Rice-UH rivalry now a friendlier one

coogs72.jpg (63602 bytes)In the long and occasionally truncated sports rivalry between Rice and the University of Houston – a rivalry that was felt on the respective campuses and on downtown city streets long before it began to be played out on the fields – something has happened.

Down deep, a number of young and old, Owls and Cougars alike, still may harbor old feelings of animosity – we hear you out there, Coach Lewis: "Ah’d rather go to HAIL than lose to RASS!"

The reason why Guy Lewis might harbor such feelings aren't at all that unreasonable -- for much of his long tenure as U of H basketball coach, Rice administrators wouldn't deign to engage his Cougar teams  in so much as a tiddly-winks game.

Ever since "first contact" occurred in 1970, when Rice sponsored   Houston's entry into the Southwest Conference, the  somewhat one-sided athletic rivalry between the schools seemed to all concerned to play out as a zero-sum game; with any on-field success experienced by one inuring to the detriment of the other.

As Houston became more and more of a pro-sports town, the battle for column - inches, out of necessity, grew more intense, and the increasingly jaded coverage of area news media rubbed salt into mutual wounds.

But once Rice and the U of H announced resumption of both their football and basketball rivalries a couple of years ago, the respective administrators involved, by natural inclination, it appeared, took up such renewal amid a climate of mutual respect and a desire for synergy.

The shabby treatment visited upon both Rice and U of H by their former state-school brethren of the old Southwest Conference made more than a few people, in either camp, realize that the two schools, if they wished to survive in the shark-infested waters of intercollegiate athletics, might best cast their lots as shipmates in a single lifeboat.

This week, while Rice president Dr. Malcom Gillis wrote in the Houston Chronicle op - ed page, calling for further co-operative ventures between the two universities as a way of making them both stronger, the staunchest, old-time supporters of their athletic teams met on an  occasion which could only be described as downright cordial.

The locus of good feeling evident, all-around, at the Touchdown Club Bayou Bucket Luncheon Thursday, was centered right up there on the dais.

Bobby May, Ken Hatfield, Chet Gladchuk, Dana Dimel. If one wishes to identify the engine driving both renewed, good relations and the promise of on-field success for both schools, one might well focus directly on these four talented, eminently sensible men.

Amid the blessings of the respective university administrations, it seems that with such sort of  leadership,  Rice and the University of Houston, might, with great irony, serve  significant roles in their mutual resurgences in athletics   -- along with, who knows, discoveries in the science labs that we now can only dream of.

--PTH (August 31, 2000)

What's with ESPN, anyway?
In jungle environment, Rice needs to protect backside

ESPN, in yet another bizarre exhibition of journalistic irresponsibility, on Monday blithely reports, without any attribution whatsoever, that SMU and TCU are already gone from the WAC and voted in to Conference USA at their league fathers' Tuesday meeting.   It was consistent with the ongoing  brick-bat throwing that has characterized the ABC-owned sports cable network's attitude toward and relationship with the eight-team Western Athletic Conference ever since a separate broadcast deal was signed with TCU several months ago.  So what's going on?

After all, the story was immediately denied by the presidents and athletic directors of both schools -- and fairly well vehemently, at that. 

"I think all of this is some shoddy reporting by USA Today and ESPN," Rice president Malcom Gillis said. "I heard the rumor on Thursday and called Gerald (Dr. Gerald Turner, SMU president) and Mick (Dr. Michael Ferrari, TCU chancellor) and asked them to tell me what was going on. They said they were keeping their options open, but they had not applied (for C-USA membership). And they said no one will be there on their behalf at the presidents' meeting (Aug. 30 at Chicago). They told me they were not pursuing it and I took it at face value."

Any university president who's crafty enough to drive a 35-year-old GMC pickup to work hasn't taken any wooden nickels in years.  But it seems, when it comes to conference realignment, there's danger in taking any statement, from any source, at face value.

Rice's experience of the past five years should demonstrate that.  With the treachery surrounding the demise of the Southwest Conference and the 16-team WAC, it would appear that one of the top items on Rice AD Bobby May's job description would need to be, "watch our backside."

The skulduggery consistently displayed by Rice former, and current, conference brethren -- and the carefully-worded semi-denials emanating this week from the Hilltop and Cowtown -- tend to suggest a modest proposal for Rice administrators:  hire some outside help!

Rice sports administration has performed admirably on all the traditional fronts during the May reign:  winning teams, excellent student-athletes, the highest graduation rates, no cheating.  But expecting the existing staff to cover all the bases required for best positioning in the coming, inevitable realignment wars, is unrealistic.

The better plan is to do what any successful business would under the circumstances:   for this job, Rice needs a public relations firm -- a PR/management consultant with attorneys on call and private investigation services on the job.  Seriously, we mean it:  put some gumshoes on the tail of our league compadres!  Develop an intelligence front so as to stay informed of the machinations, league-by-league; and devise a system to manage Rice's potentially available options.

The consultant and attorney fees might reach into the mid-six-figures.  But if the considered goal of the university administration is to maintain, if not enhance, Rice's position in the pantheon of intercollegiate athletics, the money is cheaper, at twice the price,  than the cost of getting  blindsided.

After all, this is an environment where, as we have seen, a major cable sports network thumb-nosingly engages in actionable tortious interference in order to enhance the position of one minor television contract with one mid-rung competitor. It's an environment where every-man-for-himself has proven to be the byword, in each and every quarter, from top dog to bottom rung.

