The comment section on the Thresher Facebook page for Madison Buzzard’s opinion piece titled “Rice football must build a winning culture” was something to behold. It all began when Stephanie Marten-Ellis commented, “I feel like this is only an issue because we’re in Texas. Does [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] even have a football team? [Editor’s note: It does.] Who cares.”
“I think we have an unbelievably unique and powerful story to tell, but we have to win for people to hear it”
Then there was Judy Ybarra, who said, “Something has been lost because many colleges are focusing more on football than academics. I remember when players went to college on scholarship in order to get an education.”
And for every Marten-Ellis and Ybarra, there was a Mario Destephen commenting, “Many people miss the importance of a strong college football culture, and sports culture in general.”
When Director of Athletics Joe Karlgaard read through these comments, he chuckled at some and gazed more seriously at others. After about three minutes of reading, he looked up.
“I think in general you could treat any of these perspectives as valid,” Karlgaard said. “I think it’s a choice that the institution has made. It’s almost an expectation that as an institution of higher education in the United States you’re going to have some kind of athletic program. There just aren’t very many Reed Colleges out there that have no athletics.”
Karlgaard has been Rice’s athletic director since fall 2013. Since he was hired, the Owls have won conference championships in nine different sports. He has overseen the construction of the Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center, the new stands at the Wendel D. Ley Track and new team space at Tudor Fieldhouse. He was named to the Sports Business Journal’s “40 under 40” in 2014 before completing his first year at Rice. Karlgaard said when he accepted the job, his goals were clear.
“When I came to Rice, it was with the assumption that we were going to make a go of it at the [Football Bowl Subdivision] level,” Karlgaard said. “We were going to see if we could really strengthen our programs. We were going to see if we could make our way into a Power 5 conference. We were going to see what kind of brand equity we could realize with our athletics.”
Four years into his tenure, those goals have not changed. But Rice, according to Karlgaard, is in a peculiar position in the landscape of college athletics: It is the only school ranked in the US News and World Report top 20 that has FBS football and is not in a Power 5 conference (other than the University of Notre Dame, which chooses to remain without a conference affiliation). Until 1996, Rice competed in the Southwest Conference against schools like the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Baylor University. For the past 21 years, however, Rice has bounced between the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA, two middling conferences in Division I. Karlgaard said Rice’s position is an awkward one.
“[Because of] our history of being in the Southwest Conference through 1996, there’s an expectation among many of the Rice alumni that that’s really who we are,” Karlgaard said. “And for whatever reason, politics or something, we didn’t capture the moment 21 years ago and get into the Big 12 or make our way into some kind of power conference. It’s almost like we’ve been in the wilderness for 21 years trying to figure out what’s possible.”
Last year, the Big 12, one of the Power 5 conferences in Division I, revealed it was hoping to expand. The league opened up an application process to any school wishing to join. Rice made a bid to join the conference and made the list of 11 final candidates. Ultimately, though, the conference elected not to add any schools. Despite losing out on joining the Power 5 conference, Karlgaard said the application process was valuable.
“I think we learned that we are still very much a valued brand in the world of FBS athletics,” Karlgaard said. “People like being associated with us. They’d like being associated with us a bit more if we were consistently successful, particularly in football and men’s basketball, which captures so much of the value from a television perspective.”
Among the reasons Karlgaard said schools want to be associated with Rice were the facts that it has never committed a major NCAA violation and graduates student-athletes in a variety of majors. While stressing his respect for Rice’s fellow C-USA schools, he said he hopes Rice can find a way to move on to a new conference in the near future.
“It’s not just about Conference USA, and it’s not just about the money either,” Karlgaard said. “It’s about an alignment with institutions that are more like Rice. I love my fellow athletics directors and the presidents of Conference USA, but we are the only private institution, we are the only institution in the top 100 of US News, we’re the only [American Association of Universities] school. We’re just unlike many of the others in so many ways.”
If it were to find a way into a Power 5 conference, Rice athletics would instantly gain national brand recognition. According to Karlgaard, having a more recognizable athletic program would have positive impacts far beyond the scope of the athletic department.
“When I first interviewed for the job, I knew two things about Rice: I knew that it had a longstanding commitment to financial aid … and I knew that it had great baseball,” Karlgaard said. “That’s one of the reasons I think that we have to really try and make the Division I thing go. I think it’ll expand our footprint from a student recruiting standpoint, I think it has the potential to expand our donor base and I think it has the potential to expand the attractiveness of the institution to incoming staff and faculty.”
