BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On a day when Donald Trump's infinite election convoy was shutting down the streets of Birmingham, Bill Clark strolled through the front doors of the Sheraton Hotel without anyone seeming to notice.
Wearing blue jeans, a sport coat and a neighborly Alabama smile, Clark was not outfitted like a football coach. He looked more like a company's go-to salesman—the kind of asset that closes a deal long before shaking a single hand.
In many ways, at least for the time being, this has become his new reality.
On one of the final college football Saturdays of the season, the head coach of UAB football—the program that was told to die, only to spring back to life before most knew it had ever left—looked strangely content with his unorthodox standing.
Clark will not coach his team in an actual game until September 2, 2017—more than 550 days from now—when UAB makes its official return to college football.
In the meantime, the catalyst of this great resurrection has the unthinkable task of selling a program that has to remain idle a bit longer.
It's a weight no coach should have to carry around in living rooms and dinner tables. And yet, despite the obstacles of selling a future, Clark has convinced a collection of former 4- and 5-star talents—elite players who logged hours at some of the nation's most esteemed football powers—to commit to his vision.
UAB, operating with a tremendous anchor, is on the verge of securing one of the greatest recruiting classes in school history.
|Year||National Recruiting Class Rank||Conference Recruiting Class Rank|
|2010||No. 87||No. 5|
|2011||No. 99||No. 7|
|2012||No. 109||No. 9|
|2013||No. 90||No. 5|
|2014||No. 113||No. 11|
|2016||No. 58 (as of January 28)||No. 1|
247Sports' composite rankings
Instead of simply adding necessary depth with national signing day now less than a week away, Clark has infused his gutted roster with greatness—known names and athletes poised to guide this program's hand up from the grave and into the driving light.
The team with the highest-ranked recruiting class in Conference USA won't play next fall. And the architect behind it—the man anxiously hoping to win a city's heart—doesn't appear the least bit fazed by the lingering shock and now the overwhelming success of it all.
The Presidential Suite at the Sheraton is spacious: 850 square feet high above Birmingham, overlooking a downtown that is in the infant stages of a makeover. In the years to come, this space will overlook the new football facilities UAB has planned.
Clark did not pick to meet in this particular room by chance. It was by design. This setting was handpicked to host one of UAB's most robust recruiting weekends since it was brought back.
With mockups of the facilities propped up on easels throughout the room and a delectable spread laid out, Clark eased onto the leather sofa hours before the players arrived.
Twirling a bottle of water in his hand, he talked about rebuilding this program and the challenges in acquiring this kind of talent. But before he could look forward, he had to revisit old wounds.
"My mother passed away when I was 19, so I don't want to compare it to a death," Clark said, finally letting go of his smile. "But this was close to a death."
On December 2, 2014, UAB President Ray Watts told a room full of players and coaches that their football team was being disbanded. Members of the team walked out with their arms around each other, fighting back tears. Some didn't bother to fight them at all.
A lack of funding and general financial commitments, coupled with a very cryptic (and somewhat political) situation ultimately doomed UAB football.
After leading the team to a .500 or better record for the first time in a decade, Clark watched as the program was scrapped for parts. Coaches and players left for other universities.
While some upperclassmen expressed a desire and willingness to sit out two full years for one more chance to play for their coach, Clark told them not to wait. Not with so much still to be determined.
"It was every emotion," Clark said. "I need to be here for these kids. Now I need to go get a job. Where is my next move? But there was still hope. And this is where I wanted to be."
So he waited. And six months after his program was taken away, Watts announced football was coming back.
Not only was UAB football returning, but it was also being rebooted with new facilities that included a football operations building, turf fields and locker rooms.
Clark had his team. More importantly, he had something to sell. The only catch was that this vision and this future would not be realized for more than two years.
Roughly 30 players stayed at UAB—a mix of scholarship athletes and walk-ons Clark refers to as his "culture" group. The rest would have to be brought in from the outside—a task that was daunting on the surface.
