It was a big hug, back pat, hand slap type of evening.
The induction of the 1991 University of Central Arkansas NAIA national championship football team was such a joyousoccasion Friday night thatat least three different folks shouted into the microphone at different times to quieten things soelements of the program could proceed.
“We were close,” said defensive lineman Chris Riggins, one of two former players who spoke on behalf of the team.
The Bears were the fifth team to be inducted into the sports Hall — the 1964 national champion University of Arkansas team,the 1971 Arkansas State championship team, the 1994 UA basketball NCAA basketball championship team and the back-to-back 1992-93 national championship teams of Arkansas Tech were the others).
In more than three decades of covering UCA athletics, this group of Bears was still one of the most resilient teams I’ve evercovered. It began the season 0-2-1 and finished 6-2-2 with four of their six victories in the old Arkansas IntercollegiateConference coming down to the last play.
It seemed suh a beatable team until you an opponent was confronted by its heart.
“We were just a hard-nosed, blue-collar team of all Arkansas players,” said Steve Strange Jr., who kicked a last-minute, 22-yard field goal against Central Ohio to give the Bears a 19-16 victory at Wilberforce, Ohio. “It wasn’t just me but it took a totalteam for what is still one of the best days of my life. Hosea Knowlton had to make the run to get us in position. the line did agood job and we got a good snap and hold for me to make the kick.”
Illustrative of the grit, Strange had missed a field goal the year before in a 10-9 loss to Mesa College in the semifinals. Hebooted the winning field goal against Central Ohio with an injured quadriceps.
“We didn’t have anybody who was not willing to work,” said coach Mike Isom. “Once we got into the heart of the schedule,nobody was gonna intimidate us.”
Playoff teams were determined by an NAIA selection committee. The Bears made the eight-team field by their chinny-chin-chin with 6-2-2 record, one of the least intimidating in the playoffs.
Riggins remembers a team of heroes, down to the equipment managers. He noted that defensive lineman Nathan Miller had aJohn Madden football game that formed a competitive thread to the season.
“We bonded over that game,” Riggins said. “When he would go home, he left a window cracked in his dorm so we could get inand play that game.”
“You could never question our heart,” said safety Chris Smith. “We had our differences, but we came together on the field. Wewere one, behind one common goal. Everybody pulled his weight even though we had different roles on the team.”
“Each and every one of me meant just as much as the next guy as far as us winning that championship,” said Isom. “I wantyou to know that I realized that.”
Three of the assistant coaches on that team are still coaching — Brooks Hollingsworth at Conway High, Clifton Ealy at LittleRock Central and Bill Keopple at Southern Arkansas University. Scott Schwartz, who was a graduate assistant, is also coachingat Conway High. Several of the players went into coaching, thus Friday was missing a few pieces to the whole. About 50 or sogathered for the weekend events, including the players, coaches and families sitting together in a roped-off area Saturdaynight at Estes Stadium for the game against Stephen F. Austin.
There are several stories that will be related in a future column.
One of the key victories of the season came against Henderson State. Reddie back JuJu Harshaw ran wild in the first half for193 yards in building a 20-0 lead.
This UCA team was a deadly second-half group. The Bears came back to win, 21-20, and Harshaw had minus yardage thesecond half.
Fiery locker-room talk?
Let Steve Strange Sr. tell the rest of the story. He was sitting beside Winn Thompson, the UCA president at the time whoinsisted on going into the locker room at the half.
“I don’t know anything about football, but that was the best job of teaching I have ever seen,” Strange said Thompson laterrelated. “No yelling. No screaming — just guys in groups and teaching going on by the coaches. It rivaled anything I have everseen in the classroom.”
Teaching, listening, learning, working and playing for each other.
Pulling together with determination and synergy. That’s why it’s so appropriate these guys go into a Hall of Fame as a team.
“A magical year,” said Steve Strange Jr.
A magical team.