Clint Conque knew he was preaching to the choir.

So, he revved it up in his best pregame locker room voice.

He’s spent a preseason talking to his team about a sense of urgency. Now, he and other University of Central Arkansas officials are passing it along.

The occasion was UCA’s Football Kickoff Celebration on Thursday at the Centennial Valley Special Events Center, which had a full room for a silent and live auction.

The urgency is UCA’s 17 athletic teams are now full-fledged members of NCAA Division I. This season could be a watershed season for UCA to prove itself both on the field and off it.

The issue is the economy and the mindset. UCA’s normal revenue streams — ticket sales (minimal impact), state funds (locked) and guarantees (developing) — will leave UCA short in being able to compete in funds and facilities on the Football Championship Subdivision level. A big door that will be opened by full Division I membership is UCA can finally receive flow-down revenue from the basketball contract with CBS and the NCAA. 

But raising more private funds is going to be more and more important. Developing new supporters will be important. But while much has been given UCA in its Division I status, much is going to be required. And, even from strong and longtime supporters, it’s tough to ask folks to dig deeper in the current economic conditions.

That’s why UCA supporters were bidding Thursday for everything from the opportunity to be an honorary team captain on the sideline to private plane trips to road games and various dinners and parties.

WIth his voice rising, Conque urged the supporters to set no limits of what the university and its athletic program can become.

“Let this year be a defining year across the board to be the best,” he said.

“Let’s start passing the plate now,” whispered one supporter.

During his address to the group, Conque talked about how a young but hungry team has re-energized him after a 5-7 season last year. He talked of high expectations.

“This team is so coachable and the players, particularly 13 seniors, want to leave a legacy,” he said. “There have always been expectations on this program throughout its history. It has a great tradition of success on every level. We embrace those expectations. We don’t run from them.”
He noted another aspect of pride. His football team led fellow Southland Conference teams last year in Average Percentage Rate (APR), which is the major gauge of graduation rates and academic progress for all NCAA Division I programs. With the numbers still coming in for the last acadenic year, Conque said it appears UCA will be at the top or be among the programs right at the top again in APR in the conference. He said from December of last year to December of this year, UCA is on track to graduate 20 to 24 football players.

“That’s exciting to me as a coach,” Conque said. “We are commited to win at the highest level, but we will not compromise academic integrity.”

Dr. Allen Meadors, the UCA president whose wife raised some funds in bidding for her to wear a mascot’s costume during a game, joined the chorus.

“Actually in this room we have a good mix — students, faculty, staff, community leaders, alums and non-alums,” he said. “That’s the perfect mix of people to do what we need to do.”

It’s a testing time for both UCA and Conway to build itself into a vibrant Division I community on its level. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)