The assumption, at least from outside the UAB football program, was that Trent Dilfer would have to rebuild a roster heading into his first season as a college football coach.
Truth is reaching that assumption wasn’t overly difficult. In the closing weeks of a coaching search that lasted more than a regular season, the UAB players were unified in their desire for Bryant Vincent to shed the interim label and become the program’s head coach. Some of them were public, others were not. Their message came out clear.
Hire Vincent or the transfer portal will fill up.
Neither of those things happened.
As the UAB football program heads into a summer full of workouts, there were minimal losses. Since spring practice ended, which came on the day that the spring transfer portal period opened, safety Jaylen Key was the only projected starter who chose to leave. He landed at Alabama. The mass exodus of the others never happened.
“It’s been something we actually sat back and reflected on the other day and we were kind of humbled by it,” Dilfer said.
So, how did it happen?
Well, it began with a decision. Dilfer could have gone the route that Deion Sanders did at Colorado. Sanders showed up on campus and almost dared the returnees to hit the portal. More than 40 players left Colorado’s program, for a variety of reasons, since the coaching change.
Dilfer, on the other hand, showed up on the UAB campus and ignored some advice.
“I was advised by some very renowned NFL people, guys I’ve leaned on forever, who are dear friends, to absolutely gut the building – players and coaches,” Dilfer said. “Their theory is that if you’re going to implement a very different strategy, you need freshness to it. I prayed about that, I thought about that, I listened to them.”
Then, he paused and took a look at the program.
“I think my best two weeks, my most revelatory two weeks, was when I shared the office with Coach Vincent,” Dilfer said. “In that two weeks, I realized that Bill (Clark) had established a really, really, really strong foundation of the core values of football. He and his staff had really done a nice job in trying to cultivate relationships, create a culture of togetherness in the locker room. I said, I would be ignorant to think my way is better than the combination of these two ways.”
Dilfer and the staff went to work on figuring out which players would ultimately remain in the program.
“We gave them the earn it period,” Dilfer said of the offseason workouts. “Then, we gave them a chance in the spring. We didn’t encourage anybody to go elsewhere until we properly evaluated them. I remember a team meeting when I said, ‘Hey guys, we’re in this earn it period, but some of you are starting way, way, way behind. You’re bad academically, you’ve had character issues, you haven’t performed well on the field, you have a bunch of strikes against you. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be Blazers, but you have more ground to catch up.’ I think by being honest with them, where they’re at, and giving them all a chance to change their habits, we identified some guys that maybe some would have shed that we feel could be really good players.”
Once spring practice ended, less than 10 scholarship players entered the transfer portal.
“We didn’t yell at them, we didn’t fire them,” Dilfer said. “The ones we kind of explained about going to the portal, they thanked us for being honest. Some of them were disappointed but not one of them was angry. I didn’t force anybody in, I just told them the truth. I said, ‘Hey, you probably won’t play first, second or third down here. You’ll be a special teams guy or you’re the seventh guy in this room.’ We all had discussions with them, how we could best help them moving forward.”
Then the task of keeping some others was the focus. While Key was the lone starter that left, others were fielding queries from other programs, which is a concern for UAB, any other Group of Five program or, really, most FBS programs.
“What we appreciated about our players, that were being coerced, was that because we had earned their trust, they told us,” Dilfer said. “They showed us text threads. They showed us Facetime numbers that weren’t picked up, that were from coaches of other teams or analysts of other teams or recruiting departments of other teams. They sat down with us and said, ‘Hey, this is going on, we don’t want to leave but I’m being offered ‘X’. It gave us an opportunity to have an open dialogue with our players about the realities of modern-day college football and what steps to take from here on out.”
Dilfer and his staff also worked the transfer portal but were selective at where they looked. Dilfer said he likens his approach to NFL free agency, where you fill specific needs.
“Many college coaches want to collect toys,” Dilfer said. “They just want a recycled toy, they see players as toys. If the toy gets tarnished, then they want a new shiny toy. I was very, very adamant with our staff that’s not how we’re going to do the portal. We’re going to be tactical in the portal. We’re going to understand the value in the positions that we are recruiting in the portal. Most importantly, we’re going to wait until kids are actually in the portal.”
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