The Fifth Lap
When Rice starts Conference USA play next fall, it will not be the C-USA the upperclassmen once knew. And by 2014, it will not be a conference recognizable to anyone currently at Rice at all.The migration of a few schools to the expansion-minded Big East Conference has transformed into an essential shift of the old C-USA to a new America-themed conference, leaving Rice to face a future with only four familiar conference partners and two existential questions: Do we belong in this C-USA anymore? And even if we do not, is there anywhere else for us to go? While the story of the most recent conference reorganization starts in 2010, for the purpose of brevity, it makes sense to pick up the history on Dec. 7, 2011. In dire straits after losing several members, the Big East Conference recruited the University of Houston, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Central Florida from C-USA (along with Boise State University and San Diego State University) effective fall of 2013. However, the Big East suffered more departures, which left the league again looking for new members and again calling upon C-USA schools. On Feb. 8, 2012 the Big East grabbed C-USA mainstay University of Memphis. However, the Memphis addition was not enough to stabilize the conference, and more departures left the Big East again in need of new members. In response, it attracted more defects from C-USA with ECU, Tulane and eventually Tulsa signing on to join effective 2014.Eventually, the instability of the Big East basketball programs strained what had been an atypical but mostly successful marriage between the conference's members who played football and those who did not. Soon after the acquisition of Tulane and ECU, the non-football members, popularly known as the Catholic Seven because of their common religious affiliation, broke away from the conference, taking the Big East moniker with them. The result was the renaming of the conference as the American Athletic Conference, a lamentably fitting choice given the number of C-USA defects making it up. Meanwhile, C-USA was busy recruiting new members of its own. By 2014, the University of Alabama, Birmingham; the University of Texas, El Paso; the University of Southern Mississippi, Marshall University; and Rice University will be joined by the University of Texas, San Antonio; North Texas University; Charlotte University; Old Dominion University; Louisiana Tech University; Florida Atlantic University; Florida International University; Western Kentucky University; and Middle Tennessee State University. Take a second look at that list. Sure, there are a few big Texas schools that are at least in the same time zone, but Florida International? Western Kentucky? Middle Tennessee State? These are important institutions, but Rice does not match with them either regionally or institutionally. The only element linking Rice with them is that all these universities play Division I sports and need someone to play Division I sports against. This is not to say the old C-USA was a particularly cohesive conference to begin with. In many ways, the new C-USA made up of big, primarily public universities makes more sense from an institutional cohesiveness point of view, but the old C-USA at least featured Tulane, Tulsa and SMU, which were more institutionally similar to Rice and made us feel like we belonged. There are not any strong regional conferences for Rice to seek membership in. Nor is there a league of smaller, top-tier universities that play football in the Bowl Subdivision (the Ivy League, which I do not think Rice should want to join anyway, plays Championship Subdivision football). Even if there were a great fit for a conference, Rice does not have the large alumni base, the football or basketball prowess, or the strong brand image a la Notre Dame to provide any leverage to gain entrance into such a conference. The best-case scenario would be for C-USA and the new American Athletic Conference to merge, form two completely autonomous geographic divisions, and then leverage the growing competition between regional sports networks to secure a strong TV deal (possibly with Fox Sports Networks or Comcast SportsNet, both of which focus on providing regional affiliates). A division made up of Rice, Tulane, Tulsa, SMU, Southern Miss, UTSA, UH, UTEP, Louisiana Tech and North Texas would be regionally compelling while also providing an equally compelling eastern counterpart. That solution, however, remains more a fairy tale than plausible outcome, particularly given the fact that TV contracts have already been signed.Unfortunately, Rice is struggling to find its place in the right conference at the same time that potential NCAA changes threaten to affect it as well. Let me be clear that despite many challenges, I firmly believe that top-tier athletics are important for Rice. They are part of bringing together a community of exceptional talent; great athletes add something to who we are as a university just like great engineers, great musicians, great writers and great scientists.Athletes are an important element of the Rice undergraduate experience. Beyond simply providing entertainment with athletic events, they provide a unifying effect across the entire campus. Most importantly, Rice's student-athletes have proven over time that great athletics and great academics are not mutually exclusive. Rice's student-athletes have gone on to gain entrance into top graduate schools, to earn competitive fellowships and to succeed at every level of business. Moreover, Bobby Tudor, who lettered in basketball from 1979-1982, will soon ascend to Rice chairman of the board, becoming the second consecutive chairman who was formerly a Rice student athlete.It is imperative that Rice continue to play athletics at the highest level. Even in this current less-than-pleasant reality, the benefits outweigh the costs. The challenge is to figure out with whom, exactly, to play them.
Being Cinderella is overrated. It is a lot more fun to know you belong.
