BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – This day was not about UAB administrators, who seem more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing their jobs.
This day was not about a few University of Alabama System Board of Trustees members who should be ashamed to live the lie that they support all three campuses equally.
This day was about a group of UAB football players and coaches at a program that’s faced more real adversity in recent weeks than most bigger and richer programs have experienced their entire existences.
Those players and coaches could’ve quit on themselves and their school, the way some of their elders may be plotting to do. But they did the opposite. They stood up and fought to the end. They didn’t win the game, but they won the day.
The Blazers didn’t become the first team this season to beat Marshall, but they challenged and extended the 18th-ranked Thundering Herd like no one else had. They took the lead in the fourth quarter, lost it and threatened to take it back in the final minute before coming up just short.
They didn’t secure what would’ve been one of the biggest victories in UAB history, but they demonstrated again what might be possible if this program is given a chance to compete.
If Marshall 23, UAB 18 is the last significant football game the Blazers play at Legion Field, it’ll be a special memory.
“I think you saw what Birmingham’s about today,” UAB coach Bill Clark. “It could be special if we want to do it right.”
If the administrators and the trustees let them do it at all. Some UAB supporters at Legion Field expressed a sense of impending doom after the game.
That cloud didn’t stop Shaq Jones and the UAB defense from holding Marshall to its lowest point total of the season. The Herd was the only Football Bowl Subdivision team in the country to score at least 35 points in every game, until they arrived here. Jones’ first career interception early in the fourth quarter gave UAB a real chance to pull the upset.
The specter of a UA Trustee-imposed death penalty didn’t stop Jordan Howard and the UAB offense from taking that turnover and driving it all the way to a go-ahead touchdown with 11:22 left. Howard, who set the UAB record for rushing yards in a season by a running back, got the score.
The Blazers led 18-17, and it was possible to dream all kinds of crazy dreams: One of the last two undefeated teams in the FBS goes down, UAB doesn’t become the first Division I-A school to kill football since Pacific in 1995, and, as a cherry on top, the Blazers qualify for their second bowl trip in school history.
But then reality set in. A play after UAB just missed on what could’ve been a 99-yard touchdown pass, Cody Clements dropped to throw from his end zone. A rusher knocked the ball from his hand and Marshall fell on it for the go-ahead touchdown.
That kind of play would cut the heart out of most teams. Clark’s first UAB team is made of something stronger. The Blazers got the ball back and started to drive. They ran it and ran it and ran it some more, all the way to a fourth-and-1 at the Marshall 10 with 1:01 to play.
Once more, they sent Howard into the line. This time, his momentum and all those dreams came to a halt. He didn’t get the first down. UAB didn’t march on to get the win. Everyone may not live happily ever after. The program may not live.
The Blazers still have a chance to beat Southern Miss next week, finish at 6-6 and earn the second bowl trip in school history, but beyond that, who knows? There have been questions without answers about the future of UAB football, concerns that haven’t been addressed.
“It’s been hard,” Clark said. “I hate it.”
And yet a crowd announced at 28,355 that looked larger and sounded louder turned out in support. A team that has no idea if this program will continue beyond this season played its guts out for 60 minutes against an undefeated, ranked team.
This day was about them: players, coaches and fans. It was nothing less than inspiring, a memory worth repeating – with a different ending – for decades to come.