As I write my first post for UAB Blazer Bloggin’, I couldn’t write about anything except Norm Reilly. Norm lost his battle with cancer last week after fighting courageously for years. The reason it’s ironic that I’m writing about him, is that he is one of the biggest reasons I’ve had the opportunity to cover the team that I love so dearly.
I met Mitchell Miller in the student section at Bartow Arena. We became fast friends with a mutual interest in our school team, the UAB Blazers. Mitch had a vision to start a website and podcast covering UAB athletics. I had always wished I’d taken a media related path and jumped at the opportunity to pursue a dream.
As the website got off the ground and started to roll, I assumed I’d be the reporter for the Blazer basketball team. I started playing basketball in third grade, played JUCO basketball, and I’d even coached a number of youth/junior high teams. I knew the game and assumed that was where Mitch would place me;however, I was wrong.
For reasons unknown to me, Mitch asked me to be the football reporter. I’d never played football, so I was honestly shocked. I quickly moved on as I loved UAB football and embraced the opportunity.
I began covering the team in the spring before Coach Neil Callaway’s last season. I remember meeting Norm and the rest of the SID department before helping Mitch cover some basketball games. They were very open to me and Norm taught me the basic process I needed to follow as a media member.
At first things were going great as I felt more and more comfortable at each practice session. Seemingly, out of nowhere, Coach Callaway started stonewalling my questions. It reached a head at the spring game where my questions were shot down with one word answers. I had no idea what had happened or what I might have done.
Shortly after spring practices ended, Norm called Mitch and me. Coach Callaway wanted to see us and Norm set up a meeting. I’m still trying to figure out what I had done. The day of the meeting Mitchell comes clean, the meeting was about him.
Years before as a younger student, Mitch hosted an event (The Neill Callaway Call-A-Way) that pushed for Coach Callaway to be fired. When Callaway saw Mitch filming for me one day he realized who Mitch was. Now I knew why Mitch requested that I be the football reporter.
As Norm talked to us before the meeting, Mitch explained that our goal was only to help create exposure for the program and not hurt it. We were a pro-UAB site. The actions Mitch had taken were before he’d reached the point he was now at in his professional life. Then came the meeting with Coach Callaway….
As Mitch, Norm, and myself sat across from Callaway I wondered if all our work setting up the site had been for nothing. The meeting went on for awhile and Callaway asked questions about the direction of our site and expressed his concerns. As the meeting ended I felt good about the answers Mitch and I provided, but it all came down to one question: “What do you think, Norm?”
Callaway seemed to place the decision on how to handle us at Norm’s feet. Nobody would have noticed if Norm had chosen not to deal with us. We were just a small time website trying to get started up. A couple of college students starting an independent media source that was just getting off the ground. Norm could have never given us access again for any sports. The fate of our website was in his hands. Norm simply told Callaway that it was coach’s decision, but that he thought we were worth a shot.
A short time later Norm called and they gave us full access. I had a media pass for the season opener the next year at Florida.
After that I never wanted to let Norm down. He gave us a shot, and I felt that in the next two-plus years we honored his trust and helped expand coverage of UAB Athletics, while chasing our dream. Before long we had earned Callaway’s trust and he treated us with respect.
In one of his last games as coach we were struggling to get setup for a post game press conference. Callaway was worn down from a loss, but Neill held the presser up for a minute for us to get the camera rolling, “They’ve been here all year, I’ll wait for them.” We had earned the respect of Callaway, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Norm.
Years later BlazerTV is no more because of various reasons. I’ve now covered UAB sports for three different sites. I now work at a UAB campus ministry in large part because I’ve remained connected with the campus through covering athletics.
Mitchell now has his own business and the connections he gained through running BlazerTV have been invaluable to his professional life.
Our camera man Bryant Bowlin was the only freshman employee of the Alabama football film team. Bryant’s two years filming UAB games has lead to him having a solid college job.
All of those things are in large part because Norm Reilly took a chance on us. I’m not sure any of those things happen without him giving us our break.
For those reasons I’ll forever be thankful to Norm.
Over the next couple of years I got to spend more time with Norm and his teams. Norm would talk to me about the Olympics he had covered and show me pictures in his office. Once at the Liberty Bowl I found Norm destroying a plate of Memphis barbecue. It was funny because he started talking about how he wished UAB would have that type of food options for the media (the food was contracted out through the city of Birmingham). It was hard to not laugh because of all the barbecue sauce on his shirt and mouth, even though I knew he was right. He became more than just an acquaintance to me, he became my friend. Norm always pointed me in the right direction and my passion for covering the Blazers grew as a result.
To truly understand the person Norm was you have to grasp what a thankless job the Sports Information Department can be. The majority of the time Norm worked at UAB there was not much administration support for athletics (BOT). I cannot explain how a football game day saps the energy out of the media and SID’s. There are long trips, long hours, and nobody is getting rich.
Once I asked Norm what the hardest part of his job was and expected him to talk about some of those issues, but Norm didn’t mention any of those issues. His answer was having to get student athletes in front of the media after a loss. It pained him because he knew what they endured to win, and how they felt when they came up short. It was a classic Norm Reilly answer, always thinking of those around him and not himself.
When I started writing for a new site in 2014, I called Norm up and asked for a chance to meet Bill Clark. Norm was quick to introduce us at a football luncheon. After the meeting, Norm was happier than I ever remembered seeing him. He loved Coach Clark and the atmosphere that was in the program.
Norm had been at UAB through many trying seasons and he was enjoying the success the Blazers were having – not to mention the wonderful relationship he had developed with Bill Clark. Other than talking about his family or a former co-worker moving up the ranks professionally, it was the happiest I’d ever seen him.
Shortly after that the rumors of a football shutdown began. I went to Norm’s office several times before and after the shutdown. There I found Norm broken down more than at any other time during our friendship. That’s significant because twice Norm told me he was battling cancer. Norm was more concerned about the suffering of the coaches and athletes from football, bowling, and rifle than he was about himself when he told me he had cancer. That was just Norm Reilly though, always putting others first.
Selfishly I’m disappointed Norm is no longer with us. That I can’t ask his advice again, or just drop by his office to say hello. I wonder why he couldn’t have seen the Blazers take the field again in 2017 – he deserved too.
The truth of the matter is that Norm probably already had the victory he really needed when it came to UAB football. That was knowing that Bill Clark and the Blazers would be returning. When those fall Saturdays roll around in 2017, I’ll think about the man who gave us a chance, and be grateful for knowing him.
Thank you Norm, and God Bless you and your family.