This weekend, hundreds of alumni will return to campus for Beer Bike. Many of my friends who are coming back are a year, two years, three years or more removed from their Rice University graduation. They will come back and see the organizations they led going in new directions. They will enter their old familiar commons and see it filled with unfamiliar faces, and they will go to the bike track and watch the bikes go around while only recognizing a few of the names.The whole thing reminds me of Michael Jordan. Allow me to explain.A month ago, Wright Thompson of ESPN published an incredibly insightful and poignant profile of Michael Jordan on the verge of his 50th birthday. Thompson explored how the characteristics that drove Jordan as an athlete, particularly his ability to turn every slight, real or imagined, into fuel, have become a challenge in retirement. He documented Jordan in the midst of a transition: moving, remarrying and dealing with aging. Thompson wrote of Jordan not as a myth, but as a man, featuring his shortcomings as well as his most redeeming characteristics, showing the human element of the athlete who for a generation seemed superhuman. Clearly, it would be a bit of a stretch to compare any returning alum or any student here now to Jordan. However, our college careers are in many ways similar to athletic careers, even if most of us are more like one of Jordan's teammates whom we now struggle to remember.Like athletic careers, our collegiate careers are years of high pressure and high intensity. Instead of being judged on wins and losses, points and turnovers, we're constantly graded on papers and problem sets and exams. Like athletic careers, our collegiate careers are times in which we receive large amounts of attention. Right now, many of our accomplishments, both academic and extracurricular, are celebrated by our peers, by our mentors and by those outside of the hedges - and they should be. Yet as time passes, the significance of those accomplishments in the eyes of others begin to diminish. And like athletic careers, our collegiate careers quickly come to an end. Because of the parallels between the two, it is worth contemplating what lessons we might be able to glean from the athletic careers of others to improve our own collegiate ones. The first might be the importance of not taking the present for granted. In sports, there is always an emphasis placed on the next game, the next season, the next summit to be strived for, just like in college there is an emphasis on the next test, the next grade, the next job or the next graduate school. This emphasis on the future is part of what makes us great, what makes us never settle. But when it completely overshadows every accomplishment along the way, I believe something is lost. Appreciating each summit and peering up toward the next one should not be mutually exclusive, and those who are able to balance the two tend to have the most success, deal with adversity the best and be the most satisfied. A second lesson might involve learning to deal with the dynamics of intra-team competition. In sports and in college (and likely in our jobs), we face a strange dynamic in which our teammates are in some sense also our competition. We might be competing to win the race, to get playing time, to get the A+, or to get the selective internship or fellowship. The most successful teams are the ones that can balance these competing interests to make everyone better. A final lesson revolves around becoming comfortable with the effects of time. One of the most interesting parts of the profile on Jordan highlighted him watching a SportsCenter debate on whether Joe Montana or Tom Brady is a better quarterback."They're gonna say Brady because they don't remember Montana. Isn't that amazing?" Jordan quipped. The question for Jordan - and for us - is: Does it matter? Does time diminish or change the importance of Montana's accomplishments if people are partial to what they know and remember? After all, four or five years after we graduate, there will be few people at Rice who remember us.One important piece of the answer likely comes from the fact that Montana was someone who inspired Brady. Moreover, Brady is likely inspiring the next great quarterback as well as thousands of others. And Montana himself was likely inspired by a quarterback who is no longer even in the conversation. Likewise, the impact each of us has while at Rice will spread in ways we cannot fully see or understand, even as the recognition of what we have done diminishes. Is that something we can embrace?When we return to see our old organizations going in new directions, or to see our old commons filled with new and energized faces, or to see new beer bikers and chuggers becoming stars in their own right, it should not be a cause for sadness. It should be cause for nostalgia, for excitement, for a chance to share a little wisdom with those following the same path that had such a big impact on us.I hope Jordan comes to that same conclusion. I hope that when I read about him turning 60, I will again aspire to be like Mike. I hope Jordan comes to that same conclusion. I hope that when I read about him turning 60, I will again aspire to be like Mike.
As Tamir Jackson lay belly down on the Tudor Fieldhouse floor with just seconds left in his final home game, he let his fist come down on the hard court, echoing throughout the arena. Then he raised it and let it come down again. And again. And a few more times.
Too often when we celebrate the accomplishments of Rice Women's Swimming, accomplishments like this year's team conference championship, their second in the last three, the focus is on what they don't have.
Both Rice swimming and Rice track and field will compete in Conference USA competitions this weekend. Swimming will go in search of a seventh straight top-three team finish across town at the University of Houston, while men's and women's track will travel to Birmingham, Ala., to complete the indoor prelude to their outdoor seasons.
