The approach, UAB receiver coach Larry Smith said, has been no different than any other in college football. In the life of an assistant coach, it has to be the same.
“Each year is unknown, each day is unknown, we’re always coaching for our jobs,” Smith said. “The mindset we have to have, as coaches, is our job is on the line every single day. Our perspective, hasn’t changed. It’s coming in, every single day. Try to get better, try to get my guys as prepared as possible, and just try to enjoy the moment.”
While the approach doesn’t waver, this year, though, is different for the men who make up the UAB football staff. This could be the end of one of the more unique journeys in college football.
Glance at the UAB football coaching roster, as well as off-the-field staff, and it’s easy to spot someone who has been with the program since Bill Clark began rebuilding the program in 2015. Dig a little deeper, and you realize that current on-the-field assistant coaches David Reeves, Larry Smith, Hindley Brigham, Cameron Blankenship, Heath Thomas, Kyle Tatum and Blake Shrader have been on the staff, in one role or another, since the beginning of the return. The off-the-field staff members who have been at UAB during that span include Tyler Cook and Randy Pippin. Lyle Henley, who is perhaps the biggest culture builder the program had during this stretch, has been the strength and conditioning coach since 2016.
Interim head coach Bryant Vincent was the offensive coordinator in 2014, left when the program was shuttered and returned in 2018 as the offensive coordinator. Daric Riley, currently the cornerbacks coach, was on the staff in 2014, left after the shutdown and returned last season. Tristan Henderson, an analyst, is a former UAB tight end who played on the 2014 team.
The numbers of what they’ve done are printed in ink and placed in the school’s record book. A 48-26 record in six seasons, two C-USA championships, an unprecedented three consecutive C-USA division championships, the first two bowl wins in program history and four of the five bowl appearances.
However, the future together is not a given.
They all know the possibility of Saturday’s game at Louisiana Tech, which will determine if the Blazers reach bowl eligibility for the sixth year in a row since returning to football and seventh season overall, could be their final regular season game together. It’s something, truthfully, that’s been hanging over the program since the football was kicked off in late August.
“It’s natural, and here’s the natural thing, for every win, you’re not going to think about it. For every loss, you’re going to think about it,” said Henley. “That’s just human nature. Every time that doubt creeps into your mind, you have to fall back on what your culture is and your training. There’s a saying we use all the time, ‘You never rise to the occasion. You always fall to your level of training.’ Every time that doubt creeps into your minds – believe me, we’ve been tested this year – and you’ve got that interim tag, that’s where your culture has to be strong. Your faith will carry you through because you got faith in your fellow coach and faith in these kids.”
While the results were far from what they wanted or worked for, this season has been, perhaps, as memorable as any of the championship seasons. It might be a season that best defined the foundation of the program.
“The one thing we’ve done since we came in 2016 and try to bring this thing back is try to create a culture that is the attitude of the city within the program,” Henley said. “Which is, a city of toughness, never giving up, not backing down from anything and when things get hard, like shutting the program down and taking it away, don’t listen to the outside noise. Stay the course and keep working and working. You’ve always preached these things and we’ve found out these things always carry us through the season. But, you never really know if you’re getting what you need to get out of it or if they are really living by this culture, until you run into a season like this. Guys have never wavered. They’ve never thought, one second, about pointing a finger at each other or anybody else. They never backed down and they never thought they were out of any game, no matter what we do. That has been refreshing to see that this isn’t just something we were talking about.”
Smith said that started at the top this season with the job that Vincent did in keeping the program together.
“Man, he’s been huge,” Smith said. “He’s been big on the players first, family, culture, everybody coming together. I think that’s the main reason our kids are playing as hard as they are, because they truly love, truly care about each other. He’s been real beneficial in understanding and telling the guys, ‘It’s all about you. It’s all about the players.’ He reminds us, every single day, as a staff, that it’s all about the players.”
What happens next is still unknown. The extended time has allowed UAB athletics director Mark Ingram to talk to more candidates than he would have in a coaching search that began at the end of the season. Ingram has said that Vincent is one of the candidates, but college football is often a bottom-line business. With the regular season closing this weekend and the early signing period beginning in December, a decision will probably come by late next week or early the following week.
With the possibility this could be the final one or two games this staff is together at UAB, Henley was asked what he will remember about this group.
“I think the thing I will remember that we believed, every person in this building, that we were going to be successful,” Henley said. “These guys have worked harder than any group of people I’ve been around, in anything I’ve done in my life. They did it for the right reasons, which is not always the case in our society today. These weren’t journeymen. These weren’t mercenaries. These are guys who love football and want to see kids be successful. Just the amount of kids that this place was basically Last Chance U for, to see them leave as champions and winners, now, you’re watching these kids four or five years down the road and they’re successful. When they come back to you and say, ‘Thank you, coach” to every coach on this staff. That, to me, is the No. 1 thing I will remember. If you get into this business to change lives, I believe that this staff has changed so many young men’s lives and put them in the right direction.”
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