UAB needed bodies, above all. To create a competitive environment for spring practice—a period that will still be "the least normal thing we do," according to Clark—they needed commitments to fill in such glaring holes.
"I don't want us to sell our soul to win early, but I want to be able to compete," Clark said. "And we're not going to be able to do that with a bunch of freshmen. We had to go get older."
A list that began in thousands was narrowed to a few hundred players.
Many of these players were junior college players in between football homes. While UAB didn't avoid high schools, thinking about the next, next step, this first class demanded a unique methodology.
"There's a bad connotation with junior college kids. There's a bad connotation on transfers. But we said every guy has a story," Clark said, gesturing with the now-empty water bottle. "A lot of these guys were so highly touted that they just didn't know how to handle it. They've got another chance. They have a chance to be the start of it and attend a great university."
The concept made perfect sense.
Resurrect your roster with a developed group that could settle in for the next year. Get them on campus as quickly as possible and acclimate them with the system through spring football. Get them in class, just like any other student-athlete.
But putting this plan in motion required a breakthrough. It had to start somewhere.
Clifton Garrett's phone buzzed.
It was October of last year, shortly after one of the nation's elite linebackers from the 2014 recruiting class—a 5-star talent and the No. 28 prospect overall, according to 247Sports' composite rankings—shocked the recruiting world by committing to UAB.
A head coach at a major university actively recruiting Garrett received word that his target had committed.
"Wow," this coach wrote him in a text message, still shocked by the news. "Are you serious?"
All Garrett could do was smile. Not because this was some sort of a joke, but because this was coming. He understood that few would understand why he was doing what he was. He wasn't the least bit concerned in justifying his decision.
"It's bigger than me and the program," Garrett said shortly after he committed. "It's about the whole city of Birmingham."
The idea that Garrett could have landed at UAB would have been preposterous a few seasons ago. One of the anchors of an LSU recruiting class that included running back Leonard Fournette, the Plainfield, Illinois, product never felt at home with his new team.
The excitement surrounding his recruitment didn't match the reality of campus life. So instead of forcing happiness that simply wasn't there, Garrett left the bright lights of Baton Rouge for Arizona Western—a JUCO that would allow him to play right away.
A concussion derailed these plans for much of the 2015 season. Still, one day after practice, the UAB coaches paid Garrett a visit.
Competing against schools such as Auburn, Florida State, TCU and Louisville, the staff members didn't apply a full-court press. They simply asked that he visit them before telling them no. He obliged.
"I'll be honest," Garrett said. "My mindset was that I could get on a plane and get some nice good food. Go on vacation. But that was probably one of the best vacations I have taken in a long time."
Garrett could sense the pain the city was moving beyond as he toured through Birmingham—a place he had never been before. At the same time, he fell in love with the city and the idea of being something more than a linebacker. He could feel the energy there.
Connecting with his future head coach was the icing on the cake.
Waiting for his airplane at the Birmingham airport, Garrett called Clark shortly before he boarded the plane back to Arizona.
Right there and then, he committed. He couldn't wait any longer.
The man who was supposed to lead Notre Dame to the promised land has spent much of the last year locked away in a dimly lit, cluttered room at the Hotel Roma in Miami Gardens.
Instead of seizing an opportunity in South Bend, Greg Bryant lived in isolation—eating canned food and living out of his suitcase he refused to unpack. He couldn't fathom the idea of calling this place home.
"I'll keep it real," Bryant said in an interview the day before he moved out. "This past year has been the hardest part of my life. Not playing football, going from the luxurious life at Notre Dame and coming back home and living in the hood at Miami while playing JUCO, it's been real tough."
In 2013, Bryant was one of the most coveted running backs in the nation—a mix of speed and power that drew wide interest. The Florida product was the 247Sports composite ranking's No. 7 back in the class.
Bryant committed to Notre Dame, and he was instantly expected to be the key cog to Brian Kelly's offense. Only it never happened. His first two years didn't click. Hoping to change that in 2015, Bryant was ruled academically ineligible shortly before the season began.
"I needed a B+ in my summer school class," Bryant said. "But I got a B-."