Last week, I found myself staring at a framed newspaper from the day after Rice baseball won its first NCAA College World Series title in 2003. Even though I've seen them over and over again, whether they're on the wall at Pub, or placed in Tudor, or on a banner along the inner loop, the images from that game still cause me to pause.In some ways, it's strange the impact they have on me. I don't remember the game. At the time I didn't keep up with college baseball or Rice sports or really even know much about Rice in general.Yet for me the pictures, the murals, the old newspapers, they all stand as testaments, powerful proofs of what can be achieved from inside the hedges. The challenges at Rice, athletically and otherwise, are unique. But so are the possibilities.It's fitting that the same Stanford Cardinal ball club that Rice defeated to win its first championship will visit Reckling Park this weekend for the first pitch of the 10th anniversary season of that victory. Rice's successes and shortcomings in the decade between that championship and this weekend's series have simultaneously highlighted the strength of the program while putting into perspective how special that 2003 accomplishment really is.Since winning the championship, Rice has extended its streak of winning the conference regular season and/or tournament title to 17 years (leading to this year's Phil Jacksonesque posters of Coach Wayne Graham and all his rings). They've also now reached the NCAA tournament on 18 consecutive occasions, giving them the fourth longest active streak behind only Cal State Fullerton (21), Florida State (35), and the University of Miami (40). And since 2003 Rice has been featured in Omaha three additional times, in 2006, 2007, and 2008.The magic of that 2003 victory, however, is in some ways magnified by what hasn't been accomplished since.Rice has not made a College World Series final since 2003. In both 2006 and 2007, the team came within one victory of that platform before being eliminated by consecutive losses.Moreover, the Class of 2012 became the first class since 1996 to finish tier undergraduate careers without seeing the Owls play in Omaha, despite the team twice entering the tournament as a top08 national seed (rewarding them with home field advantage throughout the tournament) and featuring arguably the best player in Rice history in Anthony Rendon.These recent statistics are not criticisms. They should not be seen as failures or letdowns. They are simply reminders of how impressive the program's accomplishments taken together over the last two decades really are. And lest we take for granted the accomplishment of making the NCAA tournament in and of itself, it should be noted that before beginning this streak in 1995, Rice had never qualified before.Rice baseball isn't just consistently one of the best teams on campus - it is one of the best programs in the nation across all sports.Not only is it one of the best programs in the nation, it also provides a home-game experience that is not only unique and excellent, but also is a potential piece of a great Rice experience. Enjoying baseball requires slowing down, and a chance to slow down is often what this campus sorely needs.At Reckling Park, you can spend an evening out on the outfield hill enjoying the sunset, watching little kids play and young alums have bottle rolling competitions. Or you can soak in the afternoon sun from the stands listening to the rhythm of each pitch reaching the catcher's glove broken by the staccato sound of hits off an aluminum bat.And somehow in this slowed down state moments still become incredibly exciting, painfully heartbreaking, and occasionally even inspiring. There are acrobatic catches, sudden home-run shots, and phony fly-balls that get your hopes up off the bat before drifting harmlessly to an outfielder.There are those game-on-the-line moments with two men on and two men out settled by the ritual challenge between the pitcher and his ball and the batter with his bat.It's a different kind of sporting experience, but it's one that begs to be taken advantage of.So this weekend series against Stanford shouldn't be the only trip to Reckling Park. Instead, it should be a regular piece of this spring. Rice baseball can be a relaxing Saturday afternoon, a mid-week multi-inning study break, or a reason to procrastinate a little longer before starting Sunday's work.Plus, it's impossible to know when the boys with the R on their cap will give us, and the students who come after us, pictures to pause and marvel at once again.
When President Barack Obama called to congratulate the Baltimore Ravens and Head Coach John Harbaugh on their Super Bowl victory, he made a special point to mention how inspired he and the first lady were by a story on Rice alumnus O.J. Brigance.Brigance, who is currently the Ravens' director of player development, was a standout linebacker and three-year starter for the Owls from 1987 to 1991, twice being named to the All-Southwest Conference team.After going undrafted in 1991, Brigance played in the Canadian Football League before eventually making the NFL roster of the Miami Dolphins in 1996. In 2000, Brigance joined the Baltimore Ravens and became the team's special-teams captain. When the Ravens reached Super Bowl XXXV that season, it was Brigance who recorded the game's first tackle in what would be a winning effort.In 2007, Brigance was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. The debilitating and eventually fatal motor neuron disease robbed Brigance of his ability to use his arms, to walk and, eventually, to talk. Yet using a motorized wheelchair and communication technology, Brigance has continued in his front-office role with the Ravens, making the most of the abilities and the time he has left to continue having an impact on those around him.For more on Brigance, see the video "Heart of the Ravens" on ESPN.com or search "Brigance" at riceowls.com.