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Graham earns respect from fellow players and coaches

By Ryan Glassman     3/28/12 7:00pm

In a sport in which success is justifiably measured by the objectivity of statistics, it is easy to look at the numbers as a barometer of Wayne Graham's coaching career at Rice. During his storied tenure on South Main, Graham has taken a program long mired in Southwest Conference mediocrity and transformed it into one of the country's baseball powerhouses over the last two decades. Consider that in the 73 seasons of Rice baseball preceding the Wayne Graham era, Rice never finished in the top spot in the conference's regular season standings. Since the 1992 season, Graham's inaugural campaign as the Rice head coach, the Owls have notched 16 straight conference titles, 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, seven appearances in the College World Series, and of course, the only national championship in the 100-year history of the university. With more than 1,500 collegiate coaching wins and multiple National Coach of the Year Honors at both the JuCo and Division I levels, Graham's career ranks amongst the greatest in the history of college baseball by any quantitative evaluation.

So when it was announced back on March 2 that Graham is part of an elite class that will be elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, we were provided with a measure of his celebrated career that defies the measure of figures.

"It feels very nice to be recognized by your peers, of course," Graham said in an interview with the Thresher earlier this week. "It's not something that you think about as you go along, but when it happens it's good."

Perhaps the same can be said not only of Coach Graham's influence on the program but also the university as a whole. Because as easy as it is to run through the numbers and list the on-field achievements, a Hall of Fame honor provides us the chance to step back and admire Graham's overall impact from a broader frame of view.

But in a sport defined by the measurable, how do you put a value on something that defies the limits of statistics? When I was given the assignment of writing a feature on Graham, I began to reach out to players and coaches, both current and former, for their accounts of their time spent under Graham. The overwhelming outpour of willingness to contribute gave me an idea of just how many lives that Graham has substantially influenced.

"He's one of the best coaches in college baseball, if not the best," pitcher Andrew Benak, a junior whose breakout 2012 season after an injury-riddled start to his Rice career perhaps best demonstrates Graham's loyalty to his players, said. "He stays on you, and he'll push you. That's one of the best things you can ask for from a coach. He doesn't give up on you."

Alumni feel the same way about Graham, as many of them feel he has changed their lives both on and off the field.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Graham," Chris Kolkhorst, one of the heroes from the 2003 National Championship team, said. "Of all the coaches I've played for, he's the best at managing his personnel and knowing how to get the most out of his players."

Extending from the diamond to the dugout, the impact of working with Graham has resonated with the coaching staff as well.

"He maxes guys out and really has the ability to push guys to a limit that they don't know they can go to," David Pierce, an assistant to Graham for nine years and currently in his first season as the head coach at Sam Houston State, said. "In my book, he will go down as the best coach in the country."

But in assessing the impact of Graham's illustrious career at Rice, it quickly became clear that his influence has set an example not only for the individuals he has worked with but also for the university as a whole.

"Coach Graham has brought a lot of national exposure to Rice just through playing in the College World Series," Kolkhorst said. "There are more people that know more about Rice today than ever before, and a lot of that is because of Coach Graham."

"Wayne Graham is a true Rice treasure," President David Leebron said, speaking toward what Graham means not only to Rice athletics but also to the institution as a whole. "His dedication and achievements have inspired all of us at the university, not just in athletics. We know from Wayne that even for a small university, there is, as Edgar Odell Lovett said, no upper limit to what we can achieve."

From coaching with him, Pierce has seen the impact Graham has had on student athletes as his passion really drives them.

"He has a great love for both the university and the city of Houston, and that passion showed throughout his teams," Pierce said. "His success has really helped Rice athletics gain more opportunities, which has also helped to increase enrollment and gain notoriety [for the university]."

From a personal standpoint, coming from out of state, the only thing I knew about Rice when a high school counselor brought it up to me was its strong baseball program that I had seen on television a few times. This familiarity piqued my interest, and four years later, I am privileged to cover Graham's program as part of my rewarding undergraduate career at Rice. I can genuinely say that, as a 16-year-old with no ties to the university or even to the state of Texas, Coach Graham was able to have a significant impact on my life.

The glowing words of appreciation make Graham's impact seemingly impossible to quantify. All we can do is appreciate his time spent at the universityand recognize the presence of one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history in our midst. Congratulations on the College Baseball Hall of Fame, Coach -yet another milestone in a career that has inspired more than we may ever realize.

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