Bill Clark's doing a different kind of coaching this spring
It's spring, and for the first time in his adult life as winter's chill thaws and summer's swelter looms, Bill Clark does not have a football team to coach. For the first time in a decade, UAB is playing a spring game tonight without Clark on the sideline.
So what is he doing 10 months after announcing his retirement at UAB, nine months after undergoing the spinal fusion surgery that prompted him to leave a profession he loved?
He's watching spring football. He's working with other coaches. He's doing some of the things he did every other spring of his adult life. Not to help himself and his own team this time. To help coaching friends and theirs.
"I love doing this," Clark said in a recent appearance on the Cover 3 podcast, the official college football podcast of CBS Sports. "I loved doing this while I was coaching."
Instead of him inviting his father, Ragan, or his friend Jack Crowe to watch his UAB team work during spring practice so he could get their feedback and learn from their insight, Clark is performing the same valuable service for some of his coaching friends.
It's more personal favor than professional consulting service, but the intent and the approach are the same. By the time he's done, he will have visited about a dozen schools, but out of respect for his coaching friends, he will not share their names.
What is he observing and sharing with those coaches in confidence? Personal observations on small details and the big picture, everything from the way a certain drill is structured to the interactions between players and coaches.
"You're always wanting another point of view," Clark said in a one-on-one interview. "Sometimes it's affirmation of what you're doing. It's just honest thoughts from somebody you trust."
Roster management expertise
There's another area in which Clark is uniquely qualified to help other coaches. They find themselves searching for answers to questions of roster management that they never had to face before, or never as often as they do now.
How do you rebuild your roster in a hurry? How do you find enough quality players to replace the ones that leave through the transfer portal? How do you build a foundation strong enough to withstand the twists and turns of that revolving door?
Who better to help answer those questions than the only coach in college football history to lead a team to three straight conference championship games and two league titles in three years in the aftermath of a school's own self-imposed death penalty that wiped out two full seasons of competition?
Clark was named national coach of the year twice for the way he masterminded The Return℠ while he and his staff rebuilt the UAB roster virtually from scratch. He highlighted some of the fundamental principles of that effort on the Cover 3 podcast, principles that current coaches can emulate in their roster management.
UAB intentionally did the opposite of what SMU had done when it returned to play after the NCAA-imposed death penalty in the 1980s, as comparable a situation as Clark could find.
"They came back with 18-year-old kids against 20- and 21-year-olds," Clark said. "They had no chance. I said, 'That's something we can't do.' "
So UAB went all in on researching and recruiting junior college transfers, some of whom had baggage, much of it in the academic arena, but as Clark said, "We didn't take bad guys."
Clark and his UAB staff also showed that you could build and maintain a culture even with something of a revolving door on the locker room.
"You've got to be careful you're not getting a bunch of mercenaries," he said. "Team-building is vitally important."
It's why Clark relied so heavily on Lyle Henley, UAB's director of athletic performance, and his staff. "That's a huge part of (running a successful program) daily," Clark said. "That's who these (players) see more than they see their position coaches."
Clark put tremendous faith and trust in Henley, whom he hired in 2016, a year and a half before UAB played its first game in three seasons. New UAB coach Trent Dilfer retaining Henley "was a big deal," Clark said, because Henley played a key role in building the program's winning culture.
As an Alabama native and the leader of that culture, Clark said, "My heart will always be with UAB. Obviously, I want to see them do well."
What about coaching again?
Clark said his work with other coaches this spring has been satisfying - "doesn't take you long to get back in your element" - which raises the obvious question. Does he see himself coaching again? He's currently involved in a number of ongoing projects, from his golf tournament to raise funds for UAB's annual Children's Harbor game to the CoachSafely Foundation, whose mission is to reduce youth sports injuries by training youth coaches. He's also contributing behind the scenes to enhance Birmingham's reputation as a sports tourism destination.
As far as coaching again, Clark had feelers from a number of schools during the most recent hiring season, but the timing wasn't right, in large part because he was still recuperating from his major back surgery. Now that he's feeling better physically than he has in a long time, he will not rule out the possibility of coaching again, but neither is he ready to commit to his own personal return.
"I just don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "There are a lot of things I miss (about coaching). There are some things I don't miss. We'll just see what happens."