Back in the Game
When the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) discontinued its football program in 2014, Bill Clark had just completed his first season as head coach with a 6-6 record that made his team eligible for its first bowl appearance since 2004. What seemed like a giant step in the right direction for the program was followed by the University declaring the sport fiscally unsustainable. This was a devastating blow for the coach, his team and the community, but it wasn’t long before Birmingham businesspeople, alumni and former players began to rally: Blazers football will return. “Obviously it was tough, but to watch those people fight for us made me want to stick around and help them make a difference,” Clark remembers. “One of the things that I always wanted was to be a part of making a difference in a community or a school. That’s the stuff I’ve always loved.” Raising more than $44 million to fund both the program and new operations facilities, the team kicks off the 2017 season with a game against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs at Legion Field on Sept. 2. Clark celebrates the victory by reflecting on how his small-town upbringing and lessons in faith led him to the life he leads today.
A Passion for the Game. Clark jokes it was an air conditioner that first influenced him to fall in love with football. The son of a high school coach, the only way for him to get cool in his Ohatchee, Ala. home was to hang out in the room with the window unit A/C, which also happened to the office where his father watched films to prep for upcoming practices and games. “That was where I liked to hang out, for obvious reasons, and spend time with him. I loved everything about the sport,” he says. “I loved the strategy. I loved the interaction with the players. I loved game nights. I loved pregame speeches. I think everything that went with it, I enjoyed, and I just knew that’s what I always wanted to do.”
Grounded in Faith. Clark’s family eventually moved to Piedmont, Ala., where his father took another coaching job. His mother was a home economics teacher who played piano at the local church. “It was a simple childhood growing up, just athletics and church and school,” he remembers. “Most things revolved around the community… We were brought up that the church is just a part of everything you do. I was lucky in that—blessed I guess is the word—that’s just kind of who we were.” Life changed when Clark’s mother was killed in a car crash when he was 19 years old. Already studying physical education and history at Jacksonville State and starting his own coaching career, he moved back home with his father as they dealt with their loss. It’s an experience he draws on to this day when mentoring young men. “I tell guys all the time there’s always the why of why things happen. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think that. One of the best people I had ever known—just as good a person as you’ll ever meet—was killed. That is when your faith is so important. That’s when you need it.” Clark says he never had any doubt that his mother’s resting place was in heaven. “That’s the faith that helps us go on.”
Dream Come True. Clark’s first head coaching job was at Prattville High School, where his players were awarded 106 wins and only 11 losses during his tenure. They won back-to-back Alabama High School Athletic Association State Championships for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. In 2008 Clark began coaching at the college level as defensive coordinator at the University of South Alabama until 2012. He then spent one season as head coach at Jacksonville State University before he was hired at UAB.
Seeing the Big Picture. Prepping for the return of Blazers football has not been a singular focus for Clark’s team. Joined by Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) staff, he leads the charge in giving back to the community that supports the program. Last year coaches and players teamed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham to become Big Brothers and mentors of males in middle and high school in the greater Birmingham community. Participating students were bussed from their schools once per month to spend time with their Big Brothers on the UAB campus. Clark also purchased and donated 100 season tickets to the upcoming season to the mentoring program. In June, Clark and more than 40 members of the UAB Football team helped construct a five-bedroom house as a part of Habitat for Humanity’s 30th Anniversary build in Pleasant Grove. “College age, sometimes it’s easy to just think about yourself, but when you get around Big Brothers Big Sisters or you are doing something for Habitat for Humanity, you realize this world is bigger than you and we are called to serve other people,” says Tavon Arrington, UAB Campus Director for FCA, which returned to campus with the help of Coach Clark and former UAB FCA Board Chairman Charlie Nowlin.
Observing his athletes both on and off the field, Clark says youth today are intelligent and tech savvy but still need the face-to-face effort that a team sport like football offers. “I don’t think kids have changed as much as our expectations have changed. These kids today are so smart. They’ve got access to so much information,” he says. “[However,] human interaction is so important, and that’s the great thing about athletics. It still requires the same things it required 10 years ago, 20 years ago. It takes each other, it takes a physical effort, and I think an emotional effort, which is what I love about football. It takes more than yourself. It is truly a team effort.”
Keeping Faith First. A member of Church of the Highlands with wife Jennifer, Clark says lately his faith has been centered on whether the fruits of his faith can be seen in his character and actions. “What do people see in us that tells them something is different? That can be hard for coaches. I know for players and myself, when you are in an ultracompetitive world where everything revolves around winning and losing, I have to remind myself of that.” As a couple, wife Jennifer explains that prayer helps keep them grounded in what matters most. “Praying together is important to us, and Christ is at the center of everything we do and every decision we make,” she says.
“I tell our players all the time, for sure I’m not perfect,” says Clark. “There was only one perfect One, but hopefully that’s something that people can see in our daily walk and how we carry ourselves. Hopefully they see that as something they want to be part of.”
- Camille Platt