Most college football fans in the state of Alabama were fixated Dec. 1 on the Hollywood type story of redemption of Alabama starter-turned-backup quarterback Jalen Hurts, who came off the bench and led his team to a win in the SEC Championship Game.
But there was another movie-style story involving an in-state team that unfolded that same day.
The UAB Blazers, four years after their program was shutdown and two years after they returned to the field, defeated Middle Tennessee 27-25 to win the Conference USA Championship.
A coach with local roots played a role in this storybook tale for the Blazers. Blake Shrader, a 2013 North Jackson alum and a former Auburn defensive back, is UAB’s defensive backs coach. He called the journey from shutdown to championship a result of determined people committed to make the most of the program’s second chance.
“We’ve got our own story going,” Shrader said. “It’s pretty special.”
Shrader has seen the story develop and evolve from one of disappointment to triumph.
Shrader was on the coaching staff for head coach Bill Clark’s inaugural UAB team in 2014. The Blazers finished 6-6, their best record in 10 years. But five days after the season ended, school officials, citing financial reasons, announced they were shuttering the program.
“It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever been through, personally or professionally,” Shrader told The Sentinel in a 2014 story just after the program’s closure. “The look on those kids faces. It was really sad. They had bought in and believed in what we were doing. We’d just had one of the best seasons (UAB) ever had. Then to have (the shutdown) announced, that was really rough.”
But the Birmingham community fought the decision, and a renewed commitment from donors and the city of Birmingham led to the decision being reversed eight months later. The earliest the NCAA would allow UAB to resume play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level however was in the fall of 2017.
Shrader, whose been on the staffs at Auburn, South Alabama and Jacksonville State, spent the 2015 season as defensive quality control analyst at Georgia, but he returned to the UAB staff as the Blazers spent the entire fall of 2016 practicing, preparing to return to action in 2017.
UAB exceeded expectations in its first year back, going 8-5 and playing in the Bahamas Bowl. This season, the Blazers are 10-3 and play Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton (Florida) Bowl on Dec. 18.
And a week ago, UAB won its first conference championship, defeating a Middle Tennessee team in the C-USA title game that has just beaten the Blazers the week before.
“We tweaked some things as coaches, (and) the players responded,” said Shrader, the son of former North Jackson defensive coordinator Barry Shrader. “It’s a great feeling, seeing it, experiencing it and thinking about where we’d come from. Coach (Clark) always had this as our goal, as our vision, and seeing it come true, seeing the kids that have been there through this (restart) get to experience this, that was the biggest thing for me. The hard work that these kids put in for so long, seeing them experience that was by far the best part. That was the biggest reward.”
Shrader said “all the positive things” surrounding UAB football have made the “sky the limit” for the program, which just inked Clark to a contract extension.
“Without Coach Clark, we wouldn’t be where we are. I don’t know anyone else that could’ve done it,” Shrader said. “We’ve got the backing of Birmingham. The City of Birmingham is the economic center of the state. UAB is the largest employer in the state. Obviously the facilities, we get a reminder every single day of what we were in and what we’re in now.
“I really think the sky is the limit with what UAB can be.”