The Red Beans and Rice Trophy, emblematic of a victory over McNeese State, is the only bit of hardware that the University of Cental Arkansas can claim this football season.
That, in itself, means more than just a unique, kinda cute, symbol of victory.
Since they have been in NCAA Division I FCS, the Bears are 2-2 against McNeese State, twice denying the Cowboys the Southland Conference championship trophy and the Red Beans and Rice Trophy on trips to Estes Stadium.
When the Cowboys start smelling commemorative hardware, they traditionally act like sharks with blood in the water. Longtime observers of the Southland Conference will tell you McNeese rarely fails to take a scalp to the locker room when something big is on the line.
Victories over the Cowboys are golden notches on the belt and should be treasured.
I’ll use that perspective, plus the intricacies of the 7-4 season, as evidence that this may have been the best coaching job by a coach and staff in the 11 years Conque has been at UCA.
• The 7-4 record was the second-best record in the Southland Conference, behind champion Stephen F. Austin’s 9-2.
• Let’s examine how far these Bears came from preseason to celebrating all about First Security Field at Estes Stadium on Saturday.
Conque replaced five assistant coaches (and one coordinator) this season. That’s half the staff and they still developed chemistry. In fact, Conque probably delegated more day-to-day and on-field duties than he ever has.
• UCA began the season with no quarterback who had taken a significant snap for the Bears. And junior Nathan Dick, a disappointment last season after transferring from the University of Arkansas, played more snaps than he has since his days at Allen High School in Texas. And he finished in the top 20 in every national category in passing in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, including No. 4 in completion percentage.
• Most of a large junior class had been backups their entire careers, never playing with the game on the line.
For example: "Joe Lehocky had probably played 90 snaps his entire career and he started 10 games at offensive guard," Conque said.
• Cornerback Henry Minor was the only player with any game experience in the secondary and he had sophomores, true freshman and redshirt freshmen behind him who pushed him for a starting position all season.
• Linebacker Frank Newsome, who is the first UCA defensive player to make 100 tackles in a season since Quinton Maxfield in NCAA Divsion II days, was recruited as a safety.
• There was limited experience among four running backs and lost one of the most experienced (Anthony Blackmon) to injury during the season.
• Several underclassmen offensive linemen were forced into action before physical maturity for Division I football. Some experienced offensive lineman had to fight, and ultimate gut it out, with injuries.
• Wide receiver Willie Landers and tight end Rico Moss, two players projected in preseason to be playmakers on offense, never recovered from injuries and were non-factors.
• Senior wide receiver Ken Robey, who didn’t have a reception in his first season last year, became to go-to receiver, catching 71 passes, second-most in school history in a season behind Aaron Fairooz,
• Conway wide receiver Isaiah Jackson, who had had an up-and-down career, transformed into a valuable player, both in receptions and kickoff returns, during the final five games. A prime example of how far Jackson came in competitiveness came in competiveness and character, came against McNeese State. He fumbled a punt that led to a go-ahead touchdown, then, minutes later, made a terrific, leaping catch (taking the ball out of a defender’s hands) that led to the winning touchdown.
• Eddie Carmona had to take on the entire kicking duties, including punting, and he saved the day against McNeese with his punting in which the Bears had field position that usually dooms a team.
• And the UCA coaches fixed major problems last season — penalties, meltdowns and the lack of ability to make big plays in the close games. They lost all seven games last season by a combined 23 points. In five tight games this season, they won three.
• And more players came out of nowhere to play at a high level and make players than probably any time in recent UCA history.
Their was outstanding leadership and individual efforts by players, but those things don’t happen without good coaching — position guys on up.
The Bears have now had at least seven wins in three of the first five years of Division I, four winning seasons in the first five and just a handful of plays from five of five. That is unprecedented for a team making a transition from NCAA Division II to Division I — so unprecedented that Southland officials overlooked an NCAA rule that prevented the Bears from officially winning a championshp in UCA’s second full season in Division I. The rule — about a team in transition couldn’t be recognized as the conference champion with the league retaining an automatic playoff berth — was overlooked because no team in transition had ever done it and NCAA folks really never expected it to happen when they made the rule.
Now, about this year’s playoffs — in which UCA was not offered an at-large berth.:
The pluses for the Bears were beating Eastern Illinois on the road when it was ranked, Murray State having a winning season and Tulsa beating Notre Dame, which helped with strength of schedule. UCA also won four of its last five, including defeating McNeese State, which had one five in a row.
The minuses were the Bears were 4-3 and technically tied for third in their conference. "We forfeited the right to control our own destiny when we failed to win one more Division I game," Conque said, noting that was the minimum standard for being in the prime pool for an at-large berth.
The Southland Conference’s recent performance in the playoffs (including decisive defeats by the league’s champions or designated champions) did not help the case for a second bid. The SLC, while balanced, is not generally considered among the top three conferences in NCAA FCS. To many decision-makers, it probably is ranked about even with the Ohio Valley Conference.
One power conference in the FCS ia the Colonial Athletic Association, which got four berths, including conference champion William Mary (8-3) plus at-large teams Delaware (9-2), New Hampshire (7-4) and defending national champion Villanova (7-4). Another top-rated league is the Southern Conference with champion and perennial power Appalachian State (9-2) plus at-large teams Georgia Southern (7-4) and 9-2 Wofford. Another is the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which was also gained three berths with champion Northern Iowa (7-4) plus North Dakota State and Western Illinois, also 7-4. UCA’s chances likely evaporated with victories Saturday by Georgia Southern (which rallied in the final seconds to defeat Furman), Villanova and Western Illinois.
"I don’t know whether it was one more win or one more vote, but it our first year of eligibility for the playoffs, we were on the board and in the hunt at 9:30 Saturday night and weren’t out of hit until 8:30 Sunday morning and that’s where we want to be every year."
For a non-championship, third-place, 7-4 season for the Bears, this was pretty darn good.
And with 17 returning starters and 50 lettermen and a host of promising young players set to play next season, the future looks awfully bright.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)