not play football the last two seasons. This year they went 8-4. THEY LITERALLY DID NOT PLAY FOOTBALL THE LAST TWO SEASONS.
Again, this has very little to do with Coach Clark's on field performance. However, UAB attendance was up 130% from the final 2014 season. Tell me that has nothing to do with the culture of winning that Coach Clark has brought in. Also, anyone who can get people to spend their Saturdays at Legion Field is doing something right.
UAB nabbed the #2 recruiting class in C-USA last season, which is amazing because you're basically pitching to the kids, "hey, we don't currently have a team, but you can be part of a new beginning." That's a tough sell, but he did it.
6. He won a "Herbie"
That's right. Bill Clark won Kirk Herbstreit's Coach of the Year "Herbie" award so...like...might as well retire now because it's all down hill from here.
7. UAB is a tougher place to win at than UCF
That's kind of self-explanatory. Frost did turn around an 0-12 program, but it's not like the Knights had been inept for decades previously. George O'Leary made this program perennial contenders, and they had even been to a Fiesta Bowl under his regime. The culture of winning had been there before. Frost just had to guide them back. Clark literally had to re-build from the ground up.
So, those are my arguments with the main being the record and the fact that this was year 1 of the return. Again, hats off to Scott Frost. I take nothing away from him. However, I just think we need to acknowledge the miraculous job Clark has done in Birmingham. UAB and their boosters have faith in him and the future of the program. Look at the $43 million they've raised in public funding since 2015 as proof. That doesn't happen unless you've got a face like Clark leading your program and getting people believing. There's hope in the Magic City for the first time in a long time concerning the Blazers.
And just look at the plans for the new stadium!
Indulge me here on this tangent for a second. The state of the decrepit Legion Field remains a huge black eye for the program, but city council members have plans in place for a new stadium as you see above. As we've learned time and time again in college football, facilities matter. UAB did themselves a huge favor by investing in a brand-new, state of the art football facility that puts them on the map for recruits. My hope for them now is to learn from this, and invest in the stadium next.
Also, UAB need look no further than baseball's AA Birmingham Barons, who opened Regions Park in downtown Birmingham a few years ago. As a frequenter of the ballpark, it's exactly what UAB should copy: a ballpark in a desirable part of town with multiple things to do before and after the game that's easy to get to. Regions Park completely changed the outlook of the Barons, and UAB could do the same with a new football stadium actually near their fan base.
Coach Clark is just the man to convince the boosters that it's worth it. All of this goes beyond on-field performance, which is what Coach of the Year should put at least some weight behind. Coach Clark's impact goes beyond X's and O's. I would even argue Coach Clark has impacted his team and university more than almost any other coach this football season. THAT'S what Coach of the Year is about to me.
I'm not saying Alabama and Auburn will have company any time soon. Heck, UAB still has work to do to catch up to Troy's football program honestly. However, for the first time in my lifetime, UAB football is trending upwards. They've got the financial commitment, they've got the plans to expand, and now they have the right man for the job. If they can hold on to him and fend off Power 5 suitors, this is not the last time we'll be hearing about Bill Clark.
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