Bowl-winning head coach in December, New Mexico football assistant now: Here's Bryant Vincent's crazy story - Albuquerque Journal

Bowl-winning head coach in December, New Mexico football assistant now: Here’s Bryant Vincent’s crazy story

Bryant Vincent speaks during a press conference last month announcing him as the University of New Mexico’s new football offensive coordinator. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

Just two weeks into his tenure as New Mexico’s offensive coordinator, Bryant Vincent sits in a bare office overlooking University Stadium and thinks about the question. The answer could go any which way.

Why the University of New Mexico?

Vincent takes a breath.

The answer lies in another question: who is Bryant Vincent?

Prep success

Sam Royse remembers Vincent, or “Vinnie” as he calls him. Not very fast. Not very big either — around 5-foot-9, 155 pounds.

“He’s not very big today,” Royse, 64, was quick to add.

After 39 years as the head baseball coach and 27 years as an assistant football coach at Glasgow (Kentucky) High, it’s hard for Royse to recall the specifics of hundreds of games, practices and players gone by. There was a clear quality about Vincent, though.

“He had this drive about him to be successful,” Royse said. “That’s how I define competitive — there’s just this real desire to be successful and to be better than other teams, other coaches, other players. He’s had it all along.”

Vincent was a wide receiver and a defensive back, a “self-built athlete” by his own description. Royse didn’t know it then, but their time together in Barren County set something deeper in Vinnie.

“It was my junior year of high school that I knew I wanted to be a football coach, because of him,” Vincent said. “He had that kind of effect on me. He cared about his players, he was a relationship guy and he kind of molded me into who I am today.”

Royse didn’t see him for a “good long while” until his classroom door swung open one afternoon. It was Vincent, without sports and, in his first semester at Western Kentucky University, needing some help.

“He had realized that he needed to change his direction,” Royse said.

Shortly after, Royse made “an easy phone call” with a former teammate in Mark Smartt, then NCAA Division II West Alabama’s head baseball coach.

So, Vincent set off for Livingston, Alabama, spending one year on the Tigers’ baseball team before working as a student assistant with the football team for two seasons.

Newly married to his wife, Holli, and with a son on the way after graduation, he later accepted a job as an elementary school teacher in Hart County, Kentucky, near Glasgow.

It was home, yes. But it wasn’t quite what he remembered.

“It didn’t take me but a couple months there that I knew I wanted to get back to Alabama, where football was passion,” Vincent said. “It was a priority. It was important. People are fanatic about football in the state of Alabama.”

The path from there: four seasons calling plays with Charles Henderson High outside Troy. Three seasons in the same role at Spain Park High. One year as a 30-year-old first-time head coach at Greenville High, whose past success included a state championship.

There, Vincent walked into a situation with a storage closet for an office, 18 of 22 players on the verge of academic ineligibility and without a “real” locker room or showers. Still, “Anytime you look at a program and there’s been a history of winning — that means it can be done again.”

Greenville went 10-3 in his lone season at the helm, advancing to the state quarterfinals.

Then, five years as the head coach at Spanish Fort High, tucked in the northeast corner of Mobile Bay. The Toros were 0-10 in a limited history as a program, without a field to call their own, splitting a “home” schedule across three different fields.

In 2010, Vincent led Spanish Fort to a 13-2 finish, capped with a 14-0 win in the 6A state title game.

The coordinator had become a coach.

“Being a head coach in high school, you understand and you see that you want your defense to shut people down. You want your offense to score as many points as you can. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning games.”

The next level

A series of turnarounds, one more inexplicable than the next, also brought some admirers. Bill Clark was one. He tried to hire Vincent as his offensive coordinator at Prattville High School in the mid-2000s.

Later, the University of South Alabama — where Clark was entering his fourth season as defensive coordinator — came calling. Vincent was brought on initially as tight ends coach before running the quarterbacks room for two seasons. His and Clark’s relationship only grew stronger.

So, when Clark accepted the head job at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) and asked Vincent to come on board as offensive coordinator, it all felt right. At a program that had never really won, a pair of former high school coaches were determined to flip the script.

“One of the attitudes we’ve always had, we wanted to make history,” Vincent said.

There were holes in UAB’s practice field that year, dug by years of administrative apathy and meager results. So, when rain filled those holes with water, the Blazers would bus over to 87-year old Legion Field to practice.

