The Returns

Blazers, Bulls sparking the Magic City

By Gary Lloyd

BIRMINGHAM – I am an unabashed and unapologetic Alabama fan, and that will never change. Crimson is my color, and the Tide is my allegiance.

Saturday night, as Alabama completed a comeback for the ages against Georgia in the SEC Championships Game, I paced in a living room full of ‘Bama fans. I wore a red shirt and Alabama hat. Everyone else did the same. A battery-powered elephant played the fight song from the front of the room. A toddler bounced around the room in houndstooth pants.

Down here, we must choose, and choose quickly. There is no time for hesitation, no room for debate. Your allegiance either lies in Tuscaloosa with the Tide, or on The Plains with the Tigers. It is as simple as that.

But this weekend, apart from anxiety over Tua Tagovailoa’s ankles and Jalen Hurts writing his name in crimson flame, my thoughts drifted northeast of Tuscaloosa and northwest of Auburn to Birmingham, where it finally hit me.

Birmingham, the largest city in the state of Alabama, is making some sports noise of its own, and it is as loud as the hum from the inside of a downtown steel mill. The returns of two sports teams – the Blazers’ football squad at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Bulls of the Southern Professional Hockey League – have ignited fandom in the Magic City, sparked a light so bright with gold and red that you would believe Sloss Furnaces has made its own comeback.

Like I said, it hit me this weekend, on Dec. 2, specifically, four years to the day that UAB announced that it was shutting down its football program due to budgetary reasons. UAB said in a release at the time that it subsidized $20 million of the athletic department’s operating budget of some $30 million annually and said both those numbers ranked fifth in Conference USA. The university said the difference over the next five years would be an extra $49 million with football, including a projected $22 million needed for football facilities and upgrades.

The Birmingham Bulls honored the UAB Blazers on Sunday, four years to the day after the football program was shut down. (photo by Gary Lloyd)

“The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB,” UAB President Ray Watts said in a statement at the time. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the athletic department, football is simply not sustainable.”

But it was sustainable, with dedication and donor dollars and a daily grind to make a return to football possible. UAB had been the first college program to shut down its football team since 1995. After a couple years of fundraising, it was announced that UAB would make its return to college football for the 2017 season.

UAB defeated Alabama A&M to begin the 2017 season, and much was made about the Blazers’ return. After the win, UAB linebacker Tevin Crews was asked what it felt like to finally return to the field. He said that the Blazers had practiced game situations millions of times.

“This was not our first rodeo,” Crews said.

The mention of a rodeo is the perfect segue from Birmingham football to Birmingham hockey, because the team in town for so many years was the Bulls. The team played here in the mid-1970s through the 1980-81 season and returned for another long stint from 1992-2001. After that, though, the Bulls were no more.

But, like UAB in 2017, a return occurred. In February 2017, the Pelham City Council agreed to lease the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena for the Bulls, a team gone for a generation. The Bulls joined the Southern Professional Hockey League and began play not long after UAB made its return.

In 2017, UAB posted an 8-5 overall record, including a perfect 6-0 mark at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Blazers earned a bowl bid in their first season back, a game played in the Bahamas. That is just fine. UAB picked up where it left off and then some, finishing the 2018 season with a program-best 10 wins against just three losses and its first conference championship in school history. The Blazers’ postseason includes a trip to the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl against Northern Illinois. The Bulls on Dec. 2, four years to the day after UAB’s program was shut down, recognized the Blazers as Conference USA champions.

The Bulls in 2017 struggled and finished 21-34 but was one of the hotter teams in the league down the stretch. Like UAB, the Bulls picked up and then some, too, fighting their way to a 13-1 start to the 2018-19 season, including 11 consecutive wins to start the season.

“The start to this season has been surreal,” lifelong fan Josiah Burdette says. “After suffering through most of last season, passionately cheering for a team that was not winning, it has been an incredible experience being fans of one of the best teams in the league. The team has a middle-of-the-season type chemistry and they are all playing at a high level and really complimenting each other well.”

The scene prior to the Bulls’ game against the Pensacola Ice Flyers on Dec. 2, 2018 (photo by Gary Lloyd)

UAB completed another 6-0 home record at Legion Field. The Bulls through Dec. 2 are 8-0 at the Pelham Civic Complex.

The home-field and home-ice advantages are working wonders for these Blazers and Bulls. With the advanced success they are having, in only the second years of their returns, anyone will be hard-pressed to shut these programs down again.

“The Bulls are really special to us because my dad got to experience the return in the ‘90s when I was four or so and got to raise his kids on the game and the Bulls,” says Bulls fan Josh Argo. “And now I get to raise my kids, ages 2 and 4 currently, on the Bulls as well. It is quickly becoming their sports lifeblood as well and means something more than just a single A sports team for the Argo family. It has and will always hold a very special place in our heart and memories and has been there for us in times of struggle and times of need.”

UAB head football coach Bill Clark, who remained in Birmingham during the two seasons the Blazers did not field a team, probably summed it up best after one of the team’s first practices in 2017.

“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” Clark said at the time. “It was neat to be at the front of that. I kind of get to (be) the leader of that with all of the people that made this happen: our community and fans. I keep saying this like a broken record – the people that stepped up for us even to be out there and headed in the direction we’re headed. We don’t take that lightly and we talk about who we’re playing for and who we’re representing every day. Today was a neat moment.”

It began as The Return for both programs. For me this weekend, it was The Reminder. Now, for Birmingham sports fans, I suppose you can call it The Reawakening.

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