Central Arkansas and the making of a college football schedule unlike any other

Brad Teague has heard your jokes. Central Arkansas’ athletic director knows they’re the go-to Twitter suggestion when a team has to postpone a game (and many teams have had to postpone a game in 2020). That’s what happens when a relatively unknown school puts together one of the most unusual schedules in college football history, reminiscent of the old World War II traveling squads that played anyone, anywhere. Twice, if they had to.

“I saw somebody say they should kick Rutgers out and bring in Central Arkansas to the Big Ten,” Teague said of his FCS team from Conway, Arkansas, with a laugh.

Don’t tempt Teague, the dealmaker who has kept his team playing this year even when the Southland Conference opted to postpone football until the spring.

His goal was to play a full fall schedule and “opt out,” in his words, of the spring.

“Let’s try it as long as we can,” he said. 

Just as playing in the spring didn’t make sense to Teague, he understands the scrutiny over playing at all. He said he made clear his intentions didn’t matter unless the coaches and players took the situation seriously and were able to hold up their end of the bargain.

“Of course a lot of people would say, ‘Well, you’re playing in the middle of COVID. How does that make sense?'” Teague said. “And I get that. I thought, we may have a vaccine [in the spring], but it may be worse. I mean, who knows what the spring would look like. We knew there would be a lot of scrutiny.”

Head coach Nathan Brown said Teague faced those questions inside the building before pressing on, saying he met with the team to ask for their input. “He had them ask tough questions,” the coach said, in seeking their blessing.

“When we actually found out we were going to have a season, the day we found out, I had mixed emotions, like, ‘OK, how are we going to get tested, how are we gonna do this?'” senior defensive lineman A’Javius Brown said. “We were excited and a bit nervous, like anybody would be in a pandemic. We don’t have a cure for the virus, you know? But we’re here doing what we’re supposed to do.”

Breylin Smith, the Bears’ starting quarterback, said the school’s support would work only if the players stayed safe.

“You see a lot of stuff on social media and a lot of worries, but I have full confidence and trust in our leadership,” Smith said. “I knew that if and when we were going to play that it would be safe. As hard as our leaders were working to get us games, I just took it as our duty to be ready to play.”

Central Arkansas is testing its players once per week on Wednesday afternoons, with results back on Thursdays — in accordance with NCAA guidelines.

“We’ve been very detailed,” coach Nathan Brown said. “It’s not easy as a college student to stay socially distant from people, and it’s not easy as a college student to stay at home. We know what’s at stake, and our players have really bought into it, and really those are the guys that deserve the credit.”

So Teague set out to play the maximum number of games he could. To do so, he hoped to find 10 and, if we’re being honest, recoup some of the $425,000 his department’s budget lost when Missouri had to cancel its scheduled game for this season. The resulting schedule will be one for the books. Thus far, the Bears have already played:

  • The season’s first FCS game, a 24-17 win over Austin Peay in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff game in Montgomery, Alabama, before a national audience on ESPN. Payout: $100,000

  • The season’s first FBS game, a 45-35 loss just five days later against UAB in Birmingham, Alabama. UAB put Central Arkansas in a bubble of sorts after their game 90 miles away in Montgomery, keeping the team in Birmingham for the days prior to the game and paying for its COVID-19 testing. Payout: $200,000

  • Missouri State, which is playing a three-game fall lineup that includes Oklahoma (a 48-0 loss), at Central Arkansas (UCA won, 27-20) and … Central Arkansas again at home on Oct. 17. Teague said it’s a short trip with no overnight stay, so it’s a money-saving way to get two games. An added bonus for local intrigue? “Bobby Petrino is their head coach, and of course he had quite the career in Arkansas.”

  • Perennial FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, a 39-28 loss in Fargo in NDSU’s only game of the fall season. The Bison have won eight of the past nine FCS national championships and feature Trey Lance, one of the top quarterback prospects in college football. The two schools agreed on a $200,000 deal. Central Arkansas will visit Fargo twice for $100,000 each game, and they’ll get one game at home in the future. “It’ll be great to have the Bison in Conway, so that that was cool,” Teague said.

