The Rice University football team entered the 2016 season with high expectations. It returned 18 of 22 starters from a team that finished a disappointing 5-7 from a year ago. The thinking was that, with internal player development and improvement in the face of significant roster turnover elsewhere in Conference USA, the Owls would be able to take a step forward in the conference and return to a bowl game. These beliefs were shared by C-USA media members, who predicted Rice to finish third in the C-USA West Division, a finish that likely would have meant a bowl game appearance.
Instead the Owls flopped miserably, losing their first 6 games en route to a 1-8 start, and ultimately finished the season 3-9. Given that this was the second straight season in which Rice did not qualify for a bowl game and the embarrassing and head-scratching nature of some of these losses, many expected this season to mark the end for the team’s head coach, David Bailiff. However, Rice Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard announced on Nov. 29 that Bailiff would return for his 11th season as the Owls’ head coach. Karlgaard’s decision, unfortunately, speaks volumes about the university’s vision for its athletic department and football program.
At this point, Bailiff, the highest-paid coach in C-USA, is very much a known commodity as a head coach. Through his 10 seasons at Rice, he has gone 56-69 and is 77-84 in his career overall. Throughout his 13 seasons as a head coach, he has had only five .500 or better seasons, and on only one occasion has he done so in consecutive seasons. While Bailiff must be given credit for, among others, being a good man, a mentor to his players and an ambassador for the university, this is ultimately a results-oriented business. Bailiff’s record simply shows him to be an inconsistent coach incapable of attaining the sustained success seen in C-USA powerhouses such as Louisiana Tech University and Western Kentucky University.
Outside of Bailiff’s overall record as a head coach, one could also point to the current state of the program as justification for Bailiff’s ouster. Bailiff’s strategy in developing his roster has been to, when possible, redshirt every incoming freshman, allow them to develop their skills while improving their strength and conditioning over the course of a year or two and only then see significant playing time on the field during their junior and senior years. There are cases in which this process can get interrupted — for instance, injuries can force younger players into action, or an especially talented player may be able to forgo some of the development phase and see the field earlier — but typically, an incoming recruiting class in its entirety may not see the field until their sophomore or junior seasons. As such, the effects of a given recruiting class are not felt immediately, but rather tend to be felt two to three years after the class enrolls.
This is relevant because, even as the Owls had a successful run from 2012-2014, there was a dropoff in the team’s recruiting: According to 247 Sports, the Owls’ recruiting classes have ranked 5th, 7th, 7th, 10th and 14th within C-USA from 2012 to 2016. While it is dangerous to extrapolate directly from recruiting class rankings, it goes without saying that a decline in talent has played a role in Rice football’s recent decline, and talent decline is inherently triggered by a recruiting decline. Therefore, the team’s recent recruiting does not only explain its dropoff in performance; it suggests that this state of decline is likely to last for several seasons in the absence of significant change.
The Owls are at a defining moment with their football program. The university recently invested over $30 million into the Brian Patterson Sports Performance Complex, giving the football team a sparkling new home. For the first time in a very long time, the university’s football program is finally in a place where it can pair strong facilities with the top-class education it provides its students. For all of the program’s recent failures, it has also proven in the past that athletes who excel within the program are able to make the leap to the NFL, as nine Owls are currently professional football players.
This is therefore a football program that, in theory, should be attractive to prospective recruits. What the team needs is an exciting coach who can see through on this vision, relay it to potential recruits and, ultimately, produce a football program capable of consistently churning out winning seasons. As this offseason showed, finding such a coach was not an unattainable goal: for instance, Florida Atlantic University, a C-USA program that Rice has outperformed in recent years, was able to hire Lane Kiffin, a man universally recognized as one of the top offensive coaches in the country. And when faced with the choice of pursuing a such a coach or maintaining the status quo, Karlgaard chose the latter, reaffirming his commitment to inconsistency and mediocrity and suggesting that the university’s athletic department does not demand winning from its biggest revenue-generating sport.
In Karlgaard’s statement regarding Bailiff remaining at Rice for the 2017 season, he concluded by requesting that Owls fans “continue to support our program and to believe that we will get back to our winning ways in 2017.” Unfortunately, Bailiff’s coaching history and recruiting in recent years does not justify that belief. Perhaps we can be forgiven, but Karlgaard and the university’s commitment to mediocrity do not inspire much optimism.