Karlgaard’s dilemma: Bloomgren is the cause of progress, stagnation
When Rice moves to the American Athletic Conference next season, they’ll be one of three teams in the AAC named the Owls. If they opt to change their nickname to avoid confusion, might I suggest the Tortoises. The Owl football team has religiously followed the “slow-and-steady” model since head coach Mike Bloomgren took the helm in 2018, adding one win each year, with the exception of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Five years into his tenure, Bloomgren is just 16-38, a mark that would seemingly put his job in jeopardy. But under his leadership, the team has taken a small but noticeable step — one win, to be exact — each year.
This puts Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard in a bind. On one hand, he has given Bloomgren five chances to prove that he’s the right person to lead the Owls forward, and each time he’s responded with a losing record. On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the progress the program has made since he took over. Why start over now, when the team looks on the verge of becoming a winning program?
Bloomgren deserves a ton of credit for the progress Rice has made. After taking over a team in steep decline, culminating in a one-win season in 2017, he broke Rice out of its tailspin. An award-winning recruiter during his time as an assistant at Stanford University, Bloomgren has expanded Rice’s recruiting efforts beyond Texas, and worked the transfer portal and junior college circuit to bring in the kind of talent needed to compete in the conference. He also articulated and implemented a clear vision for the program: a physical, run-first team that plays smart football and wins at the line of scrimmage. Having such a clear goal has given the program something to work towards.
But as much as he is responsible for the progress they’ve made in recent years, there’s reason to believe that the program is nearing its ceiling under his leadership. The team may have added a win from their total last year, but they were still solidly in the bottom half of Conference USA. The Owls tied for seventh place out of 11 teams in C-USA and were only one game out of a tie for last place. In their two games against the conference’s bottom teams, they were blown out by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and only beat Louisiana Tech University after a failed two-point conversion attempt in overtime.
Even more alarmingly, the Owls point differential was the second-worst in the entire conference, scoring the second-fewest points in conference play and allowing the fourth-most. All three of their conference wins came in the final minutes of games that just as easily could have gone the other way. While five wins seems like an accomplishment, the underlying numbers suggest that this Owls team wasn’t all that different than, say, their 3-9 team in 2019 that finished fourth-to-last in point differential – they just won an extra game or two on last-second plays.
This points to the larger problem that’s plagued Bloomgren his entire time at Rice. As I’ve written several times, Bloomgren’s emphasis on controlling the time of possession battle amounts to nothing more than shortening the game so neither team has a chance to run up the score. This works great if you’re an overmatched team trying to pull off an upset. But in theory, the better team should want more possessions to lower the chance of a flukey loss. Bloomgren has done a lot to improve Rice’s depth chart, but still coaches like he’s trying to hide a bad roster. As a result, the Owls consistently play down to weaker opponents. In his tenure, they’ve only won five FBS games by more than one score, and only two FBS games by 20 or more.
Some of the best teams in college football win by controlling the clock with a dominant run game; that’s what Bloomgren’s teams did at Stanford. But he’s yet to show that he can build the offensive line necessary for that style of football on South Main. Unless he’s able to consistently recruit a dominant offensive line – a long shot with Rice’s academic standards and proximity to much more prominent programs that take top talent, especially as they face stronger opponents in the AAC – or learns to play to his team’s strengths, the Owls will keep making incremental progress before leveling off around 0.500.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that the team would be better off without Bloomgren. He’s a known commodity who’s shown he can build a solid program, and letting him go would mean taking a risk on someone who could be far worse. I’d go as far as to say he’s the reason the program is where it is right now. But he’s also the reason it’s not improving nearly fast enough, and Karlgaard will have to take that into account too as he decides what’s best for the future of the program.
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