Birmingham celebrates return of UAB football and it was no April Fools

UAB football players receive cheers during Blazer Walk before Saturday’s spring game.

UAB head football coach Bill Clark stepped off the team bus outside Legion Field on Saturday, April 1st, surveyed the celebration taking place before him, and immediately was thankful to be wearing shades. Not because of the brightness of the day, but because the brightness of the Blazers’ future was bringing a tear to Clark’s eye.

More than two years after being declared dead, the UAB football program made a big step toward returning to the field in September with the playing of the Green & Gold spring football game. Nearly 8,000 people turned out for what is basically a glorified scrimmage, with hundreds of them showing up two hours early just to cheer on the players and coaches as they arrived at the stadium for what’s known as Blazer Walk.

UAB Head Football Coach Bill Clark

“It was an emotional feeling to get off that bus and see that unbelievable crowd. It was really amazing,” Clark said with a smile after the game. “I told my wife I was glad I had my sunglasses on. That was a big deal, for fans to get there two hours before (the game). I can’t say enough about our fans. They showed up today.”

UAB head coach Bill Clark greets a fan during Saturday’s Blazer Walk at Legion Field.

Ever since it was announced in December 2014 that the football program was being shut down due to a lack of financial resources, the team’s fans have been showing up like never before. A wave of public support, both vocally and financially, led to the program’s reinstatement in July 2015. But because the team had to be rebuilt practically from scratch, the Blazers sat out both the 2015 and 2016 seasons in preparation of returning to the playing field in 2017.

Area leaders raised $40 Million

In the interim, a combination of Birmingham business and civic leaders along with avid UAB supporters worked to raise more than $40 million for the program to upgrade its feeble football facilities. The initial results of those efforts can be seen just off Sixth Avenue South near 11th Street, with the construction of a multi-purpose football building and covered practice field. Both are expected to be completed this July and ready when preseason practice begins this August.

So in many ways, Saturday’s spring game – which the more experienced Green team won 49-7 – marked an important midpoint to the program’s revival. It was a chance for supporters to celebrate the impressive strides that have been made over the past two years, and to look forward to finally seeing the Blazers back on the football field for a real game on Sept. 2 in their season-opener against Alabama A&M.

Fans lined up to buy UAB merchandise before Saturday’s spring game.

“The most important thing people can embrace is that the city of Birmingham – with the broadest base of community leadership – really made a conscious decision that UAB football is very important,”

Tommy Brigham, chairman of ARC Realty, said from the sidelines at Legion Field before the start of Saturday’s game.

“And it’s important not just because it’s football in the South, but because we feel really strongly that the economy of Birmingham is directly tied to UAB’s success.

“So we look at UAB football as a foundational catalyst to allow us to put the building blocks in place to attract a broad base of students that will allow us to have a comprehensive university and really stimulate our economy. Really the whole thing comes down to, what’s good for UAB is good for Birmingham. So the general leadership in Birmingham said let’s make an investment in football, so we can be excellent in every way possible.”

The crowd and atmosphere at Saturday’s game indicates that there definitely is a new level of enthusiasm for the football program. In past years, the spring game was held either on the team’s practice field or at the nearby soccer facility, and fan attendance was in the hundreds, not thousands. This time, fans set up tailgate parties and stood in line to buy UAB merchandise. In other words, it seemed a lot like an actual college football game.

“I looked around and thought, ‘We’re really back now. It’s really happening,’ ”

said wide receiver Collin Lisa, who played on the 2014 UAB team and remained with the program through the hiatus.

“I wasn’t expecting Blazer Walk to be packed like that. People were excited. It felt like game day.”

Wide receiver Collin Lisa runs with the ball, via Kamp Fender/UAB Athletics

The challenge for UAB moving forward will be to maintain this level of excitement as the team likely goes through some early struggles after not playing a game for two full seasons. After the Blazers made their first and only bowl appearance in 2004, interest in the program diminished as the team posted nine consecutive losing records. And even though the Blazers improved to 6-6 in 2014 in Clark’s first year at UAB, most home games attracted fewer fans than the number who showed up on Saturday for an April scrimmage.

Enter Millennials

One reason for optimism is the growing number of Birmingham residents in their 20s and 30s who either went to school at UAB or grew up in the city after the football team was formed in the 1990s. To them, UAB football has simply been an expected part of life, and there is a sense that they will support the program stronger than ever now that is was almost taken away.

“The millennial generation is moving downtown, and a lot of them are familiar with the last 10 to 15 years of the football program at UAB,”

said Justin Craft, president of the wealth-management firm Nowlin & Associates and a member of the UAB football team in the 1990s.

“They are responsible for bringing this back as much as the business community is, but in a different way. So they’re taking ownership in it. It’s exciting to see the city come together like it has.”

Fans of all ages came out for UAB’s spring game on Saturday.

That demonstration of unity is why Clark grew misty-eyed as he walked past the team’s cheering supporters on Saturday. And it’s why business leaders such as Brigham are so excited about the program’s impending return to action.

“This is important not just for UAB, but for our city. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Brigham said. “This is the beginning of the beginning of Birmingham competing with Louisville and Charlotte and Nashville and our other peer cities in a significant way. I think the city realizes this is a chance to put a legacy stamp on the future of Birmingham, and have a coalescing of all this to make Birmingham an even better city.”

Welcome back, Blazers!  

Find the 2017 Blazer football schedule here.

General admission for individual games is $15 or season pass is $125.   Get tickets here.