I have often heard it said that Rice is not a “sports school.” Supposedly, Rice is a place where students value academics while the athletic program operates in the background, quietly raising money for the school while students toil away in Fondren. For many, this may be true. Most students do not attend athletic events, visit the athletic department website or read this section of the Thresher. But to think the athletic program insignificant is to ignore its history, tradition and current prowess.
To many Americans, the name Heisman is familiar. It is the name of the most famous individual award in sports, the Heisman Trophy, an honor given to the best Division I college football player in the country. The trophy is named for John Heisman, a legendary football coach who won a national championship in 1917 and is credited with innovating numerous customs of modern football. Interestingly, Heisman was the head coach and athletic director at Rice from 1924 to 1927. If his name was notable then, it is even more recognizable now.
If Heisman represents the icon of the early days of Rice Athletics, Wayne Graham represents Rice’s living legend. At the end of last season, Graham held a record of 1076-442 for a winning percentage of .712 as Rice’s head coach. He has led the Owls to 20 consecutive conference championships, 21 consecutive NCAA regional berths, seven College World Series appearances and one national championship. Graham was inducted into the college baseball Hall of Fame in 2012 and is widely recognized as one of the greatest college baseball coaches of all time. In 24 years with the Owls, he has coached 34 All-Americans and 14 first-round Major League draft picks.
Speaking of MLB draft picks, Lance Berkman won the National College Player of the Year award while at Rice. Berkman excelled professionally as well. He was a six-time All-Star and won a World Series championship in 2011 with the St. Louis Cardinals before retiring in 2013 with a .293 career batting average and 366 home runs. Berkman is not the only former Owl to have had professional success. Philip Humber, who won a national championship with the Owls in 2003, threw a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox in 2012. Brock Holt was named an All-Star for the Boston Red Sox last season. Jose Cruz, Jr. was named the team Most Valuable Player of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001 and won a Gold Glove award with the San Francisco Giants in 2003.
Super Bowl Champions Don Maynard and Larry Izzo have played football at Rice. Maynard is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Izzo is one of the winningest football players ever as the captain of the New England Patriots’ special teams unit during three of their Super Bowl championships. Earlier this year, former Owl Jordan Taylor won a Super Bowl championship as a member of the Denver Broncos practice squad.
As a Rice student, if you are ignoring the athletic program, you are ignoring future stars and living legends. While most of the aforementioned individuals departed Rice long ago, there are people here today who will represent the next generation of legendary Rice athletes. Freshman guard Marcus Evans led the country in freshman scoring this year and appears headed for improvement next season. Senior pitcher Blake Fox was named an All-American prior to this season, and junior pitcher Jon Duplantier is projected as a top-100 MLB draft pick. These two pitchers may be Rice’s next MLB All-Stars, World Series champions or stars on a national championship team. Freshman swimmer Marie-Claire Schillinger and sophomore swimmer Kaitlyn Swinney qualified for this year’s United States Olympic Trials. Next year, even more star athletes will emerge.
While it may be easy to buy into the notion that Rice is a school where academics must be prioritized over athletics, to do so is not fair to Rice’s athletes, coaches or athletic staff. There is no shortage of athletic achievement around us, and as Rice students, we owe it to the athletic department to recognize that. If we do not, we may never know when we are missing out on watching the next Lance Berkman, Don Maynard or Brock Holt.