(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a series analyzing and recapping the UCA football season from the perspective of head coach Clint Conque)
It was a year of vindication in three major areas, claims University of Central Arkansas head football coach Clint Conque.
The Bears won a Southland Conference co-championship and claimed the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA FCS playoffs, reaching the second round for the second straight season. At No. 8 in the final FCS polls, the Bears (with a 9-3 mark) had their fourth top-25 finish in Division I and their highest ever.
"That validates that us reaching the playoffs last season and getting to the second round was not happenstance," he said. "And we’ve done it with two different quarterbacks. It shows we are not tied to any one player."
As Conque, who completed his 13th season at the UCA helm, looked back over the achievements, he also became reassured in three areas of his program — recruiting profile, academic achievement and player development.
Every member UCA placed on the All-SLC team, except wide receiver Jesse Grandy, was at least a four-year or fifth-year player in the program or will be.
"That validates the recruiting profile we set out when we entered Division I," he said. "We are getting further away from bring in two-year transfers to give us a needed influx of maturity. We are growing players in our program. We are recruiting the right players who are capable of staying in our program. The profile we want as far as academics to develop our players in paying off."
UCA has led the Southland Conference in Academic Progress Rate (the major NCAA gauge for academic progress and graduation rates) for two years in a row, with a graduation rate of close to 98 percent. And when the figures for the latest five-year period ending in 2012 are release, Conque expects they will show the single-highest APR in the program’s history in 2012 and the highest multi-year average.
"The retention of our athletes and what they are achieving seem to show we are pushing the right buttons academically and a lot of people on our staff have helped with that," Conque said.
Conque also feels validated that his stress on player development is solidly in place. For example, Linebacker Seth Allison, an all-conference player who gained some All-American honors came as a walk-on, played as a graduate student last season. Offensive lineman Corey Howard, who also gained some All-America honors, developed through four years in the program.
"We had a young team this year but we had a lot of three-, four- and five-year guys in the program and that provides the foundation for what you need year after year," Conque said. "Again, we are developing players over four and five years with mental and physical maturity without as much having to fill that gaps with transfers."
But Conque is determined to achieve higher aspirations, including an NCAA FCS champions.
"I can see that we are getting close," he said.
For example, going into this weekend four teams remained in the FCS playoffs, Sam Houston State, Georgia Southern, Eastern Washington and North Dakota State. The Bears defeated Sam Houston and took Georgia Southern to the final minutes on the road. Georgia Southern lost, 23-20, on the road Friday night to defending national champion North Dakota State.
Foundational to his future goals is doing all he can to retain his assistant coaches.
"Coaching continuity is important and we’ve maintained certain core concepts over the years," Conque said. "With me on the front end and Henry Briscoe (strength and conditioning coach) on the back end for 13 years has certainly helped. Moving forward, I think it’s important to make a commitment to our assistant coaches to sustain the teaching level and comfort level and stability to the program. The assistants are doing a lot of the work from the ground up.
"I think this university needs to stand up and be proud of our Division I status. Our assistant coaches are outstanding teachers — I’ve seen it on the field and in practice — and I think that’s a great extension of the university from a teaching angle. I hope our success on the field and being able to highlight our university in the national playoffs and from having games on the ESPN family of networks have brought added value and more recognition to the university. I would like to think our program has market value and if it has value, let’s do things the right way."
He said the enhancement of UCA’s facilities — including the only indoor practice field in the conference, skyboxes and a modern weight and conditioning facility has helped in the development of the program. He would like to continue to enhance the environment on game day.
He is continuing his evaluation of what more can be done to take the next step (going deeper in the playoffs with the goal on hanging another national championship banner at UCA.
"There is work to be done and I’m working now to create solutions," he said.
The schedule, with 11 straight games, an open date at the end of the conference season and a bye into the second round of the playoffs, did not play out in UCA’s favor this time.
"I have to figure out how, in having to expend so much energy in the conference season, we can have gas left in the tank," Conque said. "We were out of sync offensively against Georgia Southern. But we had played one game in three weeks. There was more separation from our peak performances. We cut back on practices late in the season because we were a beat-up football team and we needed some injuries to heal. We can’t do anything about the schedule, but I want to look at some of the little things — how we are eating and sleeping, particularly during the bye weeks. How we are practicing. How we are traveling. We may not change anything, but we are going to look at everything. There are high expectations for this program and we want to embrace both our tradition and the expectations."