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Tuesday, March 28, 2023 — Houston, TX

Wilson fired after 16 years with men's basketball

By Casey Michel     3/20/08 7:00pm

While winning may not constitute the entire purpose of sport, it is certainly one of the more important requirements of coaching a Division I athletic program. Because of this requirement, men's basketball head coach Willis Wilson (Will Rice '82) was fired last Friday, two days after Rice was knocked out of the Conference USA tournament by the University of Southern Mississippi. The final loss dropped the Owls to 3-27 overall, and their 0-16 showing in conference play now stands as the worst men's basketball record in C-USA history.As the face of Rice basketball for the last 16 years, Wilson compiled a 219-246 record to become both the longest tenured and winningest coach in Rice history. However, Wilson's extensive experience could not lead the Owls around the numerous roadblocks they encountered during the course of the 2007-'08 season, and by the time the last whistle blew, the defeats added up to a 20-game losing streak, the third-worst run for men's basketball in school history.

Athletics Director Chris Del Conte said the reason for Wilson's firing went beyond this season's results and was a conclusion based on several factors.

"When we came to the decision that we were going to make a change in men's basketball, it was a culmination of a lot of things," Del Conte said. "We've had such peaks and valleys throughout [Wilson's] career, [so] there was not a huge continuity of interest within the program. I thought we needed to make a change to breathe new life into the program."

Wilson could not be reached for comment.

His final year as head coach was arguably one of the toughest in his coaching career. Four of his five opening day starters were hampered for much of the season with injuries, forcing Wilson to pick up numerous non-scholarship athletes, including sophomore football players Chance Talbert and Pierre Beasley.

Beasley said Wilson never gave up on the season.

"I think he was a really good coach, [but] it was just a bad year," Beasley said. "He always came to practice every day ready to coach us like we were winning every game, like we were 25-3 instead of 3-25. He never really got down on us. He always told us after each game to keep our heads up."

In addition to the difficulties posed by injuries, the renovations to Autry Court - scheduled to be completed by this fall - forced Rice to play home games at venues ranging from the nearby Reliant Arena to the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas. The inconvenience of traveling to off-campus locations took its toll on student attendance. And although Wilson helped spearhead the $25 million fundraising efforts for Autry renovations, his tenure ended before he could see the results of his efforts.

Whatever the factors that might have led to the season's overall direction, the athletics department decided it was time to make the change, and for the first time since 1992, someone new will take the helm of Rice basketball. The search for Wilson's replacement began immediately after his departure, and while certain names have been floatedaround - like University of Arizona assistant Josh Pastner and Sam Houston State University head coach Bob Marlin - Del Conte said the search was in its early stages.

In addition to Wilson, three former assistant coaches were also released including Brent Scott (Jones '03), Omar Mance (Baker '03) and Marty Gillespie.

This season included, Wilson's teams made it to the National Invitation Tournament three times during his 16 years: First in 1993 after Wilson's inaugural season, second in 2004 and third in 2005, which was Rice's last season with a winning record.

Despite the presence of some of Rice's most talented players on the roster during Wilson's years, including 2007 NBA first-round draft pick Morris Almond (Martel '07) and all-time leading scorer Michael Harris (Wiess '05), the Owls have not made the NCAA tournament since the 1970-'71 season.

In overall season results, seven of Wilson's seasons finished with the Owls above .500, but three also finished with Rice managing less than 10 wins. The team's best record under Wilson was a 22-11 mark posted in the 2003-'04 season.

Wilson's career at Rice spanned over 25 years, as he was a four-year letterman for Rice from 1979-'82 and co-captain his senior year. The Indianapolis, Ind., native then became a Rice assistant coach for five years and, after serving as an assistant at Stanford University during the 1991-'92 season, was hired as Rice's head coach in 1992.

The man who hired Wilson, former Athletics Director Bobby May, said that while Wilson's teams may have struggled at times, the program's growth was evident.

"He had his ups and downs, but certainly I thought the program was improved over where it had been a number of years before," May said. "There were low points, [but] that's speaking in terms of the win-loss record. All the other areas were exceptional - the way he handled himself, his impact on the university and his overall positive influence.. He's highly respected, and I'm sure he'll land on his feet."

In the end, Del Conte said the decision to part ways with Wilson moved beyond personal attributes and came down to what was in the best interests of the athletic department.

"Wilson's a tremendous guy, a great coach, and he's been great for Rice," Del Conte said. "But at the same time, I just think that it was the right time to make a change for the betterment of the athletic program.

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