Instead of waiting, Bryant left Notre Dame and returned home. He enrolled at ASA College in Miami—a JUCO that would allow him the chance to play while he figured out his next move.
An issue with his paperwork at his former stop, however, essentially forced Bryant to sit out the entire year. Instead of finally showing the world what he was capable of, Bryant spent his days in the gym, at class and his sheltered hell.
Then one day he heard from the coaches at UAB. Not long after, he met with the man who would change his life.
With interest from Louisville, Minnesota, Indiana, Auburn and others, Bryant joined Garrett in announcing his commitment.
"I've had a ton of people ask me why UAB," Bryant said. "They really don't know my background and what they're doing for me. Once I went on a visit and met them in person, I knew I was safe. I knew I was in a safe environment. They're basically giving me a second chance."
Instead of being forced to wait until summer to join a program, UAB welcomed Bryant in January. While he understands the weight of his commitment—taking great pride in what the return will mean now and moving forward—there was more to it than that.
A door opened at just the right time. For him, there is no more waiting. The wait came last year when he was all alone.
"It's a whole year of football, but it's better than sitting in a hotel," Bryant said. "I can possibly get my degree heading into 2017, and that's a dream come true. Somebody like me getting a degree where I come from is unheard of."
Clark settles back into his seat after grabbing a handful of peanuts. His eyes dart to the television as Michigan wraps up a 28-16 win over Penn State.
His peers have spent the past few months enjoying the ecstasy that comes with each victory. All the hours are spent to satisfy these sensations. Due to his situation, Clark has had to find this rush in other places.
"Right now," Clark said, "the commitments are our wins."
Beyond Garrett and Bryant, UAB has attracted the attention of many JUCO stars drawing huge interest elsewhere. Brandon Hill, a massive guard who first committed to Alabama, has signed to be one of the team's future enforcers.
Former Michigan State defensive end Noah Jones is also part of this class. As is Darez Diggs, an athletically blessed cornerback and the younger brother of NFL wideout Stefon Diggs. Fellow cornerback Shaquille Jones, who started out at Georgia, has also signed.
This would be an impressive coup for any team in any season. But for a program still a year away from playing in actual games, this is nothing short of a football phenomenon.
"It's kind of surprising," Clark said when asked about the team's early recruiting success. "But this one breeds the next one. And the next one."
Much of this future is now. Many members of this class are already on campus, acclimating themselves to a new environment, working toward Alabama A&M on September 2, 2017.
This collection of JUCO All-Stars along with a handful of high school signees ready to seal the deal on signing day represent more than just names on the list. They will do more than plug holes. They are the symbol of a spectacular rebirth.
"The guys who are here now are the first credit in the movie they're going to make about this thing," Clark said. "And it's going to be a movie. But we want this to be a happy ending."
The plan for 2016 is to put this influx of talent to use, almost immediately. Clark wants to make this transition year as seamless as possible.
UAB still won't have a full roster during the spring, although it will practice. The reps will come fast as the roster is developed and further NCAA and conference matters regarding this unprecedented return are sorted out. Even now, they still don't have all the answers.
Moving to the fall, Clark plans to treat each week as a game week. He will establish a normal schedule—one that includes watching weekly game tape of the team's opponents, a scrimmage on Saturdays and even nights before these "games" in the team hotel.
Every last detail down to the involvement of cheerleaders will be implemented during this yearlong simulation.
"I hope that August is as close to our routine as possible," Clark said. "I tell these guys that they're not coming in here to be off for a year."
The doorbell of the Clark's hotel suite rings, interrupting a plan he has gone through countless times in his mind. Perhaps the next great commitment is on the other side of the wall, anxious to pledge allegiance to the man in blue jeans.
The great 5-star whisperer swings open the door. Two employees from the hotel greet the coach, wheeling in more food and drinks with the recruiting weekend set to begin.
These are not the next great players at UAB, although you wouldn't know the difference from Clark's greeting.
"Good seeing you again," Clark says as he uncorks that familiar smile. "How are y'all?"
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KegsnEggs