Clint Conque saw a flash of the red flag about three years ago when star quarterback Nathan Dick suddenly went to his knees in practice.
“He was sick, literally turned green,” said the UCA football coach.
Conque asked Dick what he had for breakfast. No breakfast, said Dick.
OK, not good, so what did he have for lunch?
“Sushi,” Conque said Dick told him.
“I said, ‘really?’
“Nothing against sushi, but I didn’t think not eating breakfast and sushi for lunch was a very good combination for our training regimen. I became concerned that many of our players were not getting the food they needed for what they have to do.”
The concern intensified the last two seasons when the Bears were a worn-down team and were overpowered by physically stronger teams in the NCAA Division FCS playoffs.
After analyzing what it might take for the Bears to elevate themselves in the playoffs, the UCA coaching staff have gone old-school, training-table rules — with a touch of mom.
There is mandatory breakfast every day for the UCA players. A coach is there every morning to check each player off the list.
“I can’t control every meal our players eat, but I know they’re getting at least one good meal to start the day,” Conque said. “We saw we were getting pushed around in December by some of the traditional playoff teams, those cornerstone programs on our level like Montana and Georgia Southern. At the end of the year last year, when we lost to Georgia Southern (in the second round of the playoffs), we were the same team physically as we were in September and October.
“So we started asking a lot of questions about how do we take the next step. We broke it down. What are we eating, when are we eating, how are we training, how are we working?”
In their transition to NCAA Division I, the Bears had been used to playing 11, occasionally 12 games with the season ending in November. The past two seasons, UCA has played in December.
“And in December, you are usually facing those Mount Rushmore teams that have been built for years to play in December and January,” Conque said. ”You are often playing physically stronger teams than you played earlier in the season. We knew we had to build our team up to be able to play 15, 16 games and actually be close to as strong or stronger at the end of the season than we were at the start.”
In days long past, coaches could control much of that with customized training tables in exclusive athletic dormitories, which were eliminated years ago.
Breakfast wasn’t the only tweak.
Prior to spring drills that begin this weekend, the UCA coaches have spread their 6 a.m. workouts over six weeks and the players have been split into position groups so strength and conditioning coach Henry Briscoe can work with complete position groups and design more specific training drills and exercises for the whole group.
“Starting with this freshman class, all scholarship players will be required to live on campus for the first two years,” Conque said. “That goes back to nutrition and establishing a foundation. When they are on campus, we can make sure they have total access to food they should be eating. Realistically, athletes living off campus will spend their meal money on things like apps and DVDs and movies and use what’s left to eat things that are not as nutritional. We realized we had to do something to make sure they are eating right.”
As spring practice begins, Conque is encouraged by what he has seen so far.
“I’ve been very pleased with how our players and assistant coaches have embraced the changes,” he said. “They want to do what is necessary to get to the next level. And already, we’re starting to see changes in their bodies.”
And amidst the rigors, there is a universal upside.
There is chocolate.
In researching nutrition, Conque said his staff discovered that chocolate milk can be just as effective as the more expensive fortified shakes and drinks in replacing and increasing certain elements in the body.
“So we’re drinking a lot of chocolate milk, which is much more cost effective,” Conque said.
A glass full of chocolate can make the conditioning regimen go down — in a more delightful way.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com)