And still remaining, they have:

  • Arkansas State, an FBS team 130 miles away in Jonesboro, this Saturday. “They offered us $100,000, and we’re just gonna drive over and drive back,” Teague said. This game has already been postponed once due to coronavirus cases at A-State.

  • Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, twice. The teams will meet on Oct. 24 in Richmond, Kentucky, and on Nov. 14 in Conway.

  • An Oct. 31 game against Missouri Western, a Division II team from St. Joseph, Missouri, that is playing four games this fall. Teague explains: “The dominoes are crazy, but Arkansas State postponed our game on Sept. 19 and said really the only date they could play us again was Oct. 10. So to do that, we had to move our Eastern Kentucky game to Oct. 24. That put us playing Eastern Kentucky back-to-back weekends, and that seemed awkward, so then we moved our other Eastern Kentucky game from Oct. 31 to Nov. 14, which moved us off of homecoming. We wanted to continue to have a home game on Oct. 31, so the only opportunity to bring someone to Conway would be to pay them, and the cheapest games you can get are Division II schools, so we found Missouri Western and they will be coming to us.” Got all that?

  • Current No. 23-ranked Louisiana, on Nov. 21 in Lafayette, but Teague added that Louisiana has already asked about flexibility in case they need to move their game up. Payout: $150,000.

So how did Teague do it? He was already respected for helping turn Central Arkansas into a winner. He has also served as a member of the FCS playoff committee for several years, including being the chairman in 2018-19, so he had a lot of contacts. 

“It took work, it took relationships, but it didn’t take as much as you might think,” Eastern Kentucky athletic director Matt Roan said. “Your student-athletes, your coaches and your fans, they wanted football, and if we thought we could do it responsibly that’s what we were trying to do. Both of us.”

Teague didn’t take a completely mercenary approach. After losing nine conference games, he could’ve loaded up on all paycheck games. He said head coach Brown didn’t rule any teams out but thought it wouldn’t be fair to the program.

“Not only did I reach out to a lot of people, but I got a lot of calls from a lot of people,” he said. “This may be an exaggeration, but I bet we could have played 11 guarantee games in Conference USA and the Sun Belt on the road. Obviously, we didn’t need to play 11 games on the road against the FBS. So we started picking and choosing.”

The juggling hasn’t stopped entirely. When the Arkansas State game scheduled for Sept. 19 was postponed four days ahead of game day, Army called 15 minutes later asking Teague to bring the Bears to West Point that weekend. The short notice wouldn’t work, as much as Teague lamented not getting to play at storied Michie Stadium.

And he’s still hustling. Teague just recently got clarification from the NCAA that he’s allowed to play one more game up until mid-December.

“We could play Dec. 5 or Dec. 12, if we chose to,” he said. “So we’re kind of talking to another FCS school about maybe trying to play a quote-unquote bowl game in Dallas, so that that may be on the horizon.”

Teague, a former pitcher at Delta State in Mississippi who is in the school’s athletics Hall of Fame, still has that competitive fire, and he used it to try to recreate a football season from nothing.

“One of the most difficult things I think we do as administrators is building a football schedule,” North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen said. “Usually you’re doing it a couple of years out, and to be able to do it in a matter of a couple of months, sometimes you have to be willing to go on the road or be flexible, and Central Arkansas was willing to do that. He just continued to pound the pavement. I think it’s a real credit to him just working hard and getting after it.”

To Brown, the chaos of the 2020 season has ended up being an exciting time for his program, calling it “essentially the toughest schedule in the history of University of Central Arkansas football” and saying the exposure will be a lasting benefit.

“In the history of college football, you probably don’t have a program that’s played two games before most teams have played one, and we were able to do that and to play two games in five days to start the season,” he said. “I saw plenty of social media posts saying, ‘Hey, call Central Arkansas, they’ll schedule you tonight.'”

Teague has been encouraged by the improving availability and lower cost of testing. He said the fact that basketball is returning this fall with testing multiple times per week will make some teams wonder why they didn’t play football under the same scenario. 

“I’m hopeful, come December, that we can look back and see that it was still the right decision. I think it will be,” he said. “The FCS doesn’t get a lot of spotlight. People have reached out and are very intrigued with our story and situation. Our football coach has been on a lot of programs. Our coach was on [The Paul Finebaum Show]. It’s really elevated our brand. It’s been fun.”

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