About noon Wednesday, folks seemed hungry for more than just buffet food.
Possibly the lure of real, live, non-exhibition, no-holds-barred football coming soon was too hard to resist.
University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque made his annual appearance before the Conway Kiwnanis Club and the crowd at Ryan’s was standing-room-only. The tables were lined with people elbow-to-elbow to the back of the double room. Some in the very back, where the room expanded behind a wall, could not see the head table without some creative stretching. Those in the very back needed a megaphone to communicate with those at the front. More than half the crowd was wearing purple.
Don Bradley, who has been coming to Kiwanis meetings for 29 years, claimed it was the biggest group he had ever seen at a single meeting and probably the largest group he has seen in the meeting room at the restaurant.
"Must be serving steak today," joked Conque.
Actually, the UCA coach furnished both the appetizer and the main course.
The approach of football season and non 100-degree temperatures creates a sense of excitement.
So apparently does UCA football as the Bears enter a new era in their history. The NCAA provisional chains are off and the are fully vested member of the NCAA Football Championship Series, meaning they can officially win a Southland Conference title and advance to the playoff.
Many in that crowd were either graduates of UCA, employed by the university, have been supporters for decades and have had families go to UCA or businesses that have long-term investments in the institutions — or all or most of the above. What is happening this year is a dream come true.
Conque furnished plenty of nuts-and-bolts about the current team, one that is young but clearly has him energized.
But he also gave hints about the future with Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and Colorado appearing on schedules the next three years.
"The challenges are enormous," he said. "But so are the opportunities."
The key numbers from last season rattle almost automatically off Conque’s tongue: A team with 23 seniors went 5-7 with five straight losses and all seven defeats by a total of 23 points. Every loss was decided in the final minutes. The Bears had a fighting chance to win them all.
That stuff has been picked apart, microscopically examined and cussed and discussed by the UCA staff all spring and summer.
Now, it’s buried, the coach said.
The UCA coaching staff could have gone the route of attracting a mass of junior college transfers. But Conque didn’t want a quick fix that often creates move problems than it solves.
"We’re looking to the future rather than instant gratification for a single year," Conque said. "And we are not disappointed with any of our scholarship players on campus."
Thirty-seven of the 90 players are first-time students at UCA. He said six or seven true freshmen will be in the active rotation in some capacity this season.
He plans to redshirt about 17 freshmen signees. He rates the last two recruiting classes — those who could be recruited with the prospect of postseason plays most or all of their collegiate careers — as two of his best.
"A lot of people don’t realize how tough it is to go five years and not have anything to play for a the end of the season," he said. "It’s tough."
Conque has also replaced eight coaches on his staff in the last two years.
"One coach (defensive coordinator Denzel Cox) retired," Conque said. "The other coaches who left all left to be either coordinators and/or get pay raises. As a CEO of this program, I feel I have to help young coaches grow and advance in their profession as others have helped me. We’ve added five new coaches this year and I think we’ve added the right five. But we’ve had to coach coaches as well as players."
He points proudly to the fact that six former UCA players are playing pro football: Aaron Fairooz, Taylor Scott and Tristan Jackson are on three different teams in the Canadian football team. Jacob Ford is starting at defensive end for the Tennessee Titans.
Larry Hart is working himself into being a pass-rushing specialist at end for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Marquez Branson is fighting for a regular tight end job with the Denver Broncos.
"Six players from tiny UCA in professional football at one time. Who could have dreamed that a few years ago?" Conque said.
That’s the solid foundation of the past. What happens with a young but energized team this year will be interesting.
"I think it will be a fun team to watch grow," Conque said.
"And the way we’ve recruited and have gone about about business, the future is looking very good. But it dealing with challenges, personally and professionally, it’s sometimes one day at a time, one hour at a time."
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)