After giving his team and assistant coaches their first weekend off in more than two months, University of Central Arkansas head football coach Clint Conque was pleased with what he saw Sunday night.
All UCA players, several of whom had not been home since the last week of July, returned to campus with no issues.
The Bears began initial preparation for their NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoff game, the first NCAA Division I championship playoff appearance in any sport at the school, against Tennessee Tech at 2 p.m. Saturday in Cookeville, Tenn.
"I was concerned what our mental focus would be since we had been going hard mentally and physically, especially the last seven weeks of the season," said Conque at Monday’s Bearbacker luncheon. "But the second I started the team meeting, there was no euphoric mood swing, not any giddiness factor. Everybody was locked right in. And we went our and had a very sharp, crisp, focused practice."
And the UCA coach, who conceded the Bears have played more talented teams than themselves this year and the six they have been in Division I, quickly set the tone.
"I told our players you don’t have to be the best team in the country to win the national championship; you just have to be the best team each Saturday," he said.
Tennessee Tech, the tri-champion of the Ohio Valley Conference, has been eligible for the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs for 38 years and is making its first appearance. UCA has been eligible for two and is also making its first appearance.
The Golden Eagles defeated Murray State by a narrow margin this year. UCA downed Murray by a similar margin last year.
"They are a good team that really impresses you by how hard they play," Conque said. "It looks like two evenly matched teams to me."
Conque said the Bears made good use of the open week at the end of the regular season.
"We got to work with some of our younger players, we got to work on some academic things and we got a chance to just get away from the daily grind and get our minds right for what’s ahead," Conque said.
In the playoffs, teams are only allowed 60 players in their traveling part instead of the usual 72.
"Getting down to 60 is very difficult because that affects kids who have played and have traveled with you," Conque said. "It also affects the kicking game, where you now have to have guys backing up at a couple of positions."
GOING TO COOKEVILLE
Friday morning, the Bears will fly via charter aircraft, arranged by the NCAA, to Nashville, then will bus about 75 miles east on Interstate 40 to Cookeville.
Brad Teague, UCA’s athletic director, said UCA made a bid a little greater than the $30,000 minimum required to host a first-round game. He said he was told by NCAA sources that UCA was either 13th or 14th in the seeding process for the playoffs and that if Wofford College had lost Saturday, the Bears would have probably received a first-round bye.
The top 12 seeded teams by the NCAA committee reached first-round byes. The remaining eight were matched in four first-round games. The matchups were made before the committee looked at the bids to host.
"Tennessee Tech just outbid us," Teague said. "It was just we got the wrong matchup to host because some teams will host that didn’t make as good a bid as we did. Tennessee Tech made a really large bid (on a holiday weekend). I was impressed."
The game will be streamed over the Internet on ESPN3.