Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Wise Old Owl

A new year dawns for Georgetown, and the predictions are not far behind.

"It would seem that Colgate, as defending champ and some good nucleus returning would have the inside track, although Holy Cross with Randolph getting a 5th year could derail that position," writes one Lehigh fan on a popular I-AA message board. "After that I would see Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Fordham and Georgetown; but, as usual, not enough separation to make any other scenario surprising.
Except for Georgetown, I think [the other teams] all have enough talent that on 'any given Saturday', with a break here and there, they could pull off the win against another league foe."

Prevailing football wisdom tells us that the more "academic" teams is in a conference, the less likely its success. Of course, don't tell that I-AA national champion Richmond. And don't tell Vanderbilt, a school that won its first bowl game since the Eisenhower administration in 2009. And don't tell that to a school whose very name was a misnomer for the impossible: Rice.

From 1970 through 1992, Rice never enjoyed a winning season. It was 4-18 against Texas A&M, 3-19 against Arkansas, and 0-22 against Texas, a longstanding mismatch which once led President John F. Kennedy to famously ask, "Why does Rice play Texas?"

A few years ago, people had other questions, like "Why does Rice play football?" College sports cost money, and Rice wasn't making enough of it.

In a two year study that put every option out on the table from actually joining the Patriot League to dropping all sports to club status, Rice University reaffirmed its commitments to sports in general
and football in particular. In 2008, the Owls are enjoying success on the gridiron unseen since the days when it ruled the roost of the mighty Southwest Conference in the 1950's.

This December 31, finishing as a runner up in Conference USA with a 9-3 record, it met Western Michigan (9-3) in the Texas Bowl at nearby Reliant Stadium. In past years, the even thought of Rice beating a nine win team would have been preposterous--instead, they walloped the Broncos 38-14 before over 58,000 at Houston's Reliant Stadium. That's about twice the living alumni population of the school.

Clearly, a I-A team has advantages Georgetown does not, and I'm not campaigning for a crowd of 58,000...well not yet, anyway. But a scattershooting across the articles surrounding this game, surrounding a team which was 1-10 in 2005 and 3-9 in 2007 to a 10-3 team in 2008, undefeated at home, bears some lessons Georgetown would do well to pay attention to.

  1. The Home Town Team. In a pro sports town, Rice is not top of mind, much less the team of choice. The NFL, NBA, MLB, the University of Houston, and the shadows emanating from Austin (Texas) and College Station (Texas A&M) limit what Rice can do. You can add to that the academic focus of the school and its size as the second smallest I-A school in the nation, about half the size of Georgetown. But Rice has sought to reconnect itself with the Houston community, and people have responded. By contrast, Georgetown Football remains on a "need-to-know" basis in the District.
  2. Offense...And Lots Of It. How do you bring folks in to a game? Give them something to look forward to. Rice didn't win every game, but it was never dull. Rice never scored fewer than 35 points at a home game all year and averaged 41 points a game. By contrast, Georgetown averaged 9.6 per game. Which one of those numbers appeals to fans...and recruits?
  3. Senior Leadership. Rice students don't have it easy as a football player--the academic expectations are equal to greater than that of a player at Georgetown. So when 25 freshmen arrived four years ago, expectations were guarded that they could turn around a program like Rice's. Like Georgetown, attrition was common: Rice had only 15 seniors left from that group, but 12 were on the two-deep and and as a group they never gave in. "These seniors drew a line in the sand, they negotiated us around every obstacle," said Rice coach David Bailiff, a former I-AA coach at Texas State. "We had tremendous chemistry and attitude. We did not have one bad practice this season and it's because of what these young men wanted to accomplish.''
  4. Coaches That Adapt. You hear the whispers in road games, on message boards, and from fans--Georgetown is a very predictable team, that opposing coaches can call its plays from the press box, or that "shotgun draw" is the default call of choice. Some of this, admittedly is a talent issue: if you're 4th string RB is in the game because of injuries, your play calling may be limited. But Rice's Bailiff, a cautious coach in his years at Texas State, saw change ahead. "I brought in a lot of traditional thinking that I have held for 45 years as a player and a coach. And those things sometimes just don't apply". As discussed in the Rice Football Webletter, Bailiff added: "I know that these young men now know that I've kept my word to them -- ever since the day I got here," he "I know they trust me. I know they trust this staff. And to win those fourth- and- ones, you've got to trust each other."
  5. Sell, Sell, Sell. As basketball has reassumed its place in the Georgetown spotlight, football has, at least in the public view, retreated. Here too is a lesson from Rice, a campus where its baseball team recently won a NCAA national title and is a perpetual post-season team--what you can sell to recruits you can also sell to the fan base. "We go into living rooms now and tell the players and the parents after five years, we expect you to be the boss," Bailiff told the web site. "After 10 years, we expect you to pay your scholarship back. After 30 years, we expect you to have a building named after you...It's not just a sales pitch. It's what happens at Rice." Is that message getting out at Georgetown?
Don't look for Rice to set up a tent in the 10-win club just yet. The Owls lose a lot of seniors and with high results come higher expectations. But, like Vanderbilt, Rice has re-sent a message to places like Duke (4-8, up from 1-11 in 2007) and Stanford (5-7, up from 1-11 in 2006) and, maybe even Georgetown that academics and gridiron success need not be mutually exclusive with the right mix of attention, dedication, and performance. It's the same recipe against long odds that defined the aforementioned speech by John F. Kennedy, 46 years ago:
"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."