Looking back on the disbandment of UAB's football program, linebacker Tevin Crews doesn't get too sentimental.
"It is what it is, and we have to move on," the Blazers senior said. "When the situation happened, a lot of emotions were displaying, and everybody was like, 'What am I going to do?' After a while, we had to accept the fact. We went through an emotional time, and then we moved on."
In December 2014, less than a year after hiring head coach Bill Clark, UAB announced it would disband its football team. The team had played a full season wondering if it would be its last.
Fast forward two years. Like every other NCAA Division I football program, the Blazers are back on the field with one caveat – they won't play a single game this season. Six months after disbanding, on June 1, 2015, the school reinstated the program. But it won't return to competition until the 2017 season.
These past two years have been tumultuous for players like Crews, who stayed at UAB and has a year of eligibility remaining, and Clark, who headed home to Jacksonville, Alabama, after the program was cancelled, only to return to Birmingham. Both have had to manage their emotions, stay focused on the future and now, learn how to make the best of an awkward situation.
"I think for us, we had some time sitting and waiting to see what was going to happen and I was at home thinking, 'What am I going to do?'" Clark said. "There is no guidebook for this. I was trying to see where we were from last fall with about 29 players and then you go into spring and you have 57 and now, we're sitting close to 105 like everyone else."
What Clark is – and has been – doing is being creative. After working with local business leaders to rally the community and raise money to help fund a new facility, he is back to the business of football. The immediate goal, with a long fall stretching before him and his team, is to turn a negative into a positive.
"We're going to focus on scrimmages," Clark said. "And academics. We have some guys who have struggled … they can focus on that. We're going to focus on strength and speed."
Crews is all about that. He chose to stay at UAB and finish his communications degree – he also started a second bachelor's in business management and is planning a master's as the athletes' scholarships were honored – and heal from a shoulder injury. As things have played out, that decision is giving Crews a second shot at football.
"I had to really move on with life," Crews said. "I had plenty of colleges that wanted me to come play with them, it was a tough decision to make. But I was really tired of football, I had lost my drive for a moment there. I was hoping for the best for the situation, and then the rumors started that the program would be back. I was so happy, even though I didn't think I'd be a part of it."
But a meeting with Clark changed all that.
"He told me it (reinstatement) was going to happen and he wanted me to be there to show the team how we do football at UAB and be a leader," Crews said. "I was missing it and I owe this university, this team, Coach Clark for his commitment, this community for raising money when somebody decided for whatever reason to cancel the program. A lot of people in this community came forward ... and now I have a chance to live out my childhood dream one more time."
On the face of it, UAB's situation is anything but "normal." But Clark is doing what he can to keep his team motivated through a season with no games. Part of that motivation will come from a big end-of-camp intra-squad scrimmage.
"We're never going to be able to simulate a real game," he said, "So we're pointing to Aug. 29 as a date to work toward. It's completely transparent, it's a reward is what I tell the players. But when school starts, I just don't believe that we can work these guys five or six days a week. I want the players to have a year to focus on academics, a year to train, a year to take care of their bodies. We're trying to be smart about it."
While it may seem that a season without football would make recruiting tough, Clark found a bit of niche within which to find diamonds in the rough.
Consider the number of Division I-worthy players coming out of junior colleges or high schools who are injured – and how a year of rehabbing in a college football setting would benefit those players.
Or how useful it would be to have a full year to teach athletes the playbook or break down plays.
For junior college transfer A.J. Erdely, UAB was the perfect situation at the perfect time.
"It's another opportunity to get into the weight room and get faster and stronger," said Erdely, who will be UAB's starting quarterback in 2017. "We have time now to sit down and learn what a defense is going to do and it slows the game down for the quarterbacks. Coach (Les) Koenning, he's great at making the game slow down, so you have the opportunity to not necessarily to mess up, but you have time to go over your mistakes and really understand what you did wrong."
Erdely started his college career at Middle Tennessee before transferring to Mississippi Gulf Coast. He has two years of eligibility remaining and had a torn labrum in his left shoulder that was surgically repaired after his arrival at UAB. He was just the kind of player Clark was looking for.
"I had to make a decision on what kind of kids we wanted to out there with for '17," Clark said. "I didn't think it was fair to out there with a bunch of high school kids. We needed kids with game experience."
With the fall looming, UAB is prepared to make the most of its unique situation. There will be scrimmages on many Saturdays, plenty of hours spent in the weight room, analyzing film and studying playbooks. There will also be team building and bonding, rehab and a heavy emphasis on academics. But more than anything, these next few months will be filled with anticipation.
"Camp is about figuring out who we're going to be, what kind of team we're going to be," Crews said. "Everybody in the nation knows we have time. That could go good or bad. Some teams could take advantage.
"Or, it could be tough, having all this time and finding a way to stay focused. But we have a lot of people invested in us in this community and we want to say, ‘Hey, we have something to believe in.' If we use this time right, we'll have a lot more football knowledge."