A football season that kicked off under the bright lights of ESPN for the University of Central Arkansas ended Wednesday with a news release from UCA's final scheduled opponent.
UCA was preparing to play No. 24 Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday in Lafayette, La. -- the last of 10 games on UCA's ambitious nonconference schedule -- but the Ragin Cajuns announced in a news release that the game would not be played because of covid-19 positive tests and contract tracing.
Thirty-three athletes are in the program's covid-19 safety protocol, which includes a combination of contact tracing, isolation, quarantine and recovering cases, the school said.
UCA Athletic Director Brad Teague said he was disappointed but not too surprised.
"If you're going to lose a game, you might as well have it be the last," Teague said. "It is kinda anticlimactic. I knew that it was tough sledding. I knew our kids were mentally, physically, emotionally drained, being the school that started it all and not really having any issues. But stressing every week about the testing, it's been draining.
"It's hard to say it's over, like this."
Teague said there were three FBS schools -- Lousiana Tech, SMU and Baylor -- with no games scheduled this weekend, and he said had discussions with Louisiana Tech after Wednesday's cancellation.
"They were pondering it, we were pondering it," Teague said. "Just too quick to make a game plan. It didn't make sense."
The Bears finish the season with a 5-4 record, their 13the winning season since transitioning from Division II to the Football Championship Subdivision 15 years ago.
Teague said there is no question UCA did the right thing by playing this fall, and the final record has nothing to do with it.
"I've always said we could lose every game and this season was a success," Teague said. "We would have been disappointed for sure. Just the fact that we made a full season in the fall, played as many games as anybody has. It's an absolute success.
"I'm proud that our students got a chance to compete and play in a traditional season in a nontraditional way. It's been great."
UCA Coach Nathan Brown said much the same thing in a Tuesday interview, less than 24 hours before the game was canceled.
"We've gone against the grain a little bit," Brown said of UCA, one of three FCS schools to attempt a full season. "We've played a season when we were told it couldn't happen. Our administration has been progressive and aggressive."
UCA had one other game on its schedule -- against Arkansas State -- affected by the virus, but the game was played three weeks after the original date.
The other eight games were played as originally scheduled by UCA.
The Bears had a small outbreak that affected last Saturday's 37-25 victory over Eastern Kentucky. Quarterback Breylin Smith and four other Bears missed the game after testing positive earlier in the week.
"We've been able to mitigate the virus, for almost all year," Brown said. "We've been able to do it in the most safe manner we could. If it got unsafe, we would have called it quits. Our players and coaches have done a great job doing the right thing."
UCA, the defending Southland Conference champion, bucked the national trend of FCS schools choosing not to play in the fall because of the virus.
"We took a very proactive approach instead of being reactive," Brown said.
Junior quarterback Luke Hales, who filled in for Smith against Eastern Kentucky and passed for more than 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, said you can't measure the success of the Bears' season by their record.
"The record for the season is not what it would have been if we had played in the Southland Conference," Hales said. "I can tell you that."
Hales said he was motivated by his love of the game and the desire to compete.
"Coach Brown said the teams that were the most fun were the teams that played independent schedules," Hales said. "That weren't necessarily playing for something. Playing for a conference championship.
"We got to play the first game of the year, against Austin Peay, on real ESPN. That was a huge deal for us. We went out there and did it, accomplish that win. Then went up to North Dakota. I think the season has been a huge success. "
Hales said a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette would have been like topping it "off with a cherry."
Teague said making it as far as UCA did was fruitful enough.
"Just to compete and prove something," Teague said. "First of all, we went into it thinking the spring is not guaranteed. And football's played in the fall. How can you play some this fall, some in the spring and some next fall? That would be too tough on a body.
"Most of all, we didn't think the spring was going to be any different than what we're in right now. So, let's try it. And see how far we can go. And when the virus wins, the virus wins. We made it to the last game, you know.
"That was our mind-set. I'm glad we did it, and it worked out and it's best for the long-term sustainability of this program."
UCA will take a financial hit of about $125,000 because of the cancellation, Teague said.
The Bears were to receive a $150,000 guarantee from Louisiana. The trip to Lafayette was going to cost UCA about $25,000.
"That's just part of the COVID world," Teague said.