In Praise of . . . Rice Football!

by Jeff Abbott on December 31, 2008

Usually on this blog I talk about writing, or working as a writer, or publishing, or some odd bit of news that strikes my fancy. But today it’s more personal. I am beside myself with sports happiness. My alma mater, Rice University, has won their first bowl game in 54 years, winning the Texas Bowl over Western Michigan, 38-14. Here’s the Houston Chronicle’s account of the game, along with an opinion piece on why Rice’s football resurgence says so much about the school. And after seeing a talented but badly muddled Dallas Cowboys team not even try hard last weekend, the Rice Owls have shown what football–played with class and heart–is all about.

For those unfamiliar with Rice (and I know I have a lot of overseas readers of this blog), it’s the second-smallest school to play in NCAA Division I. Located in Houston, Rice has 3,000 undergrads and about 2,000 grad students. The school nearly didn’t come into being: its founder, William Rice, was poisoned by his butler (yes, in this case, the butler did it), who tried to make off with the proposed school’s financial endowment via a forged will. 
Rice is known for its stellar engineering, sciences, and architecture schools, but also has excellent liberal arts program and a great MBA program. (I double-majored in English and history there.) It’s often called the Harvard of the South and has a multi-billion dollar endowment. Our football cheers include one that describes the value of pi and another known as the “existential cheer”: (We’re from Rice/Ain’t that nice/Who are you?/Do you know?). The Marching Owl Band (the MOB) never actually marches in any kind of formation, wears suits and fedoras, includes violinists, and satirizes all sorts of sacred cows during their halftime shows. Five minutes before the start of a game, the student section will be empty, but ten minutes later it’ll be full to overflowing.
When I was a student, Rice was part of the powerhouse Southwest Conference and for years, had had little success in any sport–we were the whipping post for the other much bigger schools. My sophomore year, Rice didn’t win a single football game. After the breakup of the Southwest Conference, Rice played in the far-flung Western Athletic Conference and then a few years ago ended up in Conference USA–with schools a bit closer to its size, like Tulane and Tulsa, while still playing much bigger schools like University of Houston, Central Florida, and East Carolina. In the late 90s, Rice started a run in baseball dominance that has sent it to the College World Series several times, and Rice won the national championship in 2003. I watched that game with a bunch of Rice alums in an Austin bar, and the idea that we were national champions, in any sport, was very Twilight Zone. It was freaking unbelievable. But it was true. When your school hasn’t had a lot of athletic success, you don’t take it for granted. Ever. I still thrill every time Rice baseball season comes around and Rice is a ranked team and the announcers talk about Rice being a national powerhouse.
In 2005, Rice was 1-10 in football; last year, they were 3-9. Thanks to a senior class, led by quarterback Chase Clement and receiver Jarrett Dillard, that rallied hard and inspired the team and great coaching from David Bailiff, Rice now has its first 10-win season since 1949. These are amazing kids. Last night’s game was thrilling to see, even though it was a bit of a rout, and I could not be prouder. I just wish my dad could have lived to see this game–he was a devoted University of Texas fan, but he always rooted hard for Rice. My sons are thrilled. It’s a good day to end a tough year.
Congratulations to an amazing coaching staff and team! Hooooo Owls!

    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    Ann Victor December 31, 2008 at 10:25 am

    You’re one happy fan today, Jeff!:):)
    Congratulations to your Rice Football team – it’s always great to see the underdogs win!!

    Kristan January 1, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Aw, you went to Rice? Haha, looks like we played in the same backyard. I’m a Houston girl born and raised. I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, though, so I know what it’s like not to have much to root for in the way of sports. :(
    Congrats to Rice! I am more of a Longhorns fan myself, but generally supportive of all Texas teams.

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