I often hear fans say “they should make a 30 for 30 about that…” when they learn about a unique sports story or an interesting sports-related fact. Of course, it’s impossible for ESPN to produce an episode on everything, but hopefully someday there will be one chronicling the history of the University of Alabama-Birmingham football program. It’s certainly worthy of it.
UAB’s football program is very young compared to most FBS football programs. Their first year of NCAA competition was 1991. They started play as a Division III independent and after just 2 seasons were reclassified as I-AA in 1993. And after only 3 years of I-AA (FCS) play, they moved to I-A (FBS) in 1996.
UAB had a winning record in 3 of their first 5 seasons and their rise from DIII to FBS was incredibly fast. Unfortunately, the results on the field as a FBS program did not match those early years. From 1996 to 2014, the Blazers had a losing record in 15 of 19 seasons. Attendance at historic Legion Field was low and the program was reportedly losing millions of dollars. Following the 2014 season UAB president Ray Watts delivered the ultimate death blow, announcing that the football program was being permanently shut down.
Tragic ending after such a promising start, right? Not even close.
Public outrage and intense fundraising efforts were immediate. By June 2015, $27 million had been raised and the program was reinstated to begin play again in 2017. Immediate on-field success followed for UAB as well. Coach Bill Clark improbably led UAB to an 8-5 record and a berth in the Bahamas Bowl. The combination of these factors created the necessary momentum for the approval of a new $200 million downtown stadium in 2018.
Saturday night’s inaugural game at Protective Stadium in downtown Birmingham was more than just the grand opening of a new venue. It marked the finishing touch in the ultimate comeback story for a football program which had seen the darkest of days…yet somehow made it all the way to the top.
As a self-proclaimed “stadium connoisseur”, I could not have been more impressed with the new stadium. With a capacity of 45,000 seats and a view of the Birmingham skyline, Protective Stadium instantly becomes one of the premier Group of Five venues in the country.
Fans braved the rain and lightning to pack the stadium too. 37,167 people gathered to take in the sights/sounds of their new home. Their attention was divided between watching the action on the field and experiencing the amenities Protective Stadium has to offer. ‘The Sloss Dog’ is the stadium’s signature hot dog and ‘The Magic Dragon’ is the signature cocktail. Concession stands were packed throughout the game, as fans wanted to taste these new creations.
As for the game itself, the result was not what UAB fans probably hoped for. The Blazers battled Liberty in the first half, as the score was 3-3 after 30 minutes. The Flames, behind their outstanding dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis, blew the game open in the third quarter however and won decisively 36-12.
In all honesty, the score of the game was secondary. This night was a celebration 30 years in the making. From DIII in 1991, to shutting the program down, to winning C-USA championships in 2018 and 2020, Blazer fans have seen it all. For them to be standing inside of their gorgeous state-of-the-art facility after so much adversity is truly a testament to their perseverance. A story that one day will surely be documented in its own 30 for 30.