On Aug. 29, the University of Central Arkansas Bears and the Austin Peay State University Governors opened up the 2020 college football season in primetime on ESPN.
The two Division 1, Football Championship Subdivision schools took center stage as the only football game of the night and the first college football game of the season. UCA rallied to win the game, 24-17, but the night meant much more to the school than just a victory. It made UCA, playing this season as a barnstorming independent, a national name overnight.
Head Coach Nathan Brown appeared on multiple talk shows the next day and across the country, and the college football world was talking about this FCS school in Conway, Arkansas.
The national spotlight on UCA grew what was already a strong brand, according to Matt Whiting, UCA associate athletics director for external relations. With the Southland Conference opting not to play this fall because of the pandemic, UCA was among a handful of FCS schools that decided to play a limited schedule as an independent. The notoriety of doing so could help build the brand even more as the season progresses.
“When you get a chance to get people watching who don’t know who the University of Central Arkansas is and don’t really know where we are — and I am sure Google was probably used that night, too — it’s a big opportunity, Brown said.”
Brown and UCA Athletics Director Dr. Brad Teague figured the revised 2020 schedule could place the program in a position to occupy the spotlight. It included three games against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams televised by ESPN and a high-profile matchup with defending FCS national champion North Dakota State on Oct. 3.
“Dr. Teague went to work and got us a schedule with the opportunity to play some FBS opponents and of, course, the best in North Dakota State,” Brown said. “When you look at the schedule, you know the type of kids that we recruit probably feel like they should have been recruited by an FBS school or a North Dakota State, and now as a competitor, you want to play those games.”
UCA and Austin Peay, located in Clarksville, Tenn., were paid $100,000 each by ESPN for the all-expenses-paid trip to the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., for the season opener. Less than a week after playing in Alabama’s capital city, UCA received $200,000 to serve as FBS Alabama-Birmingham’s opening opponent. The Bears fell to UAB on Sept. 3 but were competitive before bouncing back to defeat Missouri State, led by former Razorback coach Bobby Petrino, in its home opener on Sept. 26.
The Bears’ current 10-game schedule (the school is looking to fill one more date) includes: road games at FBS Sun Belt Conference schools Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette; a return game in Springfield with Missouri State; a home-and-home with FCS Eastern Kentucky; the 39-28 loss at NDSU; and a home game with Division 2 Missouri Western. Not a typical schedule, but 2020 has been anything but typical.
UCA will receive $100,000 for the matchup with Arkansas State, but this season, money and championships are secondary. For schools like UCA, 2020 is about building a brand to benefit the school down the road. Whiting said the main objective for UCA football was to ensure the safety of players, and school officials felt they had a better opportunity to do so in the fall. Plus, society has been craving football, he said
“Safety issues with playing in such a tight window and the logistics of making that happen could be potentially more difficult in the spring,” he said.
The brand awareness afforded by forging ahead and playing on its own will help recruiting efforts, Brown said. Because so many Division 1 schools opted not to play this fall or wait until as late as November to start, UCA benefits from the added attention and could potentially expand its recruiting reach beyond the state and region, he noted.
“This is an opportunity to touch recruits and their families on a national stage. They are able to see what kind of offense and defense and special teams we run. They are able to watch the way the kids play the game, which hopefully is a positive thing. So, to be able to touch families and recruits that are still in their high school career in an indirect way just by playing on national TV is an awesome opportunity.”
Brown thinks the unique circumstances of 2020 will bring even more attention to UCA’s game with Arkansas State, originally scheduled for September but moved back by a brief spike in positive coronavirus tests among Red Wolves players.
“I think it’s huge,” Brown said. “We have 53 players on our roster that are from the state of Arkansas. There is no other team in this state at the Division 1 level with near that many players. They understand the rivalry dynamic that can arise.”
UCA’s three-game, multi-year deal with NDSU — the Alabama and then some of the FCS level, having won eight national championships since 2011 — should be brand-boosting.
The Bears will travel to Fargo this year and again in 2023, and the Bison are scheduled to come to Conway in 2025. UCA is a perennial conference championship and playoff contender, but the series with NDSU is expected to help build national awareness of the program.
“A lot of people shy away from a program like that, but to me, it’s the best way to see the best in person,” Brown said. “We want to show our guys that we can compete with anybody at our level or any level.”
Despite the negatives associated with the 2020 season, UCA officials look at this fall as an opportunity to play for the future of the program. Which is why Teague and Brown were willing to play anyone, anywhere, in 2020.
As Whiting noted, “I think they have positioned UCA for the future.”