The triumph that day was buried in a flurry of college football and basketball happenings that day.
As the seeds for the future were planted, the University of Central Arkansas Bears found a tap root to their successful past.
The Bears’ 34-31 overtime victory over Georgia Southern at Statesboro actually wasn’t the biggest sports story at UCA that weekend. The major media covering the Bears, as well as some athletic officials and school administrators, were in Hartford, Conn., as the Bears’ basketball team took on UConn and Ole Miss in a watershed tournament at Hartford. Some made quick connections to get to both the football and basketball sites.
But what is blossoming this weekend in the NCAA FCS football playoffs, as the Bears take on the Eagles on Saturday in a game that counts for so much more, was fertilized by that end-of-the-season victory by UCA on Nov. 19, 2006.
It also illustrates the superb and careful planting and nurturing ability of UCA coach Clint Conque and his staff in growing a successful NAIA and Division II program into Division I.
The Bears in 2006 were in their first season of transition and provisional status in NCAA FCS (then Division I-AA). They were members of the Southland Conference but played only two SLC teams (Stephen F.Austin and Sam Houston State) that year and were ineligible for either a championship or postseason.
The schedule was a intercontinental mix of NCAA Divison II games and NCAA Division I-AA that took the Bears from northern California to South Dakota to Illinois to Statesboro, Ga., pretty much coast to coast.
UCA was 7-3 going into the season finale. Georgia Southern was struggling at 3-7.
With GSU possessing six national championship banners in 1-AA, Conque treated the game as UCA’s championship or bowl game.
Not so much for Georgia Southern folks. One young Eagle fan wore a bag over his head.
It was quite a game with a bunch of twists and turns. UCA’s Cameron Kinnard returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Georgia Southern scored 28 points the second half and led, 31-21, with 10 seconds left in the third quarter. The Eagles returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown.
“We didn’t panic,” Conque said.
UCA quarterback Nathan Brown, who now coaches quarterbacks and helps coordinate the offense, threw three touchdown passes, two to running back Brent Grimes, one to wide receiver Preston Echols on fourth-and-1 at the 4. One of Grimes’ receptions was set up by a fumble recovery by defensive end Jacob Ford, who went on to the NFL. Aaron Fairooz, UCA’s standout receiver, broke his collarbone in the game.
Johnathan Dudley, GSU’s place-kicker, missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 46 seconds left and the score tied at 31. James Paul, UCA’s place-kicker, missed from 22 yards with 4:36 left after an interception by Tristan Jackson, who later play pro ball in Canada.
In overtime, Georgia Southern passed up a field goal attempt on fourth-and-three and threw incomplete.
On UCA’s possession, Brown kept for 12 yards then later turned things over to Paul, who connected from 25 to win the game.
The Eagles treated it as a loss that characterized an extremely disappointing season. Six of their eight losses were by a total of 21 points.
The Bears thought they laid a benchmark that day in fertile Georgia soil.
During a time of reflection three years ago after he passed the 10-year mark as UCA coach, Conque said, “That victory put us on the Division I map.”
He noted that win at the time as his greatest comeback victory and he still considers it one of his greatest victories, one that certified UCA as ready to take the next step in its successful football history. With its six national titles, Georgia Southern is considered by Conque as the George Washington on the Mount Rushmore of NCAA FCS programs.
This year’s UCA team heads to Statesboro with a 9-2 mark as the Southland Conference champion. The Bears have reached the second round of the playoffs for the second straight year. Like that group in 2006 that faced different challenges in a pioneer season, these Bears are resilient and have shown comeback ability without panic. Their quarterback, Wynrick Smothers, is UCA’s best clutch quarterback since Brown. Their place-kicer, Eddie Camara, has won games.
The Bears are blossoming on the NCAA FCS landscape. When they play in Pauls Stadium this week, they’ll trod on some vital roots.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)