UAB was 4-2 when it rained the morning of Oct. 14, 2014. Bussing back from practice that night, “all the kids were talking about, ‘UAB is gonna shut the football program down,'” Vincent said.

The previous November, UAB president Ray Watts Jr. commissioned a study of the athletic department’s finances from CarrSports Consulting. The outside firm suggested outright cutting bowling, rifle – and football – to help amend the department’s bottom line.

That same study would later face intense scrutiny for assuming future donor patterns at UAB. But in Oct. 2014, with rumors flying, an unprecedented situation was met with a predictable response — just keep working.

UAB slipped to 4-4. 5-4. 5-5. 5-6. In the finale at Southern Mississippi. UAB won 45-24, getting to 6-6 and bowl-eligible for the first time in 10 years. Players swarmed the field, dousing each other with water.

“We accomplished our goal” of bowl eligibility, Vincent said. “We felt like we’d saved the program. And (three) days later…”

On Dec. 2, 2014, Watts walked into a shed doubling as a meeting room for the team and told players and coaches alike – it was over. No bowl. No team. No UAB football until further notice.

“We really didn’t realize it was real until the end,” then-wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams said.

“Those kids had been so beat down,” Clark said, sighing. “There were so many positives and probably the biggest thing was that team really came together. To go from five wins in three years to win six and get bowl-eligible … everything was really in front of us.”

In the days after, Clark, still under contract, ran point as 106 players looked for new landing spots and staff anticipated their last paychecks on Jan. 31.

Vincent came out on the other side quickly: back to South Alabama as offensive coordinator.

Sometime in the summer of 2015, Vincent got another call from Clark. We’re bringing it back, he said. What do you think?

Vincent said the timing just wasn’t right. Besides, he had brought nine players from UAB to South Alabama.

For the time being, he’d have to see it to believe it.

“I said, ‘coach, when it’s back, call me.'”

A comeback

Clark laughed through the phone during an interview with the Journal.

“I always say, this will be in the movies someday,” he said. “It was really a miracle.”

Boosters were upset they weren’t even consulted by the administration to help the bottom line as blame shuffled from Watts to CarrSports Consulting to the University of Alabama board of trustees. So, over 18 months, they fund-raised to bring back the team.

“Some people in our community really got together and said, ‘hey, we’ll get involved if you’ll stay,'” Clark said. “I said, ‘well, I’ll stay if we do it right.'”

In its return season and with a makeshift roster, UAB was picked last in Conference USA by just about every outlet, yet finished an unthinkable 8-5.

That same season, Vincent was fired by South Alabama, where head coach Joey Jones citied Vincent’s “concerns about our current status and what is best for the program moving forward.” It wasn’t much of a surprise when and where Vincent resurfaced in Feb. 2018.

In his first season back at UAB, the Blazers romped to an 11-3 record with a Conference USA title in tow, the first league title for any group in school history.

Vincent’s offense, Clark’s defense and an all-out approach meshed to turn the Blazers into not only a feel-good story but a winning program. The pinnacle? A 32-28 win over No. 13 BYU in the 2021 Independence Bowl, the highest-ranked win in program history.

And like that, everything changed again.

UAB coach Bryant Vincent, back right, talks with quarterback Dylan Hopkins during the first half of the team’s game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Vincent and Hopkins both are at the University of New Mexico now. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Clark was a rising sophomore training at Piedmont (Ala.) High in 1983 when he strained his back trying to squat too much. After playing through it long enough to know it was getting worse, then-local orthopedic surgeon James Andrews told Clark it was too dangerous to keep going. His playing days were over.

As a coach, Clark managed it through the years and said it only started to nag him again in his lone season at Jacksonville State in 2013. Again, he pushed through.

The summer of 2022 was different, though.

“It had gotten to the point where I just couldn’t go on anymore,” Clark said.

He needed spinal fusion surgery. Any recovery would mean an early retirement.

Clark opted to get surgery.

At UAB, Clark and Vincent’s offices were right next to each other. Vincent estimated he met with his head coach anywhere from five to seven times a day, shuffling back and forth for thousands of conversations. Their families lived down the street from each other. Vacationed together. While at South Alabama, Clark even sent his son to play for Vincent at Spanish Fort High.

On June 24, 2022, Vincent walked over to Clark’s office for the last time.

“He said, Look man, you’re the guy,'” Vincent recalled. “‘This place means everything to me. And you’re the guy I want to turn it over to.'”

