Marshall: UAB Coach Has Strong Ties to AU

Neil Callaway, who is UAB's new head football coach, knows in the in-state football scene well with his ties to Auburn and Alabama.

Neil Callaway laughed as he told the story not long ago in his office at the University of Georgia.

In January 1981, Callaway had finished his Alabama playing career as an undersized, overachieving offensive guard in a 35-6 Sugar Bowl victory over Ohio State. He'd followed Pat Dye, who had been Alabama's linebackers coach, to East Carolina as a graduate assistant and to Wyoming to coach the offensive line.

As Christmas neared in 1980, Dye and his assistants were in limbo. Dye had interviewed for the head coaching job at Auburn but it had not been offered. When Wyoming officials insisted on a commitment, Dye resigned. Finally, in early January, Dye got the call he wanted. He would be Auburn's next head coach.

Callaway climbed on an airplane and joined Dye without knowing what position he would coach or even how much he would be paid.

"He told me I was going to make $22,000 at Wyoming," Callaway said. "I ended up making $19,000 at Auburn."

But Callaway was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. Over the next 12 years as offensive line coach, he would be part of the rebirth of Auburn football. He would celebrate four Southeastern Conference championships and establish a remarkable record for sending offensive linemen on to the NFL.

One of his first pupils was a determined walk-on named Jay Jacobs, who is now Auburn's athletic director. Callaway, who had just turned 26, wasn't much older than many of the players he coached.

"I think we actually had one guy who was a fifth-year senior that was about his age," Jacobs said, "but the way he handled himself and handled us, it seemed like we were a generation younger.

"He's a great teacher. He can take a guy and enhance his strengths and also figure out his weaknesses to put him in position to win. He was an unbelievable motivator. You wanted to play hard for him. He was basically an overachiever himself as a player. Whatever the situation was, he always had an attitude that we were going to find a way to win."

In 27 seasons of coaching offensive linemen, Callaway helped more than 60 go on to play in the NFL.

But Callaway's days of coaching the offensive line are over, at least for now. Sunday, he was named head coach at UAB.

The way it happened was messy. Pat Sullivan, the heir apparent to Watson Brown, was treated shabbily, to say the least. LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher was apparently the first choice of UAB officials, but the Alabama Board of Trustees didn't like that idea. So the job went to Callaway.

Sullivan, now the head coach at Samford, deserved better than he got. Fisher, obviously, would have been a terrific choice for UAB. But the Blazers got a good coach and a good man in Callaway.

From his days as a player at Alabama, championships have followed him at every stop. After he left Auburn, he won a Conference USA championship as offensive coordinator at Houston, an SEC championship at Alabama in 1999 and at Georgia in 2002 and 2005.

And he's the kind of man you'd want your kid to play for.

Auburn football was struggling on and off the field in 1981. Sellouts were rare. The athletic department was losing money. The next decade changed all of that.

"It was a great thing to be a part of," Callaway said. "You knew Coach Dye was going to get it done. We had a lot of great players and great coaches who worked very hard."

Callaway has a unique place in this state. He has championship rings from Auburn and from Alabama. He has numerous friends both places. But it was at Auburn that his coaching career took off.

"Auburn is a special place for us," Callaway said. "We have a lot of friends we love there. Those were some of the best of days of our lives."

Those were good days on and off the field, for Callaway and his family. He and his wife Karen's three children--Russ, Kate and Clay--were born in Auburn. Kate is on her way to earning an Auburn degree.

"It came down to Auburn and Alabama," Callaway said. "I think she went to Auburn because of the friends we have there. All the kids probably kind of look at Auburn as home. That's the first place they remember."

Callaway has had his share of heartache along the way.

A year after Alabama won the SEC championship, it all came apart when Mike DuBose was fired as head coach.

"That was hard," Callaway said. "Karen's parents live in Tuscaloosa, and we were really happy to be able to go back there so she could spend time with them and the kids could spend time with them. It was a hard time in all our lives. I was very disappointed it didn't work out, but that's the nature of this business."

In 1992, trouble struck at Auburn when Dye resigned in the wake of an NCAA scandal. Callaway and other assistants found themselves looking for jobs.

"After all the things Coach Dye had accomplished, it was sad to see it end the way it did," Callaway said. "But Coach Dye was strong, and he made all of us stronger."

It's time for a new challenge now, one for which Callaway has yearned for years. He's the man in charge, a head coach at last.

Don't be surprised if, a few years from now, folks look back at Sunday, Dec. 17, as a big day in UAB's football history.

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