IT WAS a Thursday afternoon in December. Nathan Brown, then the University of Central Arkansas’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was cruising along the interstate, en route to meet prospective student athletes in Mississippi when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was Dr. T. Kale Gober, president of the UCA Foundation, setting up a Saturday-morning meeting to discuss a head-coaching gig at the school. Nathan drew a long, deep breath after the call. “To receive that phone call and get the opportunity to call my wife and tell her that it all worked out,” he later recalled in a phone interview, “it was kind of a surreal moment, an out-of-body experience.”

Not that he hadn’t seen it coming. He’d been spending a lot of time poring over his plans, his head coach’s manual and booklet—all the things he wanted to present when the opportunity arose. This was something he’d been hoping for ever since he first came to UCA as a freshly recruited multisport athlete from Russellville in 2004. But to hope for it was one thing, and to hear it confirmed was an entirely different feeling.

From 2005 to 2008, Nathan starred for the Bears as a quarterback, and within his first year of eligibility, he made it into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame. (He also led the Bears to the 2005 Gulf South Conference championship and the 2008 Southland Conference championship). The campus was also where he met his wife, whom he married three months after she graduated. (They now have two kids.) In 2009, he left for a brief NFL stint, then came back to UCA, slipping off the pads and taking on his first coaching role.

Back in December 2017, Nathan was formally introduced as the new head football coach at a press conference in UCA’s Wingo Hall. He stepped behind the podium, sporting a purple-and-gray striped tie. And even in a suit, he looked like someone destined to boast a whistle on his chest. “One thing I wanted to make sure when Dr. T gave me the opportunity to visit with him is that I wasn’t the convenient choice, ” Nathan said, matter-of-factly, into the microphone, “that I was the right choice.”

On his coaching style

“I feel like God’s blessed me with the ability to read young people and develop them—not only on the football field but also in life. I want to make sure that my coaching staff and I are not only football coaches to these guys, but also life coaches. I think I’m a player’s coach, and I want them to know they can always trust me, and I can always trust them—that we’ve got each other’s backs. Usually, when you’re pulling on the same end of the rope like that, usually, you’re winning a lot of football games along the way. Hopefully, they can see that and understand that I’m all about them.”

On the future of the program

“I say this all the time: I think the sky’s the limit for UCA football. You look at our successes—we made the jump from Division I in 2006. I mean, it’s really unparalleled when you talk about wins and conference championships and playoff appearances. We’ve been eligible for the playoffs for seven years now, and we’ve made the playoffs four out of seven years. This is a program that, over the past 100-plus years, has been one of the best programs in the state of Arkansas—if not the best program in the state of Arkansas, as far as universities are concerned. UCA won three national championships [on the NAIA Division I level in 1984, 1985 and 1991], and that’s where I want to get us back to. Our goal isn’t just to win the Southland Conference and make the second or third round of the playoffs. We want to push through that national-championship barrier and bring championship banners back to Conway.”

On how the program compares to when he was a student athlete

“I don’t want to say that it’s totally different, but it’s just a lot bigger. We’re now 10 or 11 years into the Division I process. We won Southland Conference championships multiple years. We’ve been to the national playoffs. Our facilities continue to improve and upgrade year in and year out. We’ve got a lot more national exposure and media exposure in 2018 than we did in my time, from 2004 to 2008. Social media is also a lot more popular. Your Twitter accounts, Facebook, Instagram—I mean, we’re constantly getting the UCA football brand out there.”

On being the same person on the field and off the field

“I try to flip the coach switch off whenever I go and I’m with my wife. At the same time, when you’ve got coaching in your blood, a lot of time, it trickles to off the field. At the end of the day, I hope that when I’m coaching and, obviously, when I’m off the field and in the community or at home, I hope people can see that I live a life that’s blessed and see that I’m an encourager, someone who continues to develop people for a bigger cause than just themselves. I preach sacrifice, respect, service in everything I do. Hopefully, that’s not only echoed on the field but off the field, too, when people talk about who I am.”

Catch Brown and the Bears at their first home game against Murray State University on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m.