The State of the Program Entering I-A
The University of Alabama-Birmingham first fielded a football team in 1991, their club team evolving into a Division III independent at the lowest tier of the NCAA pyramid. By 1993, they were playing at the I-AA level thanks to an NCAA ruling that prevented a school from fielding sponsored sports in more than one division. The neophyte to football in the 1990s vaulted up the ranks, spending just three years as a I-AA independent (and watching its win totals in the division decrease from nine in 1993 to seven in 1994 to five in 1995).
In less than a decade, Blazers football had evolved from intramural pastime into a top-flight program. Playing their home games at legendary (yet decaying) Legion Field in Birmingham, UAB quickly met the NCAA requirements for admission to the I-A ranks by 1996. Without any pedigree at the lower levels of the sport, the Blazers were propelled into the I-A stratosphere before they had even played a decade of football at the school. UAB would soon find itself fighting a futile battle against Alabama and Auburn for the attentions of Birmingham’s football-rabid fan base.
The First Season
The Blazers headed southeast on US-280 for the two-hour road trip to Auburn to kick off their I-A existence. By the end of the 29-0 shellacking by their more storied in-state opponent, UAB and head coach Watson Brown (brother of Texas coach Mack) must have wondered whether the rapid transition was the right decision. The following weekend they flew to Maryland to face the ACC’s Terrapins, returning home 0-2 after a 39-15 tarring.
Then UAB hit their stride suddenly. Their first win at the I-A level came against another neophyte, Arkansas State, which had moved up in 1990 and found themselves on the wrong end of this footnote in Blazers history. Brown’s crew then dispatched of two straight I-AA opponents, holding off Jacksonville State 24-17 on September 21 before beginning October with a 24-0 shutout of a Western Kentucky squad still 12 years away from their own I-A leap.
After a bye week, the Blazers welcomed the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns to Legion Field. With another offensive outburst, UAB moved to 4-2 in their inaugural I-A season with a 39-29 victory. But getting the last two victories to ensure a winning season in their first year at the top level would prove harder than getting the first four.
Taking to the road once again, UAB fell in a tense 35-31 showdown against Louisiana Tech on the last weekend of October. Two days into November, on a trip north to Nashville, a showdown against SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt ended in a 31-15 defeat that dropped the Blazers back to .500 in the standings. Their matchup the following weekend, at home against fellow I-A newcomer Central Florida, would prove a mismatch as the Knights easily dismissed the Blazers 35-13 at Legion Field.
A visit from Cincinnati on November 16 would prove the decisive battle as to which team would finish with a winning record. The Bearcats, wrapping up their first season in the new Conference USA, would easily prevail in Birmingham 34-14 to doom UAB to a losing season in their first year of I-A ball. While the Blazers would conclude their season with a Thursday-night rout of I-AA Charleston Southern on the 21st, the best UAB could muster was a 5-6 finish.
How Have They Fared Since?
The Blazers would prove themselves the very definition of mediocrity over the next decade under coach Brown, experiencing neither the exhilaration of transcendent success nor the crippling dejection of nothing but losing. In 1997 they would finish 5-6 yet again, with three of their victories coming against I-AA competition. 1998 would see a regression to 4-7, punctuated by a five-game losing streak in the heart of the season that included a 41-0 whitewashing at Legion Field by visiting Virginia Tech.
In 1999, UAB joined Conference USA, where despite yet another 5-6 campaign they would tie for second place with a 4-2 league record. The next year, they would post the first winning record in the Blazers’ I-A history when Brown guided the team to a 7-4 record. One of the finest days in UAB history would take place in 2000, when the team traveled to Death Valley on September 23. When Rhett Gallego’s 32-yard field goal attempt passed between the uprights on the final play of the contest, the Blazers improbably completed the upset of LSU 13-10 in Nick Saban’s first year as the head coach of the Tigers.
They would post another winning record in 2001, a win over hapless Houston on the penultimate weekend of the season guaranteeing the Blazers a sixth victory despite their loss at Pittsburgh to complete the schedule. A slip to 5-6 in both 2002 and 2003 would precede the team’s only bowl appearance in 2004. Their 7-4 regular season included wins over Big XII opponent Baylor on opening day as well as a second-place finish in C-USA. Their reward was a trip to Honolulu to square off against the Warriors in the Hawaii Bowl. On the wrong side of the 59-40 shootout, UAB still finished over .500 despite the postseason defeat. It would be the last time the Blazers would finish with a winning record to date.
With the conference expanding to 12 teams in 2005, UAB would finish just fifth in the East Division after a 5-6 season. The following year, a dip to 3-9 preceded Watson Brown’s resignation to take over at I-AA Tennessee Tech. After 12 years, the team had no recourse when the only coach they’d known at the I-A level bolted north for Cookeville on his own terms.
Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway was hired to replace Brown before the 2007 season. His first year as a head coach would be an unmitigated disaster, the team’s only wins coming against I-AA Alcorn State and fellow C-USA minnow Tulane. The 2-10 record remains the low point in UAB football, dropping the school’s cumulative record in the top flight below .500 as the Blazers plummeted from their position of mediocrity into the basement of the FBS ranks.
Until their win over bowl-bound Southern Miss on October 1, 2009, Callaway’s squads would fail to beat a team that would end the season with a better record than their 4-8 and 5-7 campaigns could produce. Callaway would last two more seasons, the dwindling core of loyal fans in Birmingham suffering through 4-8 and 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011 before the university’s administration finally cut their losses and hired Garrick McGee from Arkansas to take over the helm.
Replicating the 3-9 record posted by Callaway in his final season at UAB, McGee becomes the third coach who tries to turn this program into a more consistent winner. His first task is to try to steer the Blazers toward some semblance of respectability as they push forward into a new era of Conference USA football, taking advantage of a talent-rich region to return the team at least above .500 once again.