UAB took the podium on Wednesday at the Conference USA Football Kickoff to begin he new season. Head coach Bill Clark, linebacker Shaq Jones and offensive lineman Chris Schleuger answered a few questions.
Question: Did you ever think this day would come Bill?
Bill Clark: It was a long time coming, no doubt.
Q: Take me back to the day they said, “it’s over” and what you felt?
BC: Yeah, you know that’s a day I try not to go back to. But I think that’s history, it’s all real history. It was tough, it was awful. What happened from there is that we had guys that went and did great things. They went across the country. We had a few guys like Shaq (Jones) here who didn’t think it was good at the time that he had an injury, but it worked out well that he was injured and had to rehab there (Birmingham), which kept him around UAB and allowed us to keep him. So that was good.
But from that happening, and the people fighting and bringing this program back. You know, what’s it look like? How are we going to recruit? How are we going to improve facilities, etc.? Tons of things.
Q: The city raised about $43 million to help bring back the program … the fact that UAB facilities were awful for a division 1 team, to have this now, that has to be pretty special for the players too.
BC: It is. And I think (it is) any time you get something new, especially where this group has come from. I said this before, but UAB is a great school and Birmingham is this great city that is being revitalized, and now we’re doing the same thing on campus. The most growth in the history of UAB. And now we’ve got a commitment to football. And there’s other things that are going to happen, but you can see it’s tangible. We get to use it every single day. In fact we’re getting our final inspection today (on the new practice facility) so the players will get to see it tomorrow. So a lot of great things are going on.
Q: When you got the call that they’re bringing the program back, there was probably elation, but also the thought that you have to start planning. Walk us through that sequence:
BC: I think once that timeframe of “what am I going to do” and trying to get players sent to other schools and jobs for my coaches, really when that time ended I made the decision to stay and see what would happen. Really right before that announcement there was a question asked by one of my foundation members saying, “we will do this if you stay.” I returned with, “I will stay if we do it right.” And that’s kind of the commitment we made. That whole group, we decided we were going to do this thing correctly. To be where we are now, that was a lot of hard work.
But like you said, how do we recruit? Who do we convince to come here and play, and tell them, “Oh by the way, we want you playing in two years.” You know, are you kidding me? Tons of things have happened since then, but we had to get a plan.
Q: It’s tough to convince kids this program is here to stay, and then tell them you want them practicing but you don’t get to play.
BC: Yeah, so uh, that was a pretty good sales job I think we did. But these guys now, thank goodness are on the other end of it. But we had to think in segments. Let’s get well. Let’s come in here and train. Let’s get our academics up. Each one of us had a story. And hopefully we were smart about how we practiced. But those guys did it. They bought in and they believed, and now they can taste it.
I still remember we had that countdown clock and I looked up one day and it said 500-and-something days, and I’m like “why do I have this up here.” I’m reminded of how much work they’ve got to do.
Q: Just to give an example of what this team went through in 2016. They had a full fall training camp, two scrimmages, then practiced three times a week during the season, then the spring game this year where 8,000 people showed up. How special was that?
BC: I tell you, when those buses pulled up and those people were lined up, it was unbelievable. It was better than I hoped. You’re talking about April 1, a beautiful day. They could have been at the lake. They came to the spring game and it was a great game, great excitement. Obviously we were televised that day, so it was neat day.
Q: Linebacker Shaq Jones played in all 12 games in 2014 and had 50 tackles. Why did you stay?
Shaq Jones: This man beside me (Bill Clark). When he committed to the program and told me he was staying, I pretty much made up my mind that I would stay. He’s a great mentor and I love him to death, so that’s the reason why I stayed.
Q: But it had to be hard. Western Michigan, Western Kentucky, Marshall to name three schools that came knocking on your door, and you had to tell them no. Was that hard for you?