One and done

And for the first time in 12 years, Vincent was a head coach, at least on an interim basis. UAB athletic director Mark Ingram had met with the team on June 27 and told them there would be a search for a permanent head coach.

That 2022 season ran nearly parallel to 2014: UAB raced out to a 4-2 start before losing three straight, and it was 5-6 heading into the season finale.

It poured rain in Ruston, Louisiana on the day the Blazers put it all together to beat Louisiana Tech, 37-27. They were 6-6. Three days later, UAB players expressed a desire to have Vincent’s interim tag removed in a letter to Watts. But soon, only one day removed from the eight-year anniversary of UAB’s shutdown, the school announced it had hired former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer as the next head coach.

It’d be another one-and-done, this time for Vincent and Vincent only.

UAB held Miami (Ohio) at the 2-yard line in the waning seconds to seal a 24-20 Bahamas Bowl victory on Dec. 16 for its 50th win since the return. Vincent held back tears in a postgame interview with ESPN before walking off the field as a Blazer for the last time.

Clark watched from afar.

“Life moves on,” he said. “All I can say is, the things I wanted to see out of them, they more than did.”

Two days later, Vincent was at his vacation home in Orange Beach, Alabama, when he got a call from a number with a 505 area code.

The 505 challenge

The who, what, where and whens covered, Vincent thinks about the question. In so many words: why New Mexico?

Enter Danny Gonzales. After a “great” phone conversation from Orange Beach, Vincent flew to Albuquerque that following Tuesday. Gonzales picked him up himself. They talked philosophy — offense, defense, balance, alignment.

Vincent got comfortable. A Christmas party at Gonzales’ house that night gave him the chance to meet the rest of the staff and Gonzales’ family. That there were similarities between Clark and Gonzales didn’t hurt, either.

“I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I wanted to work for this man,” Vincent said.

He agreed to a two-year contract, paying $350,000 annually, that went into effect on Wednesday.

Then there’s the work. Across every definable metric, New Mexico’s offense last season wasn’t just bad. It was the worst in college football, a sore complement to a defense that gave the Lobos a fighting chance in most games.

The autopsy of a cratered unit: the Lobos were 131 out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams in yards per game (228.1 yards), 131/131 in first downs (160), 131/131 in passing yards per completion (9.19 yards), 131/131 in third down conversion percentage (.220), 119/131 in completion percentage (.537), 101/131 in rushing yards per game (123.2 yards) and with only one 20 point game (13.1 average points per game).

It’s Vincent’s unit now.

“I’ve been a builder my whole career and (have) been really attracted to rebuilds,” he said. “Attracted to jobs where you see potential, you see the leadership, you see the alignment from the top down in the administration. I kind of embrace these situations. …

“So now, it’s just time to do it again.”

Vincent is a personnel-based coach, playing the hand he’s dealt. That fits in nicely at New Mexico, a program tasked with probing for diamonds in the rough as opposed to duking it out for blue-chip recruits.

“When you look at college football, there’s not really many people like him,” said Joe Scelfo, the Lobos’ new tight ends coach who played center at South Alabama when Vincent was there.

“When I was playing for him, he never put me in a situation as a player where I couldn’t do something or that I just thought was impossible. That was kind of his M.O., too — he’s going to change your attitude to make you believe in everything and anything that you can do and accomplish as a player.”

As for the offense? Vincent’s best teams have been bruisers on the inside, rushing to grind opponents down and then set up one-on-one matchups on the outside. That formula won’t soon change.

“We’re going to be a team that wants to finish you in the fourth quarter,” Vincent said.

Clark saw Vincent the coach and Vincent the person grow over the years and understands the mechanics of a turnaround. The most important part to him? Positivity.

“That doesn’t mean you close your eyes to the bad things. It just means you’re not gonna give up, you’re not gonna give in, you’re gonna work through them. (Vincent’s) got that ability. He’s got that experience. And he knows what it looks like.”

For a coach who believes how you finish is how you’re remembered, it starts all over again in a bare office overlooking University Stadium on a Friday afternoon. Recruits will be at the facility shortly.

Vincent stands up, grabs a bag of Wendy’s on a counter and moves for the door. Halfway out, he offers a casual promise. The same one, undoubtedly, uttered at every other stop along the road to Albuquerque:

“We’ll flip it, brother.”

Home » From the newspaper » Bowl-winning head coach in December, New Mexico football assistant now: Here’s Bryant Vincent’s crazy story

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