The UAB football locker room doors at Protective Stadium were closed. The excruciating double-overtime loss to the team that has ripped away the mantle as the top Conference USA football team over the past two seasons was painfully fresh. The splintering of a team that once had championship expectations, but now had to process loss similar to four others this season, was primed to begin.

The splintering never happened.

According to people inside the UAB locker room last Saturday, following the 44-38 double-overtime loss to UTSA, there were hugs and tears. There were no arguments or helmets thrown. There were words of encouragement and support. There were no fingers pointed or blame tossed at others.  

“I think it speaks volumes, throughout the year you’ve heard me say, this team is different, this program is different,” said UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent earlier this week. “We’re a family and we take pride for what we fight for. We fight for the school, we fight for this city and we fight for this program. With everything we’ve been through, for our football team to still have that family mentality, and to show it and to prove it. In one of the toughest moments, after a loss like that to UTSA, for them to still stand together, tell each other they love them, tell me they love me, tell me they believe in me and to say out loud that they’ll follow me to the end, means more to me than anything, than any win. It brought me to tears.”

No one ever suggested this season would be easy after former head coach Bill Clark stepped down in June to take care of issues with his back. Yet, with a roster already built, that perhaps had more talent and depth than ever, the expectations were not only still there but welcomed.

Vincent, the team’s offensive coordinator since 2018, was elevated to interim head coach and quickly canceled a family trip to get to work.

“With him being the OC, I really didn’t communicate with him as much as I do now,” said defensive tackle Fish McWilliams. “As soon as he got the head coaching job, he talked to every defensive player on the team. He made sure we talked about what we wanted to do. He’s big on being a players’ coach. He made sure it wasn’t [treated] like a big transition, just hearing a different voice.”

Defensive back Keondre Swoopes said Vincent quickly took measures to make sure the transition went as smoothly as possible.

“Coach V, he started it right away, from the summer,” Swoopes said. “We were [bonding], trying to put everything together, let us find the backgrounds of each other. That’s one big thing. We all know the ins and outs of each player on the team. He put a big emphasis on that.”

Cornerback Colby Dempsey said that continued throughout the season.

“The big thing is, Coach V, since he got to be the head man, he just made it a point of emphasis, like every day, you can’t divide because of the power of the pack, the power of the team,” Dempsey said. “Everybody will be the best we can, if we stay together. It really goes past football, he is teaching us life lessons. It’s deeper than football.”

However, this is college football, a bottom-line business, at least to those outside the program and ones making personnel decisions. Wins drive the bus. The Blazers lost five of the first nine games, including all four away from Protective Stadium. None of the losses were by more than seven points and combined they came by a total of 27 points. From an outsider’s viewpoint, each loss chipped away at Vincent’s candidacy to remove the interim tag from his title. With each loss, some of the players said, the pressure grew.

“It’s been real difficult, there’s been a lot of talk,” Dempsey said. “We don’t see the talk, but we see the talk, you know. We try to keep everything in house, keep it between us, because that’s what matters. It has been difficult, because we’re used to winning.  One thing about Coach V that everybody loves is he takes full accountability. Most of it is not even him. He just protects the team, protects the players. He really loves us and that’s one thing you can’t take from us.”

UAB athletics director Mark Ingram spent the latter part of the summer and all fall running a patient coaching search. He said he’s been transparent with the coaching staff throughout the process and detailed his approach in an interview with 1819 News last week. Ingram said there was not a number of wins that he put as a requirement on Vincent’s candidacy to remove the interim tag.

UAB currently has 10 commitments in the recruiting class with six of those players committing while Vincent has been the interim head coach. Ingram said that a final decision on the next head coach will be made with the early signing period in mind, which begins on Dec. 21.

“I think if you asked every single player on this team, they’d say we love Coach V and we want Coach V, no matter what,” Hopkins said. “I think, this whole season, everybody on the team has been pushing for that. We want to keep Coach V, we want to do everything we can. There are definitely things, where he’s taken a lot of heat. It’s us, just not executing at times. We got to have his back no matter what. This team plays for him, loves him.”

What’s on the players’ and coaches’ agenda right now, is finding a way to reach bowl eligibility, particularly for the 21 seniors. Three of the seniors – Grayson Cash, Will Boler and Kyle Harrell – have been playing since UAB restarted the football program in 2017. Most of the others have been part of the most successful tenure in program history UAB needs to win two of the final three games, beginning with Saturday’s home finale against a North Texas team fighting for a spot in the C-USA Championship Game.

“It’s real important,” Dempsey said. “We got these seniors playing their last two games. Some of them may never play football again. We need to play hard for the coaches, play hard for the seniors, play hard for the brotherhood.”

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