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‘I’ve always loved football until [he] came …’ players say Bloomgren has lost the locker room

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

By Ben Baker-Katz and Daniel Schrager     4/19/22 11:40pm

Editor’s note: The Thresher spoke to members of the Rice football team who played under Mike Bloomgren from his first season at Rice in 2018 through the most recent season in 2021. Players were given the option of remaining anonymous by the Thresher in the interest of preventing retaliation. Anonymous players were given false names, which have been marked with an asterisk on first reference.

Late in the 2019 college football season, with his team yet to win a game, Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren called a team meeting. According to Cooper*, many of his teammates were taken aback by what their coach had to say.

“One of our seasons, we were [winless], and we had a team meeting – everyone remembers this – and he told us how he doesn’t need this job, has a smoking hot wife, has [multiple] houses and doesn’t need any of this,” said Cooper, one of several players the Thresher spoke to for this article, three of whom only agreed to be quoted on the condition of anonymity.

According to Peyton*, who confirmed the content of the speech, that meeting was when he started to doubt his head coach.

“That’s when everything changed,” Peyton said. “That’s when we were like ‘this guy is just not a good guy and we don’t want to play football for him.’”

Cooper said that outbursts like this were not uncommon, and that Bloomgren has had a contentious relationship with his team throughout his tenure.

“I’d say 80 [or] 85 percent [of the players] really don’t like him, 15 percent [are] on the fence,” Cooper said. “I guess he’s oblivious to it.”

Peyton said he believes that somewhere from 15 to 25 percent of the team still support their coach while the rest of the players have mostly soured on Bloomgren.

In a statement provided to the Thresher, Bloomgren reiterated his dedication to the members of the Rice football team.

“I am proud of the tremendous young men in our football program, and I fully stand behind our commitment to their well-being,” the statement said. 

Former players have expressed that they see a disconnect between what Bloomgren says and how he interacts with his locker room.

“I don’t think he believes or means what he says most of the time, if it’s a positive thing,” said Eli*, who categorized Bloomgren as difficult to talk to and someone who struggles to connect with his players. “You talk to most of the kids on the team and they’ll say they’ve never had a normal interaction with him.”

Bloomgren often touts the strong culture that he is building at Rice. Eli said that Bloomgren, who received accolades for his recruiting skills as an assistant at Stanford University, sells this vision to potential players, but over time they begin to realize that it’s all an act.

“In the recruiting process he’s super smiley and friendly, and then the more you interact with him you’re like ‘there’s something really off with this guy,’” Eli said. “When he doesn’t follow through on the things he promises, you start to see through the facade that he has.”

According to Cooper, most players begin to develop animosity toward Bloomgren in their first couple of months playing for him.

“I realized it midway through [my] first season [with him],” Cooper said. “Usually it’s around that same time [in the season] with freshmen … We just start losing and everyone starts hating it and realizing how much Bloomgren is factoring into how much they hate it.”

According to Peyton, the team’s frustration with their coach is so rampant that it comes up constantly. 

“Any conversation [about] Rice football turns into a conversation about how much Mike Bloomgren sucks,” Peyton said.

Through four seasons, Bloomgren’s record sits at 11-31. However, according to Cooper, Bloomgren has been quick to deflect blame during the team’s struggles. At one meeting, Cooper said he recalls Bloomgren blaming the team’s record on some of their top players.

“One time, before a game against [Louisiana Tech University], he decided to go around the room and tell at least four of our key players how bad they were,” Cooper said. “How is that supposed to motivate us?”

According to Cooper, the problems run beyond just Bloomgren’s inability to connect with his players; he hasn’t been able to craft a game plan that suits his team either.

“I don’t think we utilize our talent to the best of our ability,” Cooper said. “He likes west coast [concepts with a] power run offense. Personally, I don’t think that will work at Rice because we can’t recruit the linemen to run a power run offense. I feel like every coach needs to adapt to their team and Bloomgren does not do that. He sticks to his philosophy and it doesn’t work here. I think if he realized that, we could be really good, but he’s just too stubborn.”

Eli said he believes Bloomgren’s stubbornness is reflective of the fact that he does not listen to criticism.

“He’s a smart guy … he’s able to make decisions competently, he just makes the wrong ones,” Eli said. “He hasn’t had anyone in his ear telling him ‘no this isn’t the right thing to do.’ He’s very authoritarian, where it’s either my way or the highway.”

According to Cooper, there have been a number of times where the team was left questioning Bloomgren’s play call.

“[In overtime against Middle Tennessee State University in 2020] we had the ball [needing a touchdown] to win the game,” Cooper said. “We ran ‘Toss Power King,’ which is a toss run play, to the right. Got stuffed. He decided to run it to the left. Got stuffed again. And then he decided to [position] the ball [for the ensuing field goal] on third down. That’s not winning football. When he [positioned] the ball, we were like ‘come on, why? Why are we doing this?’ [That] does happen a lot.”

