By Josh Roller | @Roller_01
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Two years ago, Bill Clark did not have a football team.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham had disbanded the program for financial reasons in 2015, after Clark had coached the Blazers to a 6-6 record in his first season. The role of the head coach had included the effort to guide players to opportunities at other schools. Clark remembered that when he would receive calls about the possibility of bringing football back, he would respond, “You know, we don’t have a program.”
Eventually, the persistent callers said they would bring the football program back if he would stay.
Clark remembered telling them, “Okay, I’ll stay if we do it right.”
Clark was awarded the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year Award by the Football Writers Association of America for transforming a football program that did not exist into a bowl-game champion in two seasons. The Blazers defeated Northern Illinois, 37-13, in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 18 to conclude an 11-victory season with the program’s first bowl victory in the second season after reinstatement.
The award was named for the former Grambling State University coach whose teams won or tied for 17 championships in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and nine Black College Football Championships.
Eddie Robinson III, the grandson of the late coach, told Clark, “I’m more than thrilled that you’ve won the Eddie this season.” Robinson III added that he was most impressed with what Clark was able to accomplish at Prattville (Ala.) High School, where his teams had a record of 107-11 in nine seasons.
“This remarkable return of college football needs to be noted over and over again,” said Rod West, President of the Allstate Sugar Bowl. “Two years ago, UAB did not have a football program. We blink twice, coach, and you win eleven games and you win the Conference USA Championship.”
The Blazers won eight games in 2017, appeared in the Bahamas Bowl, and Clark was named Conference USA Coach of the Year.
The FWAA selected Clark over a high-profile list that included Nick Saban of Alabama and Dabo Swinney of Clemson, whose teams met in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
FWAA executive director Steve Richardson asked Clark if he could have imagined being the conference champions after only two years. “This would be one of those things in our wildest dreams,” Clark said. “This would be something that we would hope for, but I honestly can say no.”
Clark said he and his staff had looked at what happened when Southern Methodist University revived its program after it had been suspended because of NCAA violations. As a result, the UAB staff searched for junior college players in an attempt to recruit older, more experienced veterans to the team.
“I think (in 2017) the return just [was] going so well that we came into this offseason and said ‘Alright, next step,’” said Clark. “And you know the next step was to start talking about a conference championship.”
While at the podium Clark became emotional at times, particularly when reflecting on his father, who had a major influence on him. He shared the memory that the only room in his house that had air conditioning when he was a child was the room his father, a high school coach, used to watched film. The thing Clark loved the most, he said, was the fact that his father was looked up to by his players. “You know my dad’s about this tall,” Clark said, holding his hand in front of his chest. “And I would say, ‘How does a six-two or six-three guy find a way to look up to this little guy?”
When asked about what he thought about first when he heard he would receive was the award, Clark said, “Just very humbling. I mean it was just hard to put into words and we’ve got some other honors, but this is a big one.”
Even though the offseason is less than a month old, Clark is already looking ahead to the next test. He shared that he has had a little time to let this honor sink in, but coaches are always looking ahead.
It is clear that Bill Clark had a vision for what could be done with the resurrection of UAB football. He said, “You got to have a belief, faith, work hard and good things happen.”