Dr. Brad Teague, athletic director for the University of Central Arkansas, was staring at a huge problem: an empty calendar.
His fall football schedule, once stocked with conference opponents and a lucrative road trip to play Missouri, now looked like this:
Aug. 29: Austin Peay University
Sept. 5: Open
Sept. 12: Open
Sept. 19: Open
Sept. 26: Open
... and so on, all the way through to the fall of 2021.
Teague had a conference-champion team ready to play, but no schedule. He’d already decided against playing in the spring, but his rivals hadn’t … so what now?
“I don’t understand playing fall sports in the spring for many reasons,” Teague says. “When could we fit it in between basketball, Easter, and graduation? How would that work logistically? Is it safe to play football in the spring, and then again next fall?”
Central Arkansas’ small size brings a whole new round of challenges. “Especially in the FCS, how do we have staffing? How do you work 18 sports in the spring around a football game, where it’s all hands on deck?” Teague says. “How do you handle travel for football, baseball and softball teams when there aren’t enough buses in our area for us, Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas State?”
So with no good options at hand, Teague went to work building a football schedule, and the result is one of the stranger runs in college football history: Nine games, two of which are unique showcases, four more of which are home-and-homes … all in the same season. It’s a throwback to the “We’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime” barnstorming days of the early 20th century … and Central Arkansas’ schedule makeover might not be done yet.
Although it’s won two of its last three conference championships, Central Arkansas isn’t the kind of school you hear about all that often; its most notable football alumni include the Washington Football Team’s Monte Coleman and current Florida State head football coach Mike Norvell. But this season, the Bears will get three turns in the national spotlight. Their jury-rigged schedule is both a testament to creative flexibility and an object lesson in how college football’s sausage gets made.
COVID presents a problem
Like every other school in America, Central Arkansas shut down its spring sports in March. But Teague was one of the ADs who saw the pandemic as a roadblock, not a dead end.
“Once spring sports were canceled, I always figured we’d find a way to play fall sports,” Teague told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t understand why we would not try to play, if we could do the testing protocols as recommended by the NCAA.”
His conference didn’t share his optimism. Central Arkansas plays in the Southland Conference, suiting up against teams that only tend to make the national news when they upset higher seeds in the NCAA tournament (like, say, Stephen F. Austin) … or when they’re literally the only game in the country.
UCA began practice in early July, even as clouds gathered on the horizon. Soon afterward, the school’s planned game against Missouri, scheduled for this coming weekend, vaporized as the SEC and other conferences began trimming all non-conference games from their schedules.
On Aug. 13, the Southland Conference formally decided to push all fall sports activities to the spring, including football … with the caveat that, “Institutions may choose to participate in limited fall competition.”
Central Arkansas bulldogged right through that keyhole. With its usual slate of schools in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas now off the table, Teague had just weeks to get creative, crafting a schedule while laboring under a range of logistical and financial restrictions.
Only a handful of FCS schools decided to play this fall, meaning Teague was working the phones like a salesman on the last day of the quarter. He couldn’t take just any opponent; he needed them to be within driving distance. He also couldn’t afford to spend a nickel if he didn’t have to; losing Missouri meant Central Arkansas wouldn’t see a $425,000 payday.
There was also the matter of satisfying the home crowd. The problem wasn’t so much finding opponents as finding ones willing to come to Conway. “I bet we could have played 11 games in the Sun Belt [conference] and Conference USA,” Teague says. “There’s a lot of demand there.” He ended with two Sun Belt games and another Conference USA one, all on the road.
“We needed to find some home games,” he says. “We weren’t in a financial position to pay people to come here. The only way to [get home games] was to find mutual FCS opponents who wanted to play home-and-home.” The result: A pair of games with both Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky, spaced several weeks apart. At the moment, they’re the only home games on UCA’s nine-game schedule.
