In leading resurrected UAB to a bowl, no coach compared to Bill Clark in 2017

A countdown clock seemed appropriate for UAB football. The program had faced deadlines before. Blazers coach Bill Clark had gotten the idea from former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.

Just about every program has one these days -- a digital chronograph posted somewhere in the football facility, red numbers ticking down to the beginning of the season, a rivalry game, etc. It is meant to motivate, stimulate, inspire. It also was outrageous at UAB which had years to go before playing football again.

"It was, like, 600 days," Clark said after watching his players slog through drills for … nothing. "I was thinking, 'What have I done?' "

The clock eventually counted down to one of the most unique seasons in college football history. UAB won a school-record eight games in 2017 -- after taking two seasons off.

UAB dropped football in 2014 -- and then restored for this season.

That's why, 3 ½ years after his program's demise, Bill Clark is CBS Sports' Coach of the Year.

There is simply no comparison to this year or any other coach. Clark took what essentially was an expansion franchise to a second-place tie in  Conference USA's West Division and the program's second bowl berth.

Its All-America caliber cornerback (Darious Williams) delivered flowers after the program died. Walk-ons scrimmaged against each other knowing they couldn't play for two years. Clark himself stayed to see this through.

The reward: The Blazers (8-4) were undefeated at home and led Conference USA in attendance.

"This is the greatest comeback in college football history," UAB athletic director Mark Ingram said. "Nothing like this has ever happened, I believe, in college sports."

He might be right.

In 2014, UAB president Ray Watts shuttered the program citing budget constraints. The outcry was significant and immediate. Watts and consultant Bill Carr, among others, were blamed.

"By default, I became the villain," said Carr, a veteran search firm expert who was commissioned to see what it would take to finance the program. "They had to throw rocks at somebody. They vilified us with absolutely no legitimacy."

Mistakes, however, had been made on financial projections. There was a thirst for football at UAB -- a city school playing in the shadow of Alabama

Aided by a kick start from annual subsidies, UAB raised $40 million from the ground. It built a football facility with an indoor structure that is has good as anything in the Group of Five.

Just to get people fired up, Ingram had a backhoe planted on the construction site, "just for show."

The NCAA helped by cutting through red tape so it could return this soon. Aided by NCAA executive vice president Oliver Luck, UAB wasn't required to go through the usual provisional process that would have required it to start in FCS. The Blazers were allowed to sign two recruiting classes in a calendar year. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

"I just helped where I could," Luck said this week. "They deserve all the credit. UAB playing against is good for the college game. Alabama is a better football state when UAB is playing."

The Blazers were allowed to compete for a bowl their first year back. The idea of fans of the once-dead program parading down the streets of Nassau for the Bahamas Bowl later this month boggles the mind.

None of it happens without Clark. The 49-year-old Anniston, Alabama, native was committed to this football state. It was hard enough leaving his alma mater, FCS Jacksonville (Alabama) State, after one year in 2013 to come to UAB.

"There were hurt feelings," Clark said. "That's where I met my wife. All my family lives there. I thought UAB was literally like a lot of places -- they're on hard times, they need someone to reinvigorate them. I had to say it, sounds arrogant, but they needed me. They needed a local guy."

That local guy led the Blazers in 2014 to their first non-losing season (6-6) in 11 years. They were even bowl eligible until the lights were turned off.

It's one thing to be a Son of Alabama. It's another to stay at the school that treated him like Charlie Brown having the football pulled away from him by Lucy. 

By June 1, 2015, Conference USA needed to know if UAB was bringing back football. If not, it would be kicked out of the conference in all sports. UAB was all in  -- on June 1.

Three months later, Clark signed a five-year extension.

"Literally, we were doing it with me and [a few] coaches," Clark recalled. "The rest were GAs and volunteers. … My dad was an old high school coach. One thing he said was, 'Don't ever get cocky.' There's no doubt I'm proud."

He should be. UAB never deserved to die. This is a program that once beat LSU, Mississippi State, Baylor and TCU.

The reality? It never would have come back this strong unless it did die.

"It took this kind of wake up," Ingram said. "'You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone,' right?"

When football once again was becoming a reality, Clark and Ingram would remind each other during Saturday morning recruiting breakfasts. This had to be a movie someday.

"Bill is angling for Brad Pitt to play his part," said Ingram, a Tennessee center under Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer. "If he gets Brad Pitt, I get George Clooney."

How do you compare Clark's accomplishment with other coach of the year candidates? You don't. There is simply no way to put on an equal plane what Lincoln Riley has done at Oklahoma or Dabo Swinney at Clemson.

They coach living, breathing, thriving national powers. Riley was fantastic, taking the job at 33 with the sudden retirement of Bob Stoops. In his first year as a head coach, Riley led the Sooners to the Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff berth.

Swinney followed a 14-1 national championship with another ACC title and CFP berth, making it three in a row. Only Alabama has been in the playoff all four years.

But comparing their resources to UAB's is like comparing a single-cell animal to the Space Shuttle. It's the little program that could. The entire UAB team was nominated this season for the Orange Bowl Courage Award typically given to a college football individual who displays extraordinary courage on or off the field.

CBS Sports has never selected a Group of Five program leader as its coach of the year. The Football Writers Association of America honor goes back to 1957. It has selected one such coach -- Air Force's Fisher DeBerry in 1985.

"The NCAA has never seen anything like this," Clark said.

"It's a once in a lifetime trip," Ingram said.

Maybe the greatest accomplishment was practicing a band of walk-ons, JUCOs, signees and 2014 holdovers for games still 600 days away.

"Gosh, that will be in the book we write someday," Clark said. "How do you get them to work out without games?

"I bought a countdown clock every year since I coached in high school. Now, I can't take it down."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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