Harris: 13 years after landmark win, UAB’s fighting the same battles

At first, the invitation to Brian Mackin and his wife the night that LSU was humbly brought to its knees was just hospitality in the wake of a business deal cut by the UAB alum’s father.

You see, J. Stanley Mackin had just wrapped up purchasing a couple of Louisiana banks in 2000 as CEO of Birmingham-based Regions Bank. In exchange, the sellers, a couple of LSU boosters, offered tickets to Brian and his wife, Shelly, to chow down on hors d’oeuvres in club-level seating and watch the Tigers thump the Blazers on homecoming.

“They were really just kind of pitying us a little bit,” Mackin said.

Three hours later, the future Blazers fundraiser and current athletic director watched Rhett Gallego’s 32-yard field goal float between the uprights as time expired.

UAB 13, LSU 10.

“I’m standing up and yelling, and then I look around,” Mackin said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m in on an island here. I need to get out quickly.’ ”

On its way to the first winning season in program history, UAB’s trajectory appeared steady by keeping in-state talent not plucked by Auburn and Alabama at home while trying to navigate the familiar gauntlet of rent-a-wins to fill cash-strapped coffers.

“The thing we knew that year was that we were better than the name on the side of our helmet,” said former coach Watson Brown, who oversaw the program from its start in 1996 until departing after a 3-9 season in 2006. “We were a little better than people thought we were and played a good game that night. They didn’t, and we knocked them off.”

Yet the victory wasn’t a launching pad to put the Blazers on the same trajectory that carried fellow mid-majors Louisville, Cincinnati and TCU out of Conference USA and into BCS conferences.

Instead, the Blazers haven’t had a winning season since a 7-5 campaign in 2005. A pessimist might peg the Blazers, who enter Tiger Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday, very much in the same state as 13 years ago: in development.

How much of that falls on the administration’s shoulders, at least to outsiders, is up for debate.

In 2011, the program’s operating budget was a reported $7.3 million, only $3 million more than its 2003 spending, according to federal data tracked by the U.S. Department of Education. UAB still kicks off in quickly aging Legion Field, whose 70,000-seat capacity is far too large and off campus.

Players dress in Bartow Arena and walk a block to a nearby practice field. New weight-lifting, sports medicine and academic support facilities opened five years ago, but the University of Alabama Board of Trustees nixed plans for a $75 million on-campus stadium by saying UAB has “not generated sufficient student, fan or financial support.”

Yet Mackin, who was hired as athletic director in 2007 after five years as a chief fundraiser, is pragmatic about the challenges facing the program.

“The infrastructure that really needs to be built around football is something we’re needing to do,” Mackin said Thursday. “Watson certainly built the program up to a competitive level and, when he left in ’06, it really struggled.”

The trustees haven’t exactly proved to be receptive working partners.

The board didn’t approve the hiring of Brown’s offensive coordinator, Pat Sullivan, who eventually landed at Samford. Next, the school turned to then-LSU offensive guru Jimbo Fisher, with half of a reported $600,000 salary to be picked up by boosters. Still, the trustees remained unmoved. The hiring was not approved.

Sources told CBSSports.com the move stemmed in part from keeping Fisher available to potentially join Nick Saban, whom Alabama was trying to woo away from the NFL and the Miami Dolphins.

Instead, the Blazers landed Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway, who went 18-46 over five years.

Those dreadful results didn’t help UAB when it came before the board in 2008 with plans for its 30,000-seat stadium. Never mind Jimmy Filler, a booster, had helped marshal support from 27 individuals or corporations to lease suits at $100,000 a pop annually over five years.

UAB finds itself stuck in the chicken-or-egg scenario: Winning requires attracting talent to campus and coaches competent enough to reach that mission. That, in turn, produces revenue. Yet UAB is stuck in the inverse: It must show it can be functional without a sunk capital cost.

How that happens, though, remains a mystery in this current state. No one at UAB will say that on the record, but it’s hard not to at least make the assertion that they’re stuck under the thumb of their big brother in Tuscaloosa.

Mackin, for his part, is diplomatic.

“They need to see more support from our community and more support from our students,” he said. “Until we start winning and bringing in crowds, that’s going to be their position.”

A decade ago, UAB was the lone program competing for the roughly 80 recruits produced annually capable of playing at the FBS level. Brown’s logic was simple: Keep out-of-state competitors such as Southern Miss, Memphis, Mississippi State and Ole Miss at bay and put revenue toward facilities. Do that, and there would be a viable product.

But in the ever-increasing arms race of big-time college football, that’s not enough. Especially when the powers that be rope an arm behind a program’s back.

“It’s still a fight,” Brown said. “It was always over the dollar in those days. We were recruiting well. We were getting Alabama kids, but without money, it’s just hard to make it in this sport.”

In October, the school will launch a $1 billion capital campaign for infrastructure, which includes up to $12 million for a football facility to house coaches’ offices, meeting rooms and a locker room.

Two years ago, Mackin snagged Arkansas offensive Garrick McGee as his coach, using a transparent pitch to woo him to the job.

“I walked him around before he took the job, and he said, ‘With what we’ve got, we can win,’ ” Mackin said. “However, building that infrastructure and winning will take care of itself once the little things are done.”

As Mackin walked out of Tiger Stadium that night in 2000, he heard angry fans calling for Saban’s head, which is comical four BCS titles later. He wondered about whether UAB moved toward relevancy, too.

“That’s our next step now,” Mackin said.