Getting ready to play hasn’t been easy
Meanwhile, the team itself had to rework its entire preparation. “Usually during the summer, you’re preparing for your first three opponents,” Central Arkansas head coach Nathan Brown says. “You put your gameplan in binders for offense, defense and special teams. Other than Austin Peay, our schedule flipped upside down.”
Central Arkansas’ initial debut on the national stage wasn’t promising; the team gave up a 75-yard touchdown to Austin Peay on the very first play from scrimmage of the 2020 college football season. But the Bears battled back, winning a dramatic 24-17 victory to kick off this deeply weird season.
This Thursday night marks Central Arkansas’ second time on national television in five days, and like virtually every other game on the schedule, there’s a story behind it.
A few weeks ago, Teague fielded a call from University of Alabama-Birmingham athletic director Mark Ingram, who was searching for a Week 1 opponent to replace New Mexico State, which had moved its season to the spring. The offer: $200,000 for one game in Birmingham.
There was just one catch, Ingram said: Because UAB was slated to play Miami on Thursday, Sept. 10, the game would have to be on Thursday, Sept. 3.
“At first I said no way, we were going to be coming off a Saturday night game,” Teague says. “Then he said, ‘What if we put you up in Birmingham, get you tested here?’ ”
So that’s exactly what happened. At midnight after Saturday night’s victory over Austin Peay, Central Arkansas’ buses rolled north on Interstate 65 toward Birmingham. They arrived about 2 a.m., players were tested upon arrival, and at 8 a.m. Brown had them back at work. They’ve spent this week there, practicing and taking virtual classes. Per Conference USA rules, Central Arkansas has had two COVID tests since arriving in Birmingham.
Back home in Arkansas, the school has also benefited from a local ally: Conway Regional Medical Center, which has been able to provide NCAA-mandated tests at a cost-effective level. Brown says he and the rest of the staff have emphasized to players the need to be smart and make wise choices if they want to finish out this year.
“The season is hanging on by a thread,” Brown says. “The only way we’re going to keep going is if we stay vigilant.”
A month from now, Central Arkansas will once again find itself in the national spotlight, albeit as a supporting player. After an on-again, off-again courtship, Teague agreed to play North Dakota State in Fargo, North Dakota. The game will be North Dakota State’s only outing this year, and it’s pretty expressly designed as a showcase for quarterback phenom Trey Lance.
North Dakota State offered $200,000 for Central Arkansas to make the single-game journey to Fargo. Teague parlayed that into a three-game series: $100,000 for games in North Dakota this year and 2023, plus a game in Arkansas in 2025.
That capped off a remarkable financial turnaround for the football team. Central Arkansas replaced the $425,000 lost when Missouri canceled with $450,000 in new payouts, including $100,000 from Arkansas State, $200,000 from UAB and $150,000 from Louisiana-Lafayette. (The Austin Peay game paid another $100,000 as part of an ESPN arrangement.)
A fluid schedule
In this strangest of all college football seasons, Central Arkansas might not yet be done with its schedule. The team is only slated to play one game after Halloween. That’s a whole lot of open November dates for any school that needs a game.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that one of Arkansas’ SEC opponents in early November — Tennessee or Florida — is unable to field a team. Arkansas would need a game. Would their in-state neighbor oblige?
“That would be enticing,” Teague says. “I don’t anticipate that happening. But let’s say the SEC or the Big 12 offered us a half-million dollars. We’d probably consider that.”
The result, Teague suggested, would be a transactional one: Central Arkansas would take the mid-six-figure payout from a Power Five school and flip a portion of that to pay a smaller opponent to come to Conway. And that’s how it’s done in college football.
For now, Central Arkansas will continue to fight its way through a hodgepodge of opponents, continuing Thursday with UAB. It’s not the season they expected, but it’s the season they’ve got.
“When you’re playing independents, you’ve got to motivate yourself,” Brown says. “We’re blessed to be playing, we don’t care who we’re playing.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at email@example.com.
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