So we shouldn't be surprised when players like ESPN gratutiously nuke the prospects of nice-guy, do-it-the-right-way actors like Rice.  It's a jungle out there.

Time for a little guerrilla warfare.

--PTH (Sept. 1, 1999)

Eight-team WAC not so bad
a parking place for Rice
One day, perhaps a Division 1 southern Ivy League; meanwhile, vacations in Hawaii, Bay Area, and Yosemite

When Rice first joined the Western Athletic Conference lineup in 1995, prospects appeared only so-so for long-term cohesion and financial success of the league. The schools were so geographically disparate, it just seemed impossible that a genuine series of rivalries might ever develop. At likeliest, the 16-team WAC appeared to many Rice supporters as an acceptable parking place for a few years, until a new series of league TV contracts was let, and the next round of conference shakeouts occurred.

But with the absolute economic exigencies of Title IX, it makes sense that the Division I schools eventually organize into conferences more geographically regional in size and scope.

When this writer was at Rice in the late 60s, a letters-to-the editor campaign ensued among various campus newspapers. In those pre-Proposition-48 days, it was an era when the academic disparity between show-me-the-money schools and the schools less inclined to compromise academics was just beginning to become more evident. So, the thinking went, why not form a sort of Division 1, southern Ivy League? (We called it the Magnolia Conference.) Schools like Rice, Tulane, Vanderbilt, perhaps TCU, SMU, Georgia Tech–schools with similar academic missions and philosophies--might maintain high-end Division 1 budgets and schedules, while avoiding some of the crasser extremes of the big business of college sports.

Naive idea. But one that, while less than prescient, now looks quite inviting and not inconceivable, heading toward the first years of the coming century. It’s a concept to keep in mind, to water and to fertilize.

Meanwhile, the remaining WAC 8 frankly isn't so bad a deal. Four of Rice’s seven conference cohorts are in the same geographic region. Three are private schools; two have been athletic colleagues of Rice, without fail, for some 85 years.

Yet, our coaches get to tout regular trips to Hawaii and the Bay Area to our recruits. Aside from BYU, the recent football power ratings of the breakaway schools are really no better than the ones remaining--nor is the national reputation. In basketball, we'll have our hands full enough with Billy and the Tark. In baseball, the best programs remain, we should continue to dominate, and our power ratings should improve with the absence of the weaker conference competition.

In football, Rice gets to schedule an extra nonconference game. Why not schedule it, when the slots come available, with the best private schools--the service academies, Vanderbilts, Stanfords?

In sum, maybe the situation isn't so bad as some of our inferiority-complex- ridden rival fans have postulated. Perhaps it's really no better nor worse than it was under the confusing 16-team WAC configuration--with any losses in revenue being offset by corresponding decreased expenses.


"Super 48" won’t work:
someone’s got to finish last
Problems with superconference same
as those already experienced by Big 12

Talk persists of an ensuing split of NCAA Division 1A into two tiers– essentially, a 48- or perhaps 64-team superconference of the biggest-money programs, with the remainder of Division 1A schools in a second tier. A little analysis of the situation reveals that the major problems such reorganization may present lay not with the "have-nots," but with the "haves."

A look at the internecine squabble brewing in the Big 12 is revealing. None of its four, new members has yet learned to cope with a basic, unavoidable paradigm: in any league, someone has to finish last!

The arrogance and high-handedness of Texas A&M and the University of Texas in dumping the SWC and embracing the Big 8 was neither unprecedented nor unanticipated: after all, A&M and Texas were the two biggest fish in a pond of their own for many, many years. Winning, and playing by one’s own rules were, well, just an entitlement, a birthright.

But, contemplating the dismantling of the SWC, Ag and Horn fathers apparently never stopped to consider that an affiliation with several other, mostly land-grant, Enormous State Universities might doom them to what many alumni consider chronic mediocrity, even with an occasional conference crown. They did not stop to consider the changes in pecking order that the elimination of the politically and financially less-strong former SWC partipants fashioned - both vis a vis the size of the fish, and the size of the pond.

They didn't stop to realize that Bob Devaney and the respective state legislatures of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, et al., don't much give a fig about the State of Texas, and their eyes don't collectively tear up at the hearing of The War Hymn or The Eyes. They didn't take into consideration that schools like Nebraska have a whole state to surround them and cover up their little recruiting pecadillos, with no in-state rivals looking over their shoulders to police them.

But the irony is, Texas Tech and Baylor marched right in lock-step with Texas and A&M!  And so would a few dozen other participants in the Super 48, if and when the time came.

Yet somebody will have to finish last in each league, each year. For each victory logged on someone's won/loss record, somebody else must log a defeat.

The University of South Carolina is given as an example of a consistently  8- or 9-loss program drawing 75,000 fans each home game, nonetheless.  But name another program that does so.  Oklahoma?  The exception proves the rule.  The short attention-spans of Generation-X alumni will brook little tolerance for losing programs.

With alumni expectations at an all-time high upon the formation of the new league,   the moderate successes of A&M and Texas now are perceived by many, particularly young alums, as less than that.  R. C. Slocum is the winningest coach Texas A&M has ever had--and a large contingent of  A&M supporters want him fired.  And the Mack III situation at Texas speaks for itself.

Before, A&M and Texas could feel virtuous, and not totally without accomplishment, about beating up on TCU, SMU and Rice year after year, while at the same time decrying how much "welfare" money was being "siphoned" by the "weak sisters."

In the Super 48, who will be the Harlem Globetrotters? And who will be the Washington Generals?