SJ: A little bit. I just have a family at home that I like to stay close to. I have a son that I love dearly, so being able to be accessible to him meant a lot to me. But the guys at Western Kentucky, Western Michigan and Marshall, the reason I took a visit to those schools is because I saw bits of him (Coach Clark) in those coaches. Coach (Doc) Holliday, a seasoned, veteran coach who ran things like the way coach Clark did. And coach (P.J.) Fleck was real young and energetic and I like the way he proceeded. And coach (Jeff) Brohm was a person who we had at UAB before, so I was familiar with him. So those were the reasons I looked into those schools. But ultimately, they were so far away from my family, and I love being accessible to my son, so with coach Clark staying at UAB and being able to be close to my son, that’s why I stayed at UAB.
Q: Who told you that UAB football was coming back?
SJ: I got call getting off work that day, and I hadn’t watched the news or anything like that, a reporter from Western Kentucky called me and was like, “Shaq, the program has been reinstated at UAB. Are you still planning on being a Hilltoopper?” I was like, “No sir. I’m gonna be a Blazer” Yeah, so once I got the news through the reporter I knew right away … I’m going to stay a Blazer no matter how long it takes. The ultimate prize will be when we actually return.
Q: Lineman Chris Schleuger. When you hear these stories, do you realize you’re part of something very special at the start of the season?
Chris Schleuger: Yes, I do. I realize I am being part of something very special. And it’s just something great down here. To be able to play at the highest level and to play for coach Bill Clark who I’ve never experienced, but has changed my perspective on football because of all of the things that he does for us. How we train, how we practice, and everything that he does.
Q: Was it a tough sale for you to come to UAB?
CS: Nah. I mean, I wanted to play at the highest level and they were coming back, so it was like the perfect opportunity to come down here and play. And I’ve just loved it ever since I’ve been down here.
Q: And everybody started pretty much on the same level. How tough was it to get the offense going from scratch? Or was it a good thing?
BC: There were some good things, and there were some really tough things. I think the best and worst thing about game day is the pressure, and I tell these guys, “they don’t video these games for nothing.” There’s not, “hey, we’ll see you again at the next time.” There’s one game a year and they keep it forever. Which is why it is so special – that’s the pressure. It was hard to simulate that two springs ago and even in last fall. I mean we’re sitting here saying, “we’re getting ready for this year,” but that was tough. Those guys had to fight and had their work cut out for them.
But we had our work cut out trying to create that urgency. So I think some of those things were good things. We got to start the slate clean. And yet there were some things that were really tough about that. The good news is I’ve seen a tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and by the end of spring I think we’d taken some good steps. When we get started up on the 31st (July) I think we’re hopefully going to see a whole new group.
Q: Give me names to watch on offense?
BC: Well I think you got two quarterbacks. A.J. Erdely who was at Middle Tennessee years ago and he’s come out as our leader. Tyler Johnston, who was the player of the year in the state of Alabama, is going to be very good. I hate to name guys, obviously you’ve got Schleuger. I think we’ve got some really good guys up front. James Davis is another offensive lineman – our left tackle – that is going to do some special things. Running backs, we’ve moved a linebacker over in Donnie Lee. We’re kind of a committee right now with James Noble and Kalin Heath and Lucious Stanley. And then we’ve got some receivers. Collin Lisa is a guy we had, and then he ended up at Buffalo and then came back. A great receiver. But I can name all those guys and I think every one of them has a chance to be really good.
Q: Will it be an emotional day on September 2 when you run out on the field?
BC: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a doubt. We talk about who we’re playing for. I think we’ve always talked about that in football. That’s why this game, any game, is so great. It’s the people that got you there. He (Shaq Jones) talked about his son and family that supports him. Chris’ family. I want those guys to know it. And now we’ve got this city who gave out of their own pockets. This was money we raised — $44 million from our community has been raised for our program. I want these guys to know that. That’s who they’re playing for, and we want to put something special out there. So it’s going to be an emotional day.
Q: Shaq, when I started that question you nodded your head emphatically. For you, home emotional will it be for you that day?
SJ: Really exciting. It’s been a long time since I played a football game. To actually be able to go out and compete again with my teammates is going to be great.
Q: Chris, how exciting is it for you to be part of an inaugural program?
CS: It’s going to be really exciting, especially when you walk out and look up in the stands and see those people who have given into this program. You just know that you got to give back to them. So we’re going to do everything that we can to give back to them and let them know that it was worth every penny for giving into the program.