It’s been quite the ride for fans of UAB Athletics this year.
In December, university president Ray Watts announced the school was killing its football program, declaring it “unsustatinable.”
The announcement was met with much criticism from football supporters, not just from the UAB community, but from Conference USA as a whole.
Most viewed the decision as a way for the University of Alabama Board of Trustees to get back at UAB following years of animosity.
The Board’s alleged disdain of UAB traces back to the early 1990’s, when former Blazer basketball coach Gene Bartow sent a letter to the NCAA criticizing legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Bryant’s son, Paul W. Bryant Jr., was on the board when it voted to end UAB football, and played a key role in the decision.
A few months later, with tension between the university and football supporters still running high, the UAB basketball team finally gave Blazer fans something to cheer about. In front of a hometown Birmingham crowd, the Blazers won the Conference USA basketball tournament and advanced to its first NCAA Tournament since 2011.
But the Blazers didn’t stop there. UAB continued its Cinderella run by knocking off No. 3 seed Iowa State 60-59 in the second round.
From there, things continued to get better for Blazer fans over the summer, with the university reversing its decision and reinstating the football program. Between that news and the basketball team’s success, Blazer fans finally have plenty to be optimistic about headed into a new basketball season.
And optimistic they should be. When the C-USA preseason coaches’ poll was announced, the Blazers were picked to repeat as conference champs.
After surprising the conference last season, the Blazers won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year. The Blazers may have been the third-youngest team in NCAA Division I last season and the youngest in the tournament field, but they are now a year older and wiser.
UAB returns all five starters from last season, led by all-conference guard Robert Brown. Brown led the team in scoring last season, and should be in the conference player of the year conversation this season.
In addition to Brown, the Blazers also feature two talented sophomores who could appear on all-conference teams this season — Nick Norton and William Lee — as well as reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year, Chris Cokley.
Norton is a long-range shooter who can also distribute the basketball, while Lee and Cokley form a formidable interior presence.
With the amount of talent that UAB has returning and another year of experience, it’s hard not to pick the Blazers to win the conference. Other teams will challenge the Blazers, namely Old Dominion, but the Blazers have more than enough potential to defend their conference crown.
UAB basketball is a great feel-good story, but it means so much more than just that to fans and the city of Birmingham. After everything they’ve been through, the fans deserve something to rally behind and be proud of.
This season, Birmingham is once again the site for the C-USA Tournament, meaning the Blazers will once again have the chance to seal their trip to the Big Dance in front of a hometown crowd — the only difference is this time it won’t be a surprise.
Sometimes, a story has a happy ending. After a year of uncertainty, it looks like Blazer fans may finally be getting the ending they deserve.