BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – There’s a more powerful college football dynasty than the one Nick Saban has built at Alabama.
For two decades, virtually uninterrupted, the Birmingham market has delivered the highest television ratings for college football of any metropolitan area. In Birmingham, every Saturday is Super Bowl Sunday, as it has consistently compiled for decades the biggest percentage of eyeballs looking at the sport.
Some of this, of course, coincides with the rise of the Alabama dynasty, as Tuscaloosa is within the Birmingham market and the city is home to thousands of graduates. Some can be attributed to the searing passing of Auburn fans and the general fervor in the South for the SEC.
There’s also part of Birmingham that just loves college football, consuming the sport in such a voracious way that it stands out amid football-mad communities like Columbus and Oklahoma City. That has always left a compelling thought lingering around Birmingham. What if a city that loves college football like no other had a vibrant program within city limits?
This season, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is taking a giant step toward becoming the must-see program to match its town’s passion. On Oct. 2, UAB will host the first game in Protective Stadium, a $175 million shiny new jewel in downtown Birmingham. It sparkles with possibility for UAB’s football future, a distinct upgrade from the historic but tired Legion Field. When UAB debuts in a neutral site game against FCS Jacksonville State on ESPN on Wednesday night, it marks the start of a new era for the program.
“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” coach Bill Clark told Yahoo Sports in his spacious office recently. “When we brought the program back, at the time, I was just wanting to be competitive. The stadium was just this dream. It’s going to benefit our city and state in so many ways, but obviously also benefit UAB football.”
Less than a decade after the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s football program disbanded and returned, the program is improbably positioning itself to elevate further into college football’s mainstream. UAB has won three straight Conference USA division titles, two of the past three league titles and projects as a favorite to repeat in 2021 (BetMGM gives UAB +300 odds to win the conference, tied with Marshall and UTSA).
Clark’s team returns 17 starters, has 11 Super Seniors and boasts a gritty identity built around a stout defensive line. (UAB’s backup nose tackle transferred to Auburn, to give an idea of line depth.)
That success is remarkable considering that the program was reinstated in the spring of 2015. Nearly two years later, UAB fundraised and built a sleek $22.5 million football facility, replacing one so sparse that it was actually an old dentist’s office.
Once that project sprung up, Clark credits the teamwork of the school, athletic department, city, county and local civic center board to join forces and help build the downtown stadium. Politics long undercut UAB, which shares a board with Alabama and its football future was rarely regarded as a priority. There’s now a giant symbol of how significantly that has changed.
When ESPN host Paul Finebaum drove by the stadium on a recent visit to downtown Birmingham, he was awestruck by the stadium. He hosted his show for decades in Birmingham and understands the passion there for college football.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes that UAB finally had a stadium of its own, and it was the crown jewel of the downtown area,” Finebaum said. “In the history of sports in Alabama, this may be one of the greatest stories ever. ... It’s beyond words.”
Back from the dead, it’s possible UAB now has upward mobility. It's hard to overstate how important it is for UAB to win big this year amid the tumult of conference expansion.
If it keeps winning, UAB will continue to make a case to get pulled up in the next round of conference realignment. Clark uses the University of Cincinnati as an ideal, an urban campus in a football-mad city that has built itself up to a point where it consistently dominates its league.
If the American Athletic Conference gets raided by the Big 12 as part of the next wave of realignment, it’s reasonable to think that UAB has the success, program bones and location to be attractive to the AAC. (We already know people will watch on TV locally.)
“I think more than anything, the stadium legitimizes our desire to be great,” said UAB AD Mark Ingram, whose fundraising fingerprints are all over UAB’s football revival.
The 45,000-seat stadium also offers another adrenaline shot to downtown Birmingham, which has turned into a destination for foodies as it’s undergone a renaissance the past two decades. The future at Protective Stadium includes plans for high school playoff games and the 2022 World Games. Ingram points out that metro Birmingham isn’t much smaller than Memphis or New Orleans, and the stadium gives UAB and the city an opportunity to think bigger.
“I think our opportunity is limitless,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “We want to be thought of as the absolute best team in our conference every year…. And then become maybe the best Group of 5 team in our region, and then the country. We have the facilities and the interest in our area to do that.”
Ingram’s savvy basketball hire of UAB graduate Andy Kennedy, who went 22-7 in his first season, has already elevated and energized that program.
But football drives the bus. Especially in Birmingham. The Oct. 2 Protective Stadium opener will be a marquee game, as Liberty and star quarterback Malik Willis will offer a strong opponent. It’s the type of game hardcore college football fans seek out, the kind that Ingram hopes will be enough to draw a sellout for UAB’s historic moment.
If you build it, will they come? Don’t bet against Birmingham. And considering how far it has come, never bet against Bill Clark and UAB.