However, due largely to the recent struggles of the football team, Rice has struggled to promote its brand. In going 3-9 last season and 1-5 this season, the Owls have fallen completely out of the national spotlight and into the basement of the conference. Karlgaard said Rice football will have to find success if Rice hopes to be recognized.
“That’s your highest profile sport,” Karlgaard said. “That’s the one that’s going to get you noticed the most. When I got here and we won our first conference championship, we’re on ESPN and USA Today is writing about us and everybody’s talking about our graduation rates and the American Football Coaches Association recognition and it’s all these wonderful things that help our brand. They don’t matter as much if we’re 3-9 or 1-5 because nobody cares.”
According to Karlgaard, Rice cannot make excuses for its football program’s struggles.
“I think we have an unbelievably unique and powerful story to tell, but we have to win for people to hear it,” Karlgaard said. “If we constantly retreat to, well, it’s okay if we don’t win, if we’re not successful, because we have real students and we graduate our students and they go on and do great things, all of those things are important, but if you don’t win, nobody pays attention to them.”
Among those seemingly losing some interest are Rice’s fans. Karlgaard said season ticket sales for football were down this year for the first time since he took over as athletic director, though Rice still sold the second- most season tickets of any year in his tenure. Ticket sales make up part of Rice athletics’ revenue. Other major factors include donations from the Owl Club (the athletic department’s main fundraising arm), money from Rice’s athletics-specific endowment, television revenue, money from the NCAA, sponsorship deals, parking and concessions. In all, Rice athletics has a budget of about $27 million annually and generates about half of that itself. The other half of the budget comes from the university. Karlgaard said the athletic department works hard to make sure to meet its financial goals regardless of team success and ticket sales.
“[If ticket sales are down], we may need to work harder signing a new sponsor that can bring in some money,” Karlgaard said. “We may need to make an extra appeal to our Owl Club donors for a little extra money. Conversely, if ticket sales are going well, that takes pressure off the other areas.”
Student attendance does not affect finances, but it does affect the atmosphere of games. At each of Rice football’s two home games, the student section has been nearly empty. According to Karlgaard, however, the issue of student attendance is not as bad as it seems.
“What I’ve told people all along is, when you’ve got 3,800 undergraduate students, you have to hit for really high percentages to demonstrate that your students are engaged with varsity athletics,” Karlgaard said. “If [the University of] Wisconsin has 10 percent of their student body show up for a football game, they’ve got 5,000 people there. 5,000 students can make a difference. If we have 10 percent show up, it’s 380 students. Then people are asking me questions about why there aren’t more students there.”
Karlgaard said he believes the key to getting people to show up to games is simple: Schedule meaningful contests.
“My overarching belief is that you have to play games that matter, that have some impact, that will resonate with the average student,” Karlgaard said. “And you have to be successful in those contests. You have to be competitive. You don’t necessarily have to win them. I remember playing Stanford [University] in women’s tennis my first year here. We had just come off a year where we made the Sweet 16 in women’s tennis and Stanford had won the national championship. You put those two things together and hand out free pizza and we had a bunch of students.”
Last year, some of the most highly attended events were men’s basketball games. Head coach Mike Rhoades led the Owls to their best season since joining C-USA. But Rice lost Rhoades and six of its best players to other schools, so new head coach Scott Pera is taking over a brand new roster. He might not be the only new coach in a high-profile sport next year, as baseball head coach Wayne Graham and football head coach David Bailiff each have expiring contracts. With new hires coming in and the constant inflow and outflow of student-athletes, Karlgaard said he’s come to expect a great deal of change in his time working in college athletics.
“I think there’s a constant churn; I don’t think you ever get settled,” Karlgaard said. “There will be people who retire, there will be people who leave for other jobs, there will be people who you have to part ways with, and you just have to be prepared for all of those inevitabilities. I think we already look quite a bit different than when I got here, and I’m certain that a year or two years from now we’re going to look different again.”
That uncertain future is one Karlgaard, the most powerful man in Rice athletics, will play an integral role in shaping.
This article has been updated to reflect that Rice is the only FBS school to be in the US News top 20 and not in a Power 5 Conference outside of Notre Dame.