2011 in Review – UCA Football: Reflecting on a historic year

by Mark Oliver

2011 was a great year for UCA Bears football.

From the unveiling of the multicolored turf in April to the team’s first division one postseason appearance and win, the Bears (9-4, 6-1 Southland) projected themselves into the national spotlight in 2011.

On April 1, UCA unveiled plans for a purple and gray-striped turf—the first of its kind—on its athletics website. Thought by many to be an April fool’s prank, UCA entered the spotlight when the school confirmed the plans to construct the purple and gray turf, which would be ready by the beginning of the 2011 season. The school joined Boise State and Eastern Washington University as the only schools in the nation to deviate from the standard green turf.

UCA’s field was featured as a topic of discussion on many sports avenues, including ESPN, and was named “The Coolest Field in College Football” by The Sporting News. On September 1st, a record 12,755 roaring fans filled Estes Stadium in Conway for the debut of the turf, where UCA handled in-state rival Henderson State University, 38-14. UCA would not lose a game on “The Stripes” in 2011.

As the Bears hit the road, UCA dropped two straight games, 48-40 in overtime to Louisiana Tech and 31-10 to eventual Southland conference champion Sam Houston State. On September 24th, UCA faced off against Arkansas State University in the first matchup between the Arkansas schools in 14 seasons. With starting quarterback Nathan Dick out due to injury, however, the Bears lost their third-straight game, falling to the Red Wolves, 53-24.

At 1-3, the Bears’ season appeared to be in trouble early. However, as October began, the Bears began a remarkable comeback—winning seven straight contests to finish the regular season 7-3. For the first time in the school’s storied history, the Bears were heading to the playoffs as a division one team.

Bear fans at Estes Stadium. (Bill Patterson photo)

“It was kind of a negative perfect storm for us,” Bears coach Clint Conque said. As difficult as the schedule and the competition and the travel was, we were then hit with critical injuries. And that’s with front-line guys and guys within our depth. But as we moved into the first week of October, we were able to get a great number of these young men back and with that, we got our confidence back.”

UCA opened its first postseason adventure with a trip to Cookeville, Tennessee, where the Bears took on a Golden Eagles team which had made the playoffs for the first time since the 1980s. Central Arkansas started strong, led by Dick, who completed 23 of 29 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns, while adding a rushing touchdown in a 34-14 win. The Bears were also successful in stopping Tennessee Tech’s 1,000 yard rusher, Dontey Gay, holding the running back to a mere 36 yards on 10 carries. In a year filled with milestones for the team, the Bears proudly added winning their first-ever division one postseason game to the list.

A week later, UCA found itself in chilly Missoula, Montana, where the Bears would take on the No. 5 Montana Grizzlies, a team with two national championships under its belt. “Instead of taking buses, the Bears, led by coach Conque, walked to the stadium on game day,” Bears sideline announcer Monty Rowell said. “Greeted by Montana fans, we were told that UCA was the first opposing team to do that. I was on top of the press box and saw them coming across the river bridge. It was certainly a sight to see with all of that purple and gray coming into the stadium.”

Against the Grizzlies, the Bears allowed three turnovers in the first quarter, spotting Montana a 17-point lead which UCA could not recover from. In frigid temperatures in front of 22,005 screaming fans, Montana ended UCA’s season in the second round, 41-14. The Grizzlies fell two weeks later to No. 1 Sam Houston State.

“What a great experience for our team, our program, our fans and our alumni,” Conque said of playing Montana. “[There is] such a rich playoff tradition there. One of the loudest venues in all of college football, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We made an historic walk across the pedestrian bridge there to the stadium before the game in about 18-degree weather. Definitely one of the coldest games we played since I’ve been here at UCA.

Despite the loss, positivity surrounds UCA’s program for 2012. “To make the postseason in only the second year of eligibility is setting the bar very high,” Rowell said. “I think the program received some major attention nationally and can build on that. This program could be back in the hunt for another postseason bid next year. There is a lot of talent coming back, along with a number of backups that saw considerable playing time this year. I think the future is bright.”