On Nov. 30, 2013, UAB lost to Southern Miss, 62-27, closing a 2-10 season with a 35-point loss to a team riding a 23-game losing streak. Rock, meet bottom. On Saturday, UAB opened its season with a 48-10 whipping of Troy. The 73-point turnaround was the largest loss-to-win jump of any in college football from the end of 2013 to the beginning of 2014.
What changed between then and now? Garrick McGee decided he'd rather be Louisville's offensive coordinator than UAB's head coach. And, because of that, everything else about the program.
With a coaching search he didn't foresee on his hands in the middle of January, athletics director Brian Mackin quickly settled on Jacksonville State head coach Bill Clark as his top target, and he remained that way throughout the interview process. "We interviewed several people for the job but Bill kept coming back as the lead candidate," Mackin told FootballScoop. "He comes across as a sincere man, a family man, and couldn't be a better fit for us."
What made Clark such a good fit was his familiarity with the area after leading Jacksonville State to an 11-4 record in his one season as head coach, his half-decade as South Alabama's defensive coordinator, and his 107-11 mark as a head coach in the Alabama high school ranks. Most importantly, Clark was prepared to lead the UAB program as it stood in January 2014, not some idealized version of what it could potentially become in the future.
"I wanted that to have somebody that had been in the game as a head coach," Mackin said. "Bill had been a very successful head coach in high school, won state championships, and then was the head coach at Jacksonville State when I hired him. He'd always been a winner, so I wanted that. I also wanted somebody that did more with less. We struggle sometimes with our facilities. Bill came in, saw our facilities and said, 'We can win with these facilities.'"
Clark hasn't changed the facilities, yet, but he has changed everything else about the program - up to and including the uniforms.
"He also brought a whole other attitude in conditioning, how they eat, how they go to school, how they treat their professors. Total culture change, and they all bought in," Mackin said.
Mackin says transforming the strength program was the key for Clark to transforming the entire program.
"We hired Zac Woodfin from the Green Bay Packers. He's made a tremendous difference with the size of the kids. You can really tell how much bigger that we had gotten. And really comparing ourselves to Troy, you could see the difference. We were bigger than them, and that's not always been the case in the past. Nutrition, how they take care of their bodies, the training part has made a huge difference," Mackin said. "Their attitudes have changed for the better. They've got more confidence, they like our coaching staff. Our coaching staff is really interested in helping them become better student-athletes but champions on the field."
Suddenly a team that could not run the ball against Southern Miss, 36 carries for 145 yards in the November loss, poured through Troy's defense for 338 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 55 carries. A team that could not stop anybody on the ground (120th in yards per carry allowed) or through the air (120th in yards per attempt allowed) limited Troy to just two yards per carry and 6.48 yards per attempt.
It's just one win, and who knows how good or bad Troy ends up being this season, let alone UAB, but the win reinforced the players' belief in the transformation they have undergone. "After the Troy game I saw it in their eyes, the confidence they now have with Bill and his coaching staff," Mackin said.
Mackin says he always believed UAB would win, and quickly, under Clark, to his head coach's chagrin. The opportunity is there, especially in what should be a down year in Conference USA's East Division. The UAB win, and the 10-and-a-half touchdown turnaround it brought from the close of 2013, didn't change that. "It reinforced my expectations that he is who he is and they're doing things the right way," Mackin said.