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The case for UAB amidst college athletics' seismic shifts and realignments

The Blazers' football program is opening a new $200 million stadium this weekend, and the school is soaring in multiple other areas as well.
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In the more than 25-year-history of Conference USA, there's only one program with three consecutive divisional titles and the corresponding championship game appearances; two of them victories.

There's only one program that's resident in ESPN's top-rated college football market for the past dozen years.

Only one program that resides in a market that sweats college football in the dead of winter, its program resuscitated from zombie status six years hence.

College athletics is in a state of perpetual change, and perhaps no athletics program – or university – anywhere better represents an enticing future than that of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

This weekend, as Hugh Freeze's Liberty squad brings its barnstorming program to the Deep South, the Blazers are set to open their gleaming, state-of-the-art, $200-million new home, Protective Field.

“When football went away here, there was a belief that people didn't want it,” UAB athletics director Mark Ingram told FootballScoop. “People weren't really attending games, our practice facility was easily the worst in the country, and let me describe it for you: two buildings that were side by side and about 3,000 square feet apiece. Building 1, our entire football staff was working in that space with one toilet. It used be a radio station or dentist's office. Next to it was an almost identically sized building designed as a maintenance shed. Half of that was cut into the locker room, and the other half was an empty room with folding chairs. The practice field sloped 10 feet end to end, so you had to either practice uphill or downhill.

“And Legion Field, an iconic structure, with the Tennessee-Alabama games and the Iron Bowl moved to the campus stadiums, it just had not been maintained or invested in over time. The finances were not where they needed to be here in our department, and they were just getting a couple thousand people to the football games. There was a sense that we'd been doing this (football) for 25 years and had tried but not done a lot to make positive progress.”

Though he demurred, Ingram changed all of that when he blended a relentless, passionate fundraising approach with a background that included stops at powerhouse universities: Georgia, Missouri and, Ingram's alma mater, Tennessee, where he was teammates with Peyton Manning.

Ingram traced UAB's athletics uprising – specifically, football's awakening – to a Birmingham boardroom some two weeks after he arrived in the Magic City. The deadline to raise $17 million – actually, $17.2 million – loomed just days in the future, Ingram's first hurdle like scaling a giraffe.

As he prepared to walk into the meeting inside the school's top-floor meeting space atop its administrative building, Ingram was given a lesson in cartoons.

“I'd only met a couple of the people in the room that night, but there was about 30 people in there,” Ingram recalled, “and as I walked in, I had someone tell me, 'Remember when you were a kid and you watched the Super Friends cartoon and all the super heroes gathered at the Hall of Justice? This is like that for Birmingham. That's what you're walking into.'”

The Blazers had collected some $11 million in pledges, but they rested well short of their goal and had less than 100 hundred hours before the June 1, 2015, deadline. A failure to raise the funds would have resulted in UAB's expulsion from C-USA.

The early tenor of the meeting was ominous; folks wanted only to reinstate Blazers football if they also could be assured of a new stadium for the sport. Legion Field, by that time 88 years old, had become an outdated venue.

“All of a sudden this guy on the wall, he stands up behind me, and I can't see him stand up, but our president, Dr. (Ray) Watts, who had eliminated football but loves UAB and loves Birmingham, is a UAB graduate,” Ingram said, “he points to that person, Mike Goodrich, and he quiets everybody down.

“Mike stood up, and he said, 'You know, Dr. Watts, I'm not really a sports fan. I don't know that I've ever been to a football game. Maybe a couple basketball games. It's just not my thing.' Im thinking oh no at this point. But then he says, “I've seen what this has done to our community and we have to fix this. We have to bring back football. I'm in for a million.'”

Goodrich's million soon was matched with another pledge. Multiple $500,000 proclamations followed, as did some for $250,000 apiece.

Soon, UAB had secured funds – for the return of football and new athletics offices. In fact, Ingram could add the de facto title of city planner to his biography.

Added in the six-plus years since he took over the Blazers: football, softball, soccer and track and field facilities; the soccer venue has become the home of the professional soccer Birmingham Legion franchise.

There's a new beach volleyball facility, an upgraded rifle facility, all-new basketball practice facility and an overhauled Olympic-style weight room as well.

With his own playing career having unfolded inside iconic Neyland Stadium, and his earlier professional career unfolded around Georgia's Sanford Stadium, Ingram has seen football cathedrals.

He has placed the Blazers' new home in that same realm.

“It's the nicest college football stadium in the country, it's that good,” Ingram said. “I've worked in the SEC twice, the Big 12 (when Missouri still resided in that conference), the Big East, the American and Conference USA. It's by far the nicest stadium I've ever been to in the college game. I'm not counting people who play college football at an NFL stadium. I'm talking college venues for college programs. I think it's the nicest. It's definitely in that conversation.”

An element in the ground-up construction of Protective Stadium that emerged has superseded the venue's turnkey design for Ingram: community buy-in.

Ingram has refused to credit the stadium's birth to the steel-city-willed Blazers' athletics; instead, he explained, it has arrived through a cooperative of entities that ranged from the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex to the county to a fight that resulted in a changed state constitution to all the corporate partners.

It has helped that the Blazers have held on to program-builder Bill Clark, even as Auburn, among others, have called upon the steady, perpetually successful head coach.

All of which has left UAB in an enviable position, even as Ingram has maintained a steadfast focus on the Blazers' present and not what could unfold in future waves of collegiate realignment.

Still, consider: Metro Birmingham has a population of some 1.2 million people and it has placed in the top 45 of Nielsen's top media markets in the United States. It's Alabama's top-ranked school, per US News and World Report.

Too, UAB is the state's largest employer with more than 23,000 employees.

The school's massive medical and research resources have resulted in what UAB officials said a study showed was a $7.6 billion – with a B – economic impact in 2020.

So maybe the American Athletic Conference, which has schools such as East Carolina and Temple along its eastern boundary and Houston, SMU and Tulsa out west, has worked hard to vet the Blazers.

All of which reminded Ingram of what Watts said six years ago.

“Dr. Watts said to me, 'Mark, we're not bringing this back if we don't have a facility plan. We're not going to continue just kicking the can down the road,'” Ingram recalled. “Our university is excellent. And the quality of education here is well above the average education that you can get in this country, and our athletics program needs to strive to be excellent as well. I firmly agreed.”

Now, UAB has arrived – even if Ingram has simply worked to forge ahead. The case for expansion and UAB?

Well, it takes centerstage Saturday night, under the lights. At the Blazers' very own home.