BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — UAB fans finally have something to celebrate.
More than three months after the football program was shuttered, the Blazers rebounded from a rough start to win the Conference USA Tournament and make the NCAA Tournament.
It’s an accomplishment to cheer for any school in March, but it’s especially good news for UAB after all the angst and anger swirling around the campus and city since UAB President Ray Watts announced the shutdown of football in December.
They still play basketball at UAB, after all. And the 14th-seeded Blazers (19-5) play again Thursday against Iowa State in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I think there is so much excitement and goodwill and things like that,” Blazers coach Jerod Haase said. “It’s been a tough year for a lot of different people around the university, around the athletic department, around Birmingham.
“We can be a source of positive feelings and maybe a unifying source right now, at a time when there’s been a lot of divisive things going on.”
It seemed like a longshot after a December that ended with no football and a hoops team that limped through a rough nonconference season with four wins and nine losses and emerged with one overriding goal: Win the C-USA Tournament.
The result was one of the youngest teams to make the NCAA field. The Blazers have only three upperclassmen on the 13-man roster. The only one starting is Virginia Tech transfer Robert Brown, the closest thing to a star Haase has in his third season.
Freshmen Nick Norton and William Lee, Alabama’s Mr. Basketball last year, are starters and Chris Cokley received the league’s sixth man of the year award after his first season.
Haase has made 18 tournaments as a player and coach, including 13 seasons as a Roy Williams assistant at alma mater Kansas and North Carolina. This one stands out in two areas, even beyond being No. 1 as a head coach: Youth and growth.
“We had young teams at Carolina and Kansas but not this young,” Haase said. “From start to finish, I would say we’ve matured more than any team I’ve been around.”
They also had to try to block out what was happening around campus. Watts cited the financial costs of fielding a competitive football team in shutting down the program shortly after the Blazers’ best season in a decade.
The basketball team’s rough start didn’t help UAB’s mood.
“By God, December was the worst month ever to be a UAB fan,” said Jack Williams, a state legislator who runs a UAB site for Rivals.com. “We have this big win on Saturday and finally there’s something to celebrate that the administration and the board can’t kill.”
Williams also believes making the NCAA field was the “worst-case scenario for Dr. Watts and the board” because it puts the Blazers’ saga back in the national spotlight. Some fans wielded signs in the stands like “Bring it Back” and “Fire Ray Watts,” which also was chanted several times.
Former UAB football coach Bill Clark has sent Haase congratulatory texts. Roy Williams paid homage to how his former pupil has done amid potential distractions.
“It’s been a year full of turbulence, but it’s been away from basketball, which you can sort of isolate yourself from it a little bit,” the North Carolina coach said. “He’s just done a great, great job.”
Faculty and student groups have issued no-confidence votes against Watts. A task force was formed to hire a firm to re-examine the numbers cited in Watts’ decision.
And the basketball team played on.
“It did affect us,” Brown said. “But every time you go out there, you’re playing for what’s on the front of your jersey.
“We’re playing for Birmingham, we’re playing for the school, the fans every time we go out there. Regardless of whether the football team got cut or not, we’re going to go out there and play for Birmingham and UAB.”
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