With a new chapter in the history of University of Central Arkansas football about to be written, it’s appropriate to review the last one.
It’s one of the richest, longest, most complex and most challenging in UCA history.
The 14 years of the Clint Conque era produced championships on two levels, unprecedented name opponents, unprecedented challenges, new facilities, unprecedented academic success, sudden changes, great joy and great heartache.
Conque took a foundation from the NAIA past that needed tweaks, constructed a highly successful NCAA Division II program. Then, he built a bridge and traversed some of the most treacherous waters any UCA coach has faced in guiding the program to be highly competitive and consistently one of the nation’s best in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
During Conque’s tenure, he served three presidents, two interim presidents and kept the program moving through four athletic directors.
I worked with Conque longer than any coach I have covered. My presence regularly in his office or at news conferences may have been one of the few constants he had.
As a media member, Conque was as great to work with as I and many of my collegues had ever covered. As a marketing major in college, he was media savvy and was sympathetic and appreciative of our needs. He was highly accessible and would return phone calls religiously. He opened his program moreso than most coaches nowadays. He was a good interview because he was articulate, perceptive, contemplative and candid. He was both well-liked and well-respected.
There was a reason the prestigious Little Rock Touchdown Club invited him to speak nearly every year.
He certainly was not perfect. He had his warts, both personal and professional.
But here is what I admired:
He almost always evaluated things from the inside-out, self first. He was always striving to do better, both personally and professionally. In good times and bad times, he held himself accountable to his peers, his players, his family and the fans. He didn’t allow failures or shortcomings to permanently define him, setting an example of perseverance for his players and coaches.
In 14 years, I saw him grow and mature through a gauntlet of different challenges.
Particularly in his final years at UCA, he was a more humble and mature person. I saw firsthand how his perspective on life changed — becoming a grandparent of twins and a parent of a son in the military.
From his arrival at UCA from Louisiana Tech as a spread offense guru, Conque learned the importance of having a running game that was at least respectable and preferably good. He grew in his understanding of the importance of putting many of the best athletes on defense.
He arrived at UCA with the mandate from interim president John Smith to build a competitive program in the Gulf South Conference of NCAA II. He won a championship and produced highly ranked playoff teams.
Then, there was a sudden switch to Division I (I-AA) at the time. With entirely different standards, he led UCA to one of the most successful transitions any program has ever had from Division II to Division I. His teams were immediately competitive in the highly competitive Southland Conference. His teams won championships, gained high rankings and made postseason appearances. He developed a pretty good tree of coaches who moved from his staff to coordinator and head coaching positions.
He embraced a daunting variety of challenges and tough decisions. I’ve seen cry openly, jump mightily with joy, shout angrily and whisper with tact. I’ve seen him really angry and really giddy.
He embraced both the UCA and Conway community. You don’t stay 14 years (exceptional for a coach in this modern era) at an institution and a community without loving it.
Conque’s presence and UCA’s success helped create the momentum and pave the way for a modern conditioning facility, an indoor practice facility, suites at Estes Stadium and field with an artificial surface that happened to be striped. Tailgating grew from a couple of groups (Conque’s family one of them) to a Bruce Street event.
I’ve traveled with him and the team and watched how, throughout the years, his players went to different locales and exuded courtesy and class.
He’s taken teams to Hawaii and Mount Rushmmore FCS locations such as Montana and Georgia Southern.
"It’s hard to believe that went I took over, we were playing games at Livingston, Ala., and teams like Langston and Southwest Baptst, then we’re taking a team to Hawaii and have teams like Ole Miss, Colorado, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the schedule," he one told me. "Hard to believe, just hard to imagine."
And he took a team to Oxford and led Ole Miss at the half. He took a team to Colorado last year and led deep into a game and the Bears were a break or two away from winning.
There are many memories but two scenes stick out:
The Bears were in Missoula, Mont., for a playoff game against the University of Montana. They stayed in motel across a river from the campus and stadium.
Instead of traveling to the stadium on buses, Conque, his staff and his players walked the short distance to the stadium, going across a bridge to campus and walking right through a busy tailgating area (where players were offered beers by the hearty Montana fans). That group walk impressed the Montana fans, who had seen many an opponent come to Missoula but none that had hiked to the game.
Conque gave his players a taste of the college experience in another environment.
Seeing that team walk across that bridge together was one of the most impressive pregame maneuvers I have ever seen.
Another time, the Bears were in Hawaii to play the University of Hawaii. Part of the intinerary was a trip to Pearl Harbor, where Conque made sure his players understood the situation and the sacrifice that some young men (many no older than the players) made that enabled that team to travel to Hawaii generations later to play a game.
There were former players, some of whom were assistant coaches or part of the official traveling party, on that trip representing different UCA teams coached by Conque. The coach made it a point to take a group picture outside of Pearl Harbor to put a benchmark stamp on the occasion.
Few people know, in the face of a college team more devastating by catastrophic injuries than any I’ve ever known, have done such a good, creative and crafty coaching job Conque and his staff did in fashioning 7-5 season last year, punctuated by a season-ending victory over two-time national runner-up Sam Houston State. In my opinion, he leaves UCA after his best coaching job.
But one of his proudest accomplishments was having a team that led the Southland Conference in APR (a benchmark measuring stick of retention, academic progress and graduation rates) for three straight years and likely a fourth when last year’s figures are announced next year. More than 95 percent of his players either obtained degrees or made progress toward a degree during his tenure. His players generally got it on and off the field.
So with the excitement of the announcement of new coach, UCA fans should salute a nice legacy before they root against him at least one Saturday a year next year (at SLC rival Stephen F. Austin).
When Conque was hired, Mary Anne Schlientz (who formerly served UCA as a co-athletic director and later coached at Hendrix and served as a Senior Women’s Administrator) served on the search committee that brought him from Louisiana Tech. She was asked to describe Conque in a word.
"Class," she said without hesitation.
That held true. Conque didn’t always do it perfectly, but, for 14 years, he did it with class.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)