Illustration by Esther Tang

It’s early in the baseball team’s first intrasquad game of the spring season. There are a few Rice fans in attendance on the overcast afternoon, but Reckling Park is almost silent. Silent, that is, until a voice bellows from behind home plate.

“Duluc, steal second!” head coach Wayne Graham yells. “Now!”

Graham sits down in his seat and the ballpark is quiet again. The only sound is the pitchers in the stands snickering at junior infielder Rodrigo Duluc as he takes his lead off first base. Graham watches as Duluc then dutifully steals second ahead of the throw.

Now 81 years old and in his 27th season at the helm of the Owls, Graham appears as focused as ever. He seldom sits still, pacing between the dugout and the seats behind home plate as the game goes on. His concentration only ever sways from the game to ask his pitchers, who compile stats when they aren’t in the game, for information.

Former outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. played for Graham in the early 1990s. His son, freshman infielder Trei Cruz, is now on the baseball team. It has been 23 years since Jose Cruz Jr. last played for the Owls, but after interacting with Graham during his son’s recruiting process, he says the manager is as intense as always.

“He’s a very relentless type of competitor,” Jose Cruz Jr. said. “He wants to do whatever possible to win. That kind of passion definitely rubs off on all the players.”

The Owls showcased their coach’s relentless spirit last season, rallying from a 13-25 start to finish 33-31 and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament with a perfect 4-0 record in the conference tournament. It was the closest the coach had ever come to finishing with a losing record in his 27 years at Rice.

Now, he enters uncharted territory. Graham is in the final year of his contract. He expressed a desire to continue coaching beyond 2018 at the end of last season, but first Rice must renew his contract. Rice Athletics has yet to comment on whether this season will be Graham’s last. According to sports information director Chuck Pool, this is in accordance with athletic department practice.

“The department’s policy is to not comment on the contract status of current employees,” Pool said.

If this is Graham’s final season, it will not be due to lack of success. In his 38 years as a head coach at the high school, junior college and Division I level, his team has never had a losing season. He has won six national championships: five at San Jacinto Junior College and one at Rice in 2003. The Owls have appeared in 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the third best active streak in the nation. His record at Rice is 1,147-497 for a winning percentage of .698.

Graham’s playing career was not nearly as storied. He played professional baseball for 11 seasons, from 1957 to 1967. His only major league appearances came in 1963 with the Philadelphia Phillies and in 1964 with the New York Mets, and he played just 30 total games at the major league level. Otherwise, he toiled in the minors. The experience, Graham said, taught him the skills to be a successful manager.

“I had to work my guts out to be a player,” Graham said. “The journeymen, the catcher — they make better managers because they had to work incredibly hard. If you’re a superstar, you don’t see the world the same way. You just don’t. You tend to want to build a hitter in your own image, and most people don’t see the ball as well as you or have the reflexes that you have.”

Despite his immense success, Graham has never been known as a gentle mentor. His outbursts are famous among players, with the common theme that all include a great deal of yelling. Former catcher Sanjiv Gopalkrishnan (McMurtry ’17), who was a walk on for one season, recalled a couple of instances when the coach called him over in a rage.

“The worst was when I accidentally interrupted a pitch call to ask the coaching staff a question,” Gopalkrishnan said. “We won the game, but afterwards I got chewed out like never before. There aren’t many things more intimidating than an 80-year-old man yelling at you for something [that’s] completely your fault.”

Although he often showcases his fiery temper, Graham’s players say they respect him. Gopalkrishnan said Graham excels at building rapport with players despite his angry outbursts.

“He has an uncanny ability to relate to his players, which brings out the best in them and leads to results on the field,” Gopalkrishnan said.

If Graham is feared due to his intensity, he is respected for his memory. Graham spent a recent interview about the 2003 championship team rattling off the names of pitchers from Rice’s postseason opponents and correctly noting everything from the 2003 Owls’ winning pitchers in their College World Series games to their 0-2 record against Lamar University. Sports Information Assistant Director John Sullivan recalled a trip years ago to San Francisco when Graham pointed out a statue of Baseball Hall of Fame member Juan Marichal. Graham allegedly yelled to the team bus, “That guy must be good; he struck me out!”

His knowledge extends far outside of baseball. Graham spent nine years as a high school world history teacher in public schools in Houston. The Rice baseball team took a trip to Cuba to play exhibition games in November of 2016, only to have the trip interrupted by the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In a preseason interview last season, Graham shared what he learned from the journey.

“I developed a more sophisticated look at American imperialism,” Graham said. “I also learned more about what enabled Castro to conquer Cuba. After he did it, they were a model for other nations’ guerrilla operations.”

He continued to talk about Castro for a full three minutes until a player launched a home run over the hill beyond Reckling’s left field fence. Then his focus turned back to baseball.

If this is Graham’s final year at Rice, he is optimistic about going out on top. When asked if he believes Rice can return to the College World Series, Graham did not hesitate.

“Oh yeah,” Graham said. “This team, is very solid. So many teams now, you never know what will happen with the pitching. We’ve got pretty good pitching now.”

The future of Rice baseball will go on with or without Graham. But he has no desire to leave. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2016, Graham said he hopes to coach for years to come.

“Clint Eastwood still loves to direct movies at 85, and he’s directing good ones,” Graham said. “Robert Duvall is [acting] at 85. If you’re doing something you really like, unless you’ve got something in retirement you’d like better, why would you change?”

It will be up to Rice Athletics to decide whether this is Graham’s final year. But if Graham has his way, he will not be going anywhere anytime soon.