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Monday, June 17, 2024 — Houston, TX

Five years later, Wayne Graham reflects on retirement, end of Rice tenure

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

By Daniel Schrager     2/15/23 12:12am

Wayne Graham lives in Austin now. A lifelong Houstonian, the former Rice baseball coach decided to move three hours west in 2020 after spending nearly each of the first 84 years of his life in the Bayou City. But according to Graham, who left the Owls after 27 seasons in 2018, he doesn’t miss his hometown.

“Not a bit,” Graham said. “I lived in Houston all my life … I don’t need any more of it.”

Graham has seen the city change over the years. When he was growing up, his father would take him to wrestling matches at the Sam Houston Coliseum in downtown. The stadium was torn down 25 years ago, and it stopped hosting wrestling in 1987. Both high schools that he attended have since been renamed. One constant throughout his time in Houston, though, was Rice.

“My dad ushered at Rice,” Graham said. “He ushered in both stadiums, took me to all the games. That’s where I got hooked and always loved Rice. My favorite song growing up was ‘Rice’s Honor.’”

For Graham, who led the Owls to their only national title 20 years ago, his unimpeachable Texas credentials are one of many reasons he found to bring up his troubled relationship with Rice Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard, his boss during the last five years of his tenure.

“Basically, the two places I’ve lived in my life have been Houston and Austin,” Graham said. “I was a true Texan, a true Houstonian. It was amazing to me that Karlgaard would dare treat someone with my record, and that was that blue-blooded [of] a Texan, like that.”

Graham said that his issues with his former boss stemmed from Karlgaard’s desire that Graham recruit nationally, while the College Baseball Hall of Famer preferred to focus his efforts on local prospects before branching out, in addition to their workplace dynamic.

“I always thought that instead of me being some sort of threat to Karlgaard, I should have been his mentor,” Graham said. “I think we’re still alienated.”

Even on his way out the door in 2018, when Karlgaard opted not to renew his contract after the first losing season of his entire tenure, Graham tried to convince his boss, a Stanford University alum, that his method was best.

“The rumor out of his office was that I wasn’t going to be brought back and it was affecting the team badly,” Graham said. “So I think it was in April, I asked for an interview and he informed me that I wasn’t going to come back. So I told him, ‘that [Rice] team that beat your school 14-2 for the national championship [in 2003] was with Texas players.’”

Graham wanted to stay just one extra year, but Karlgaard wouldn’t budge, and the former head coach said that in hindsight, the decision was probably for the best.

“I thought I would miss it more than I do,” Graham said. “But I’m not in good health, and I don’t think I would have been in good health had I stayed at Rice.”

Had he stayed just one more year, Graham said he had a number of recruits lined up who would have left the program in better shape. He also hoped that Rice would replace him with his longtime assistant and current University of Texas at San Antonio head coach Pat Hallmark. Instead, Rice opted to hire Matt Bragga from Tennessee Tech University, who was fired after three seasons. Even as the Owls have endured five straight losing seasons, Graham said he still tries to keep up with Rice baseball when he can, but no more than other programs he feels some connection with.

“We follow college baseball in general, but I usually follow the programs that I had some association with,” Graham said. “Obviously we follow UTSA because of Pat Hallmark. He’s done very well there. And of course I’ve followed Mike Taylor [an assistant coach] at Baylor [University] and now I’ll follow Clay Van Hook who has a head job at [the University of Texas at] Arlington.”

One former assistant however, University of Texas at Austin head coach David Pierce, takes up much more of his time than the rest. According to Graham, he spends most of his days at Longhorns practices, serving as an unofficial consultant of sorts.

“Me and David are close,” Graham said. “My wife and David’s wife, Susan, are close. And it’s worked out well, because we are within eight minutes of the stadium. We, in general, go to all the practices and communicate about baseball.”

Graham is 86 now, and will turn 87 in April. He spends his days reading, doing puzzles and exercising when he’s not helping Pierce, but he said it’s been hard to keep up his day-to-day activities as his health has worsened. Graham was recently diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, a condition caused by the build up of proteins in his heart. While he takes medication to manage, Graham said his declining health has tested his resolve.

“It’s not fun,” Graham said. “It’s an ordeal. But, you know, you react in life to the challenges you have.”

Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard declined to comment.

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