A strange day and a warm UAB embrace for Bill Clark
Bill Clark was not expecting that.
The formal halftime tribute? Yes, he knew that was coming. He'd agreed to it, as uncomfortable as it made him feel to have the spotlight fall on him. For his first UAB football game as the retired UAB football coach, he would've just as soon stayed in the private suite reserved for the head coach's wife, family and friends, commanded now by Holli Vincent, the spouse of interim head coach Bryant Vincent.
That's where Clark spent most of Thursday evening at Protective Stadium, anticipating play calls, noticing that the Blazers had only 10 men on the field on their punt block for a touchdown, watching "like a coach" as UAB shut out Alabama A&M 59-0. It was the largest margin of victory in the program's Football Bowl Subdivision history.
"You just feel like a proud father," Clark said. For his protege Vincent especially but also for the whole staff. For the players. For the fans who made up the eight-largest home crowd in school history, the second-largest in their new home.
"For them to go out there and do it, " Clark said. "We've got more to do, but on the big stage, it really went off without a hitch for the most part. I could not have been happier or more pleased."
It was all so familiar and so strange for a 54-year-old football lifer who's been on a sideline every season since his sophomore year in college when he started coaching his father's offensive line at Ashville High School.
The highlight of the evening, the real halftime tribute, wasn't staged or shared with Clark in advance. Standing in a corner of the field, waiting for the teams to exit for the locker rooms before his formal recognition, he didn't know something was up until Xavier Robinson said, "Coach, come stand over here."
Fitting that it was Robinson who made the ask. UAB's assistant athletic performance coach served on Clark's staff at Prattville High School. Loyalty is still a precious commodity to Clark and company.
No sooner had Robinson positioned Clark and here they came in an excited rush, the UAB players, surrounding the man who'd signed and coached them, inspired and motivated them. They cheered and waved before taking a knee. Vincent gave Clark a handshake and a hug. Clark raised both fists in front of him to remind them to forget the scoreboard despite their commanding 38-0 advantage.
He said, as he always did, "It's 0-0." The next step in the routine was for Clark to break down the huddle and send them to the locker room with one word: "Champs."
Not this time.
"One of the players said it before I could," Clark said. "That made it even better."
Clark joined the CBS Sports Network crew in the booth during the third quarter. Analyst Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman, noted the collective embrace Clark received at halftime.
"I played for a lot of coaches," Tucker said. "I don't know how many of them would've gotten the reception that you got."
The first game of the post-Clark era at UAB was full of highlights. The first quarter alone featured touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. The Blazers looked like they hadn't skipped a beat since defeating No. 13 BYU in the Independence Bowl, like a team fully capable of winning its third Conference USA championship in five years in its last season in the league before stepping up to the AAC.
All the fireworks aside, the moment that spoke the loudest came when the players gathered around their former coach, took a knee and took the word right out of his mouth. They know what he expects. They think and act like "Champs" because he set the course in that direction eight years ago.
In that sense, it's not entirely accurate to say this was the first game of the post-Clark era. The impact he had on the program is riveted into the girders in the stadium, embedded in the concrete of the Football Operations Center, burned into the brain of everyone who formed that huddle around him.
"It was crazy," Clark said. "Didn't expect that. Bryant said the players wanted to do it. You're just humbled by it. It was such a strange feeling to be there. All the nerves. I started getting the nerves the first of the week. For that to be the culmination of it was special."
It was the latest in a series of special moments for UAB football since Clark came to town. It won't be the last because he built this program to endure.