UAB coach Bill Clark weathers seasons without team, games
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) Bill Clark fills his Saturdays much like college football fans around the country: Watching as many games on TV that he can squeeze in from morning to night.
It’s not such a bad way to spend a day – unless you’re a football coach used to pacing the sidelines.
Clark is a coach with only the remnants of a team and without any games this season or next. The UAB program was dropped after his first season and later reinstated, but won’t return with a full schedule until 2017.
”It’s been tough. I’m just a little lost,” Clark said. ”It’s not like I’m not busy. Anybody that’s ever been part of having your life on the line every game day, you just feel that pressure. It’s what I’ve always said, it’s terrible until kickoff and then you’re kind of in your element.”
He comes into work most weekdays by 5 a.m., like usual, explaining that he just can’t sleep in. Only now, he and his three full-time assistants can typically head home by dinnertime instead of 10 or 11 p.m.
And on Saturdays, instead of heading to a stadium, he goes to the office to watch games, seeking out ideas and tracking trends.
”That’s my only chance to do Xs and Os,” Clark said in a football building that is oddly quiet for October. ”I’m watching everything I can.”
He spends the rest of the time evaluating prospects and helping raise money for new facilities, including a football operations building and covered or indoor practice center. A long-coveted stadium for UAB to call its own also appears closer to reality.
Clark must rebuild the program in more ways than one.
The 47-year-old received a new five-year contract in September that emphasized how big a priority raising money has become.
The $650,000-a-year deal includes bonuses for eight fundraising milestones in donations he helps bring to UAB. For a program with subpar facilities and no stadium – home games are played at aging Legion Field – money was the reason President Ray Watts cited in dropping football, bowling and rifle in December 2014, after the Blazers’ best season in a decade.
The surge of emotional and financial commitment from UAB supporters, the community and students who voted to raise their fees helped persuade Watts to restore all three sports.
Then Clark’s big task came: Finding enough players to get ready for 2017. He has 32 on campus, including 15 who stuck around and are on scholarship. The rest are walk-ons.
The NCAA is letting UAB catch up. Clark can sign 15 mid-year recruits and 30, instead of 25, on national signing day before returning to the normal limits.
He said an NCAA official told him somebody within Conference USA, where the league and coaches have otherwise been supportive, actually complained that UAB was getting an edge. There’s no mercy on the recruiting trail.
Clark doesn’t spend much time on the road recruiting with so many other things to do. He expects to fill out his staff after the season.
Most of his old UAB players have scattered to other schools and programs around the country, most notably Indiana running back Jordan Howard and Georgia linebacker Jake Ganus.
Center Lee Dufour, who started the final two games of his freshman season, and kicker Nick Vogel returned from other schools when UAB decided to bring back football – as they’d promised each other they’d do. Dufour had moved on to South Alabama and Vogel to Southern Miss, leaving after the recruiting frenzy that descended on campus last December.
”That’s the first thing I did was decide I wanted to come back,” said Dufour, who’s from outside Mobile. ”I like being home with my family and everything, but this is where I wanted to be out of high school. I fell in love with Birmingham.”
Cornerback Darious Williams had decided to give up football if he couldn’t play for UAB, despite overtures from several Sun Belt Conference and C-USA programs. Recovering from shoulder surgery, the former walk-on had returned home to Jacksonville, Florida, and was driving and loading delivery trucks for a hardware store when his old position coach called.
”As soon as I got the call, I was right on board,” Williams said. ”There’s nothing better than to play football for these coaches.”
Right now, Clark and his few assistants organize and oversee practices and workouts five days a week.
”It’s like an offseason,” Clark said. ”They’re doing great. We should be the best training team in the country. That’s all we’ve got to focus on.”
UAB players gather to watch their former teammates and other teams play on Saturdays.
That’s when it’s toughest for the players – and Clark.
”It kind of sinks in,” Dufour said. ”You see all your former teammates on social media (saying), `Come watch us,’ sending pictures of them traveling to games. It’s like, man, I wish I could be doing that right now. But that’s just how it is.”
Clark has been through program building before. As defensive coordinator, he helped South Alabama coach Joey Jones start a program from scratch to FBS in a record six seasons. This one does have a foundation already, a much-accelerated timetable and an established fan base.
Clark spent his unscheduled hiatus visiting about 20 schools and the Philadelphia Eagles, watching film and even talking to the Eagles’ nutritionist and GPS tracker looking for any kind of edge. He and wife, Jennifer, chaperoned spring break trips for each of their kids, Jacob and Katie – to Orange Beach, Alabama, and with 23 college kids on a cruise to Mexico, respectively. Jennifer Clark tried to keep her husband busy, including planting about 60 shrubs and a garden.
”Around the end of May, I was running out of projects for him to do,” she said. ”I was getting a little worried.”
He still went into the office some days even without a program to oversee.
”We got to do a lot of things, spend a lot of time together, that we’d never had the opportunity to do,” Jennifer Clark said. After taking over two programs in two years, she said this was the perfect time for a break, however painful the circumstances.
Then, finally, it was back to UAB. And being a coach, minus the games for now.
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