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How the business community pitched in to help save UAB football

UAB vs. Alabama A&M at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Zach Bland/For UAB Athletics
By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

UAB football coach Bill Clark points out features of the UAB football facility to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

It may have been the turning point for the return of University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football. And it came with support—and, more importantly, money—from the metropolitan Birmingham business community.

The meeting, held in a large conference room in the office of UAB President Ray Watts, MD, was attended by about 30 of Birmingham’s most prominent business leaders. Also in the room were UAB Athletics Director (AD) Mark Ingram and UAB Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Allen Bolton.

The UAB football program was terminated after the 2014 season, and the meeting was in May 2015, one month before football was reinstated in June 2015. The institution needed about $17 million to help with the return of the program, but only $12 million had been pledged.

The meeting began cordially but turned chaotic until Mike Goodrich Sr., a lifelong Birmingham resident and former CEO of an engineering and construction business, stood up and said, “I’m not a UAB fan. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a game. But I’ve seen what this has done to our community, and I want to make it right. I’m in for a million.”

His pledge was followed by another businessman who said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ Somebody else said, ‘I can’t do a million, but I can do $250,000.’” Within an hour that money was raised.

“I’d never seen anything like that before or been a part of anything like that before,” recalled Ingram. “I’d never heard of anything like that before, and that’s how we got to the finish line from a fundraising perspective. The way the community came together to make that happen was remarkable.”

This season, the UAB Blazers finished 11-3; captured their first Conference USA (C-USA) championship and first division title; made their first back-to-back bowl trips; and won their first bowl game. UAB Head Football Coach Bill Clark, in addition to winning the prestigious Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award, was also named the 2018 Sporting News Coach of the Year.

The return is significant for the way disparate parts of the community rallied behind the UAB football team.

“When was the last time you saw the Birmingham business community respond the way it has as it relates to UAB football?” said Mayor Randall Woodfin. “I think that was bigger than numbers. I think that was bigger than UAB. I think that was bigger than football. I think that was about what Coach Clark stands for and what he means to this community.”

Ingram said the outcry after the program was terminated caught many off guard.

“There were a lot more people who came out in support of football than most people believed would happen,” he said. “It surprised people that there were that many people, so many who really wanted UAB football to be here.”

The AD said money was definitely needed to upgrade the facilities.

“Our practice field sloped 10 feet from one end to the other, and it was on the side of a sloping hill,” he said. “Most high schools have a flat practice field. We didn’t even have a flat practice field. Our locker room was in a building that used to be a maintenance shed. Half of it was the locker room and half of it was an empty room of folding chairs. That was the only meeting space.”

‘Jaw Dropping’

With support from business leaders and others, the university now has a state-of-the-art $22.5 million football headquarters and practice facility. The city of Birmingham and Jefferson County pitched in to build a $174 million, 45,000-seat stadium, which is expected to be ready for the 2021 season.

“In my opinion, building the practice facility was the single best decision we made because it’s here to stay,” Ingram said. “We’ve raised the money for it, we built it, and it’s sustainable. We don’t have to go raise the money for it every year. … It’s the best practice facility in our conference.”

There are other benefits to having a world-class facility, Ingram said: “We’ve always had a great school, great city, great weather. Combine [those things] with this great facility, [our] great coaching staff [that] finds these players and brings them here to show them this [facility], and it’s jaw dropping. These kids show up and say, ‘I had no idea.’”

The future is bright for the Blazers, Ingram added.

“The city is building a new football stadium in the Uptown District with the expanded and renovated Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center’s Legacy Arena, so all this momentum has helped us recruit great players,” he said. “It’s a combination of all those things we had, and now layer in this practice facility … [and] what this means is for the kids. They see the commitment that football is important [at UAB and say], ‘This is the kind of place committed to helping me be my very best.’”