My first article for the Thresher sports section was a preview of the football team’s 2015 road game at the University of Texas, Austin. Rice was feeling pretty good about itself. The week prior, the Owls had destroyed FCS team Wagner University 56-16 in the season opener. They were coming off three consecutive bowl appearances and were picked by the conference media to finish second in the Conference USA West Division behind only Louisiana Tech University.
The Longhorns were coming off a brutal loss to the University of Notre Dame. They looked vulnerable. And Rice truly believed it had a chance to beat Texas. At least, head coach David Bailiff said it did.
“We’re dreaming big right now,” Bailiff said. “For us to pull it off, we have to be the best team and not turn the ball over, not get stupid penalties. You can’t go to Austin and have any of that go against you. You know, we’re dreaming big.”
Since those big dreams were crushed in a 42-28 loss in Austin, Rice football has won just eight games. Yes, I can count every Rice football win during my three years working for the Thresher sports section on my own two hands. It has not been pretty. At all.
This is my final column as the Thresher Sports Editor. For those who do not know, I am transitioning to be next year’s co-Editor-in-Chief. I don’t know if this is the last sports column I will ever write for the Thresher, but I know that any contributions I make will be far less regular. As I look back on that press conference that marked the beginning of my tenure with the Thresher, I see a certain irony in all of my work.
I have spent three years writing columns about Rice Athletics. Some have been complimentary, but the majority, especially my most recent piece about the current state of Rice’s men’s sports, have been negative. Yet, despite all of the negativity, those big dreams Bailiff talked about nearly three years ago remain.
There is still hope that Rice can make it onto the national stage. Outside of the baseball team’s dominant run of the late 1990s and early 2000s, that dream has never come true. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t.
Rice Athletics is showing a commitment to winning. It has responded to three disappointing football seasons by replacing its head coach with a young, up-and-coming coach who views Rice’s academics as an asset, not a limitation. It has prioritized the men’s basketball team to the point that its recruiting classes have ranked in the top three in the conference four of the past five years, including, as of today, 2018. Only transfers have impeded the program’s rise. Like it or not, it has yet to extend legendary baseball head coach Wayne Graham’s contract in response to baseball’s declining record.
On the women’s side, women’s basketball recruiting has helped the Owls rise from mediocrity to consecutive postseason tournament appearances and a tournament championship. Soccer, tennis, track, volleyball and swimming have all been consistently good, racking up conference championships and postseason appearances during Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard’s tenure.
And yet, success alone has never been enough for Karlgaard’s department. He has been open about Rice’s desire to rise through the conference ranks, unsatisfied with remaining in C-USA. When the Big 12 opened itself to new applicants, Rice put its name in the running and made the first round of cuts before the league backtracked and decided not to invite new members. The idea of Rice someday being back in a power conference is not as far-fetched as it may currently seem; its academic prowess and potential in the Houston market are assets few other Group of Five schools can boast.
Those big dreams, as crazy as they may appear right now, are not so unachievable. It’s perfectly acceptable for Rice fans to keep up hope; what would sports fandom be without it? There will be a day when the Owls again have a big win, when they defeat a rival they haven’t beaten in years, when they will be triumphant once more. That’s the beauty of sports; every season is a new beginning. So keep dreaming big, Owls fans. Here’s hoping that someday those dreams come true. Time for me to sign off.