BIRMINGHAM, AL -
College football fans across Alabama have enjoyed a splendid December: Auburn is heading to the national championship game, Alabama to the Sugar Bowl, and Samford, Jax State, North Alabama and Tuskegee all advanced to the playoffs.
But, it was another tough season for the UAB Blazers, who won only two of their 12 games.
Has the program bottomed out, and, now, destined for better days? Or is it on a collision course with more futility?
For college football fans, Saturdays this year have been filled with jubilation, toilet paper comets and a pocketful of miracles. Just look at Auburn on the night of Nov. 30 after their big Iron Bowl win.
In Birmingham, however, the situation was not the same. At the UAB game that same day, less than an hour before kickoff at Legion Field, we were able to sit in best seats in the house, right on the 50 yard line, blazers side of the field.
Well, it is Iron Bowl Saturday, so thousands of fellow fans are disguised as empty seats. Ticket sales brought the announced attendance to 6,383 with only a fraction of the number passing through the gate.
So who was there? Some fans who never miss a game, like Ken Brown. Some, like Shila Hartley, who is cheering on her boyfriend from the stands.
The final game of this season was a dud. Southern Mississippi's Golden Eagles, winless in almost two years, defeated UAB 62 to 27.
Head Coach Garrick McGee makes $550,000 per year in salary. It's fairly typical in Conference USA, and it's less than 10 percent of the $5,650,000 made by Alabama's Nick Saban.
But, McGee will get another try. Sports talk host Tony Kurre has been following and rooting for UAB since they began playing football, first in Division 3 back in 1991.
"Are you happy having a 3, 4,5 win season every year or maybe got a bowl game every once in a while to build a champion caliber? At this point I'm not sure they're going in the right direction," Kurre said.
Cindy Godwin's been watching from the stands for a long time, too. But for Cindy and many folks in Birmingham who think about the future of UAB football, the problems on the field take a back seat to problems with the field.
Thoroughly modern Legion Field opened in November 1927, the same year Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris. Today, there's room for 71,594 screaming fans. For decades, the Iron Bowl was played here -- Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan roamed the sidelines. Those days and those storied teams are long gone.
UAB's largest crowd ever was 10 years ago with 44,669. Right at 62 percent of capacity.
"The neighborhood around the area is starting to fall apart, and a lot of people who live around Graymont realize that. When you're trying to find teams to play there, it's very difficult to be successful there," Kurre said.
UAB fans want something new - namely, a stadium more closely connected to the UAB campus.
Athletic Director Brian Mackin was on Alabama Tonight a few weeks ago, and told us, "The trustees were very clear that we needed to support both in the community and in our student base, and I think when we win, the fans will come. I think that will take care of itself."
But how do you get those fans until* you win? Didn't UAB Trustees see "Field of Dreams?"
"Money's got to be raised and because they're under the umbrella of Alabama it's got to be approved for that, but as long as they're winning two games a year it's not gonna happen," Kurre said.
Only one University of Alabama trustee could be reached for comment on this story. Judge John England in Tuscaloosa was surprised, saying, "Your call is out of the dark" but that "no one is happy about how the UAB (football) season went and especially how it finished"
"The future of the program rests with the University president, the athletic director, and the coach."
England says "there is no plan to discuss (a new stadium) at the next trustees' meeting in February."
He bristles at the notion that trustees might be slow to act because they don't want the Blazers to divert any attention from the Crimson Tide.
"There is no sense on the trustees that UAB needs to be held down to enhance the University of Alabama whatsoever," he said.
Many teams around the country are winning with less than stellar facilities. Similar schools are getting it done.
"You look at Texas San Antonio, they've won six or seven games. North Texas, an FBS school for a few years, eight games. South Alabama, six wins. A lot of schools out there having success," Kurre explained.
Here in Birmingham, Regions Baseball Field opened to skeptics last season, but 396,820 came through the turnstiles last summer. It was the fourth-best total since the Barons first heard the cry of "Play Ball" in 1901.
And then there's this: Right on the campus of UAB, it was a night of celebration at Bartow Arena where more than 8,300 saw the basketball Blazers upset traditional powerhouse North Carolina. It's a stark contrast to the scene at Legion Field just the day before .
Fans say they want a new stadium but know it's gonna take another kind of construction work.
Whatever its destiny, UAB fans do have perspective. 77-year-old Ken Brown's grandson plays for the team. Ken says he owes his good health to UAB. There are lots of silver linings in his playbook. UAB's athletic director and other trustees did not return our calls for comment.
Winning can cure a lot of ills, and a bowl game appearance not achieved since 2004 would get the attention of students, faculty, Birmingham fans, and the trustees who will decide the team's future at Legion Field. We'll keep watching the Blazers and their progress.