There was no playbook or instruction manual on how an athletic department should navigate a pandemic, so the University of Central Arkansas wrote its own.
With guidance from the UCA administration, medical staff, athletic training staff and the athletic department administration, the Bears and Sugar Bears not only survived, but thrived during an unprecedented and challenging year. UCA maneuvered successfully through and flourished during a pandemic year when very little was normal in the world of athletics.
The key, according to all involved, was threefold: preparation by the administration and medical experts, direction from Athletic Director Brad Teague and his staff; and (most importantly) discipline from the more than 450 UCA student-athletes and coaches who navigated their way through the pandemic.
“We could not have done this without the cooperation and dedication of our entire campus community,” said Teague. “From President [Houston] Davis, to Dr. Randy Pastor and Dr. Thad Hardin, to [head athletic trainer] David Strickland and his outstanding staff, to our partnership with Conway Regional Health System and to all our coaches and student-athletes, who endured an overwhelming amount of testing, protocols, schedule changes and travel restrictions. It was extremely impressive to see how successful they were throughout a very abnormal and challenging year.”
UCA’s student-athletes underwent rigorous and thorough testing procedures of nearly 12,000 COVID-19 tests and had a positivity rate of just 2% for the 2020-21 academic year. The Bears and Sugar Bears had to cancel or postpone scheduled contests in only two of their 18 sports due to positive testing of UCA student-athletes. Three of UCA’s programs — women’s tennis, women’s golf and women’s basketball — did not record a positive test the entire year.
The UCA football team started off the pandemic year by completely revamping its 2020 schedule on the fly. When the Southland Conference decided to move all competition to the spring semester and the University of Missouri was limited to only competing within the Southeastern Conference, UCA put together a new schedule in a matter of weeks with only one original opponent remaining on the slate.
UCA played the nation’s first college football game during the COVID-19 season on Aug. 29, beating Austin Peay State University. The Bears played nine of their 10 scheduled games that season, with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette canceling the final regular-season game due to COVID-19 cases within its program.
Over the course of the school year, UCA was able to participate in more than 325 athletic contests due to the diligence and dedication of its student-athletes and coaches. Many other schools and conferences shut down their athletic programs altogether, leaving their student-athletes without outside competition for an entire school year.
The Bears and Sugar Bears were not only able to compete on the fields and courts throughout the pandemic but also maintain their traditional academic success off the field, finishing with a combined grade-point average above 3.0 for the 16th and 17th consecutive semesters. Sixteen of UCA’s 18 athletic teams had a cumulative GPA of at least a 3.0.
When the vaccines became available, UCA’s student-athletes were at the forefront of that movement as well. Through September 2021, 84% of UCA’s student-athletes and 91% of the coaching staff received vaccines. Three teams had a 100% vaccination rate.
“A lot of thanks and gratitude has to go to our student-athletes,” said Head Football Coach Nathan Brown ’09. “Their ability to do right, socially distance and make the good decisions got us through this tough time. We knew this season was going to be something totally different than any of us had experienced before, but our student-athletes understood that; I think they trusted our coaching staffs, our administration and our medical team.”
It was a true team effort that kept the UCA athletic teams healthy and competing throughout the 2020-21 school year.