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Monday, April 15, 2024 — Houston, TX

A despondent fan’s guide to Rice football

Ndidi Nwosu / Thresher

By Landry Wood     9/5/23 11:43pm

It hasn’t always been this way.

On Sept. 2, the Owls played their first football game as members of the American Athletic Conference. They lost to their 109-year rivals the University of Texas at Austin, just like they have in every meeting but two since 1963. In that time, much has changed about how those teams relate to each other: Texas is in a “power five” conference, and Rice is not; Texas has won four national championships, and Rice has won none. The Owls have gone from playing the Longhorns in a mid-October rivalry match to being a season-opening tune-up game. 

“The Southwest’s most bitter gridiron feud is ready to flare again,” the Austin American-Statesman wrote in October 1938, “when the Longhorns and the Owls clash for the 25th time in Houston.”

“A blowout of Rice is expected,” the Associated Press wrote last week.

In time gone by, Rice football dominated one of the top conferences in collegiate sports. This was the Southwest Conference, which hosted Rice from its founding in 1914 to its dissolution in 1996 and of which the Owls were champions six times between 1930 and 1960. Over that period, the Owls’ yearly opponents included powerhouses Texas A&M University, the University of Arkansas and Texas. Their record against these three was 54-36-3. During those thirty years, Rice finished seven seasons ranked in the AP Poll, played in six bowl games and won four. 

With the sixties came shifts in who held conference power. As Texas and Arkansas rose to prominence, claiming national championships in 1963 and 1964, respectively, Rice would fail to have a winning season from 1964 to 1992. This period of decay occurred in the background of rival Southern Methodist University’s “Pony Express,” as that program claimed two national titles in the early 1980’s before being shut down by the NCAA in the wake of a vast cheating scandal. This, followed by the departure of several schools for other conferences, led to the Southwest Conference dissolving in the summer of 1996. The very final football game played with “SWC” painted on the field and printed on the jerseys was between the Owls and the University of Houston, in Rice Stadium. Rice lost.

“Texas and Texas A&M were off to greener pastures,” ESPN wrote in 2020, “and Rice and Houston were left twisting in the wind.”

The SWC’s largest schools, such as Texas and A&M, went on to found the Big 12, while Rice, SMU and Texas Christian University joined the Western Athletic Conference. The football Owls performed well during their nine WAC seasons, being conference-title runners-up twice, but were separated from most of their historic rivals and could not form compelling new enmities with their constantly shifting lineup of yearly foes; by 2004, only three of the eight conference opponents Rice faced in 1996 remained on the schedule. 

“Rice has enjoyed more success across the board in its athletic department,” the Houston Chronicle wrote in 2004, “but its stay in the ever-changing and far-reaching WAC hasn’t helped the Owls succeed at the turnstiles.”

This period of transition and realignment finally saw Rice land in Conference USA. By 2006, the Owls had not made a bowl game since 1961. They were coming off a 1-10 season, it was their second year in a new conference and their first year with a new head coach, Todd Graham. They began the season by losing four games in a row, then beat Army, then lost to Tulane. 

The Owls proceeded to win six consecutive contests, the school’s longest streak since they were SWC Champions and ranked fifth in the AP Poll in 1949, to clinch a ticket to the New Orleans Bowl. They lost that game, but would win the Texas Bowl two years later, their first postseason victory since the 1954 Cotton Bowl. These events initiated a period of resurgence under the guidance of head coach David Bailiff, who led the Owls to two more bowl game wins and an eventual C-USA championship in 2013. 

According to Chuck Pool, Rice’s assistant athletic director since 2006, those football teams’ successes were among Rice Athletics’ most significant as a member of the C-USA.

“Football winning ten games twice, receiving votes in the final AP Poll in 2008 and winning a C-USA title were milestones,” Pool said, “but it was truly memorable to see the excitement among [Owls] fans when the 2006 team earned Rice’s first bowl berth in 45 years.”

2014 was the Owls’ last winning season to date. This dropoff in success coincided with changes on the business side that, according to Pool, had negative effects on brand promotion.

“When realignment came again in 2012 and 2013, [C-USA] lost a number of branded programs and replaced them with programs that were just making the move to the [Football Bowl Subdivision] level,” Pool said. “By 2015, the national exposure became even more challenging and that continued creating even more difficulty in promoting the brand.”

Despite being AAC newcomers, this year the Owls will play many old faces; nine of the 12 teams on this season’s schedule once shared another conference with Rice. It is a new gallery filled with familiar rogues, and a chance for Rice football to begin a better future by performing more like the past.

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