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Today, we have another fun freelance submission from Matt Stahl, who just graduated from Western Kentucky and is looking for journalism work. Matt can be reached at @Mattstahl97 on Twitter, and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Now, please enjoy an absolutely bananas story about one of the most unique bodybag games in college football history.
College football was a different world in 1992. Clemson would miss a bowl game. Syracuse and Kansas were Top 25 programs. And UCF, far from their eventual national championship*, was a middling I-AA program. And they had a big problem.
UCF, playing as an independent, was having trouble with scheduling. Savannah State had to drop the Knights due to conference obligations, leaving UCF with three weeks off in the middle of their season.
Head Coach Gene McDowell was unwilling to let his team get rusty in the weeks leading up to a home game against Nicholls State, so he tried something a little unconventional. He scheduled an exhibition game against the Moscow Bears.
The Moscow Bears? Moscow, Idaho’s high school team that won a state title in 1992?
Nope. Moscow, Russia.
The Moscow Bears had been playing football since 1989, but the team’s history is murky. Former Bears coach Eldon Cunningham told me that Russia got serious with football in 1988, when Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Olympics and it was rumored that American football might be a non-medal event in the games.
Cunningham coached the Bears at their genesis, but left to start another team, the Russian Czars, who would go on to play a game at Western Kentucky a month after the UCF contest.
The Bears did some barnstorming under Cunningham, playing games against semi-pro teams in Macon, Oklahoma City and Tacoma, among other locales. Moscow pulled off a win in North Carolina, taking down the Charlotte Barons B-team in a game where the only score was a safety on a snap that sailed over the Charlotte punter’s head through the back of the end zone.
The Bears eventually became rivals with the Czars, and Cunningham said they had a game scheduled to decide which team would represent Russian in a higher-level European league.
“We sat down with the president of the Moscow Bears,” Cunningham said. “He said, okay, we’re gonna play this at 12 a.m., and he thought 12 a.m. was noon.”
At the stroke of midnight, the Czars were at the stadium ready to compete. The Bears were not, resulting in a forfeit that left them in Russia, where they spent 1991 dominating all comers.
After clobbering Russian teams for a year, the Bears were looking for additional games out of the country. They played one in May, against an all-star team that featured 11 members from Allegheny College, losing 50-0. UCF would be their stiffest challenge yet.
The UCF game came just as the Knights were evidently struggling to put fans in the stands and McDowell was getting frustrated over what he perceived as negative publicity from local media. UCF’s on the field struggles, their terrible home schedule, lack of conference affiliation, and the emergence of the Orlando Magic were all floated as reasons for the malaise. UCF’s entire athletic department budget was only about $3 million.
Despite the novelty of playing against international competition, those attendance struggles continued for the clash with the Russians. Only 5,412 fans were in the stands at the Florida Citrus Bowl, a far cry from its 1992 capacity of 65,428.
UCF might have struggled in 1992, but it was clear well before kickoff that this was going to be a mismatch. For one, the entire Bears team didn’t even get to Orlando on time, as 19 of the 33 players had to arrive separately thanks to visa problems. The Bears had to practice in old UCF uniforms and McDowell told the press that “the main thing for us is to have some fun.”
The mismatch became even more clear shortly after kickoff. UCF barely had to break a sweat.
The Knights received the kick and ran a trick play, with Charles Alexander taking a reverse and taking it to the house, giving UCF the lead before the first play from scrimmage.
McDowell played his backups for most of the game, including freshman quarterback Mike Jordan, who finished with 12 completions on 23 attempts for 159 yards and two touchdowns. One of those was to Harry Jorgenson, who had two touchdowns on the day. UCF also ran multiple fake field goals and a halfback-option pass.
The Bears had a horrible game offensively. They were only able to gain one yard in the first half and didn’t complete a pass until the third quarter. Moscow’s only score came on a 61-yard touchdown pass from Andrei Arsentiev to Shergey Shavyrin against UCF’s third string.
The Bears' actual head coach seems to have been lost to history, though a player-coach, receiver Maxim Marchenko is mentioned in the Orlando Sentinel article. Former Florida coach Galen Hall is quoted in several articles where he is said to have served as honorary head coach. However, it seems the Bears failed to leave much impact on Hall.
“I don’t have any idea about the Moscow Bears,” Hall said in an email.
After the game ended, the Bears seem to have never played another game in the United States. The Czars played WKU later in the 1992 season, but, to my knowledge, no Russian team has played another American college squad since. (if I’m wrong, please bring that to my attention, I would love to write about any other games.)
Lots has changed for UCF in the days since 1992, and the Knights no longer need to call Moscow to fill out their schedule.
However, a college football team looking for a game they’ll probably win, and with the schedule flexibility to bring in an out of conference opponent later in the season, is still free to bring in a semi-pro team, international or not. Michelle Hosick of the NCAA confirmed that, citing this rule:
126.96.36.199 Competition Against Professionals. An individual may participate singly or as a member of an amateur team against professional athletes or professional teams.
That means… we can start dreaming.
Thanks again for your support of Extra Points. Matt Stahl’s contact info is listed above, but if you have a freelance pitch, story idea, question, comment, conference realignment fanfic or other feedback, drop me a line at MattBrownOhio@gmail.com, or at @MattBrownEP at Twitter dot com.