According to a statement from Rice Athletics, playing time and play calling are the sole prerogative of a team’s coach.

“Who a coach elects to play in a game and what players are called are at the sole discretion of our coaches and while it is our hope that all Rice student-athletes have a positive experience, we recognize that there will always be some student-athletes across all sports who elect to continue their education and athletic careers at another institution and we wish them well,” the statement said.

Peyton said that each time Bloomgren called a play that the team felt had no chance of succeeding, they lost their motivation to play for him.

“He would just demoralize the team by running the ball on third and ten,” Peyton said. “We had no interest in even being any part of it because it just never felt like it was worth it. We never felt like we had the chance to win because of him.”

According to redshirt sophomore defensive linemen Izeya Floyd, Bloomgren is not the root of the team’s problems.

“As far as our shortcomings on the field, I feel [Bloomgren] gets overly blamed for our shortcomings as a football team,” Floyd said. “I think there are plenty of opportunities for us, as a team, including the staff, players and everyone else in the building, to improve.”

According to Eli, Bloomgren’s insistence on a physical style of play affects more than just the Owls offense, which has averaged under 20 points per game during his tenure.

“He has this philosophy for short yardage [and] goalline, for third and fourth down plays where … you try to get in the lowest position possible and fire out,” Eli said. “Once you’re on top of them, you want to roll around on them and put them in the ground. It’s the perfect way to get your players injured, because we run it [at practice] full speed, during the season, and it takes a big toll on players bodies.”

Eli said that he believes practicing such physical drills in the middle of the season caused injury problems in the starting lineup.

“We had a bunch of starters go down with shoulder injuries, neck injuries [and] concussions,” Eli said. “It’s a very brutal thing that we do, and we do it full speed in practice. It’s basically knocking out a bunch of your starting players just because you have this obsession with this one style of football.”

According to Peyton, it seemed at times like Bloomgren didn’t put much care into keeping his players safe. 

“I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t someone out with a concussion,” Peyton said. “He wasn’t big on the safety of the game.”

After this past season, 14 Owls opted to leave the program and enter the transfer portal. According to Cooper, it seemed to him that for many of these players, the decision to transfer was a direct result of their feelings towards their head coach and the direction of the team.

“As you can see in the transfer portal, there’s a lot of activity,” Cooper said. “One hundred percent [that’s because of Bloomgren].”

According to Bloomgren’s statement, while some players do choose to transfer, others find Rice to be fulfilling both athletically and academically.

“Every student who joins our program has the opportunity to challenge himself, both on and off the field, and has the opportunity to re-evaluate his decision at any time,” the statement said. “If a student-athlete decides to transfer, it’s disappointing, but I know that there are many others who believe that Rice exceeds their expectations, both on the field and in the classroom.”

Despite their feelings towards their coach, Eli said that any animosity in the locker room does not bleed into players’ relationships with each other.

“Our team is very close,” Eli said. “There’s a lot of great people on the team who want to be great for each other. We work out hard and practice hard for each other, because everyone gets along really well, but it’s not for the vision of the program or for Bloomgren. I don’t think anyone actually buys what Bloomgren is saying.”

Even with their struggles, Bloomgren is set to return for his fifth season. According to Eli, after the Owls’ upset win over the University of Alabama at Birmingham earlier this year, the team wasn’t as happy as they otherwise might have been — because they knew it would buy Bloomgren one more year.

“The inkling of hope [the UAB game] gave his chances to keep his job, I don’t think that sat well with a lot of people,” Eli said.

According to Cooper, the athletic department has been made aware of the team’s complaints with their coach, but is unwilling to absorb the cost of firing him.

“After [each] season, [the athletic department gives] us a survey to fill out and a lot of people tell the truth in it,” Cooper said. “Nothing really happens from it. It’s a five-year contract. If they fired him after last season, they’d still have to pay him another year, so what’s the point.”

According to the statement from Rice Athletics, the department fully investigates all concerns brought forward by student-athletes and takes appropriate action, when warranted.

“We are confident that any issues brought forward regarding the Rice football program have been fully examined and addressed,” the statement said. 

Both Cooper and Eli said that Bloomgren is not oblivious to the fact that there are issues with the team, but they don’t see eye-to-eye on where the blame lies.

“I think he realizes that there’s something wrong, but I don’t think that he thinks it’s him,” Eli said. “I think he places the blame on [the] players.”

According to Cooper, players’ outlooks on Bloomgren might change if he made more of an effort to understand them. 

“I think he’s deceived,” Cooper said. “He actually thinks players like him. But we don’t really like him – just because he doesn’t connect to us. Maybe if he connected to us on a deeper level than he is instead of saying we suck all the time, then maybe we would like him.”

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