‘We’ll build this thing from the inside-out’: Trent Dilfer embracing life as UAB football head coach

UAB football head coach Trent Dilfer has been on the job for a week and running errands and pulling grunt work for the current staff as preparations are underway for the Blazers’ fifth bowl game in the last six seasons.

“I plan on serving Coach (Bryant) Vincent and the staff anyway I can, I mean that,” Dilfer said. “He’s the head coach. I’m here to support him in the transition and serve these young men and serve the staff. I’m not joking. If they send me on coffee runs, I’ll go on coffee runs.”

Aside from precisely explaining each order to the barista, Dilfer has been busy putting together his first coaching staff, recruiting the greater southeast and transfer portal, ahead of early signing day, and becoming more familiar with a program and city that is opening its arms to the former Super Bowl champion quarterback.

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However, UAB is not a complete unknown to the seventh head coach in program history.

Dilfer played with multiple players in the NFL who had connections to the state of Alabama, including Saraland football coach Jeff Kelly, and led his Lipscomb Academy (Tenn.) prep program to a 24-14 win over Class 7A champion Thompson earlier this year.

He’s also an admitted fan-boy of former head coach Bill Clark.

“What was interesting was two weeks after my wife and I had that conversation, I’m saying ‘we’re staying’ and she’s saying ‘I have a sense you were made for more than this,” and in my head, ‘She’s right again, I can’t admit it, but she’s right again,’” Dilfer said. “It was intriguing and UAB is something I’ve been aware of. I’ve followed Coach (Bill) Clark. I had a friend that I helped out get a walk-on player here.”

“I know a lot about Alabama football over the past years and I was scared to death to play in Thompson this year,” he added. “I studied Alabama football, high school football. It’s a sleeping giant. I knew about the facility upgrades. I followed some of the recruiting. Jacob Zeno is a kid we had at Elite 11 so I saw him transfer from Baylor to here. I was aware of that.”

Dilfer was a first-round pick by Tampa Bay in the 1994 NFL draft, but legendary status came in helping lead the Baltimore Ravens to a win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

He was not re-signed by Baltimore following its Super Bowl season and Dilfer played the next four seasons for the Seattle Seahawks, leading them to two playoff appearances and mentoring a young Jeff Kelly, a Deer Park, Alabama native and seventh-round pick out of Southern Miss.

Kelly has compiled a 165-69 record in the last 19 years as a high school coach in Alabama and led two different programs, Jackson and Saraland, to championship game appearances. He was 0-3 in state title games until winning his first with Saraland last Friday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn — two days following Dilfer’s official introduction as UAB head coach and a day after Dilfer led Lipscomb Academy (Tenn.) to its second straight state title.

“Trent will do an amazing job in terms of his leadership ability, knowledge of the game and the ability to lead a group of men,” Kelly said. “He came by today and we visited. I know he’s excited about establishing a relationship with the high school coaches in different communities and getting to know those guys and them getting to know him. He has some impressive ideas in terms of how he plans to lead UAB, and he’s definitely excited.”

“From a personal standpoint, he’s as strong a leader of men as I’ve seen — having seen him in those situations years ago as a player,” he added. “Surrounded by a locker room of NFL players and personalities, he was the unquestioned leader of the team when I was up there (Seattle) with him. He just has a great knack for leadership and managing people. He’ll bring in good staff and it wouldn’t shock me if they really take off.”

The first task for Dilfer is managing and recruiting from within the current UAB roster. In a short amount of time, during the twilight to early dawn hours, Dilfer has already scouted his new team and came away impressed with what the Blazers have as their foundation.

Despite being an offensive-minded coach, and an NFL quarterback veteran of 14 years, Dilfer understands the fundamental elements that make up a successful football team.

“We’ll build this thing from the inside out,” Dilfer said. “Defense, offensive line and special teams will be the core pillars of our identity. I know how to do the rest pretty well. That’s not taking away from the skill positions but you win at a championship level when you win consistently at the line of scrimmage. You do it by stopping people.”

I don’t want to exaggerate but I’ve probably watched 600 or 700 plays more from a personnel scheme evaluation,” he added. “Fish McWilliams is an incredible football player. There’s a lot down here. Not to downplay anything else, but we have a very sophisticated way of looking at football. We’re looking for certain eye-work, movement traits and techniques, and we’ve seen some that we feel really comfortable about that are already on this roster.”

As far as current staff is concerned, Dilfer is open to retention but few spots remain with half of his initial staff selected within a week of accepting the position and assuming full-time duties.

“I will interview the staff because I think they deserve that,” he said. “There’s a lot of good so why wouldn’t I? Hindley Brigham has developed three NFL backs, it would be crazy not to talk to him. Those are things that will happen when it’s comfortable for them. I want to be respectful of them preparing for this game.”

Although the hiring of Dilfer officially brings an end to the Bill Clark era of UAB football, the Blazers do have a bowl game to wrap up what has arguably been the greatest run in program history.

Since the Return in 2017, Clark, along with Vincent this season, led the Blazers to a 49-26 record, 32-12 in regular-season C-USA contests, three consecutive division titles and two conference championships. During the current stretch, UAB has accepted invitations to six straight bowls, the 2020 Gasparilla Bowl was canceled after South Carolina withdrew from the game, and capped off Clark’s tenure with a 31-28 win over No. 13 BYU in the 2021 Independence Bowl.

With less than a week remaining until the remnants of the Clark regime pass on to other pastures, Dilfer is making sure there’s extra cream and sugar while picking the brains of a coaching staff that helped lay the foundation of the UAB football program.

“I will milk Bill (Clark) for everything he has and lean on Coach (Bryant) Vincent during the rest of his time here,” Dilfer said. “I’ll serve him anyway in any capacity he needs, but I’m also going to try to learn as much as I can from him. I’d be an idiot not to do those things. I don’t have all the answers, not even close to all the answers, but I’m going to get the answers. I’m going to get them from good people that are in my networks and the Bill Clark’s in the world — just good people that have had a lot of success over the years.”

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