Just moments after the Rice baseball team finished its 1996 home
schedule with a 9-6 loss to Baylor, there was a gentle knock at
the door to the visitors' dugout. Baylor coach Steve Smith
opened it, and in ran about 30 naked Rice students, members of a
coed streaking group called Club 13, who proceeded through
Baylor's dugout and onto the field, where they circled the bases
not once but twice (some even slid into home) before their
strategically placed globs of shaving cream evaporated.
Afterward Wayne Graham, the somewhat stunned Rice coach,
blurted, "Hey, they ran the bases better than we did, they
provided more entertainment for the fans than we did, and they
showed more balls."
There was a time when Club 13's diamond showcase ranked among
the baseball season highlights at Rice, a private, academically
prestigious school in Houston that has struggled to compete
among the giants of Division I athletics. But since Graham, a
silver-haired Texas coaching legend, took over the Owls program
in 1992, he has put together impressive streaks of his own.
On March 8 the Rice baseball squad became the university's first
team in any sport to be ranked No. 1 in the country. Although
they've since fallen to third, the 35-8 Owls are still on track
to earn their third straight Western Athletic Conference title
and fifth consecutive NCAA tournament berth. Moreover, senior
shortstop Damon Thames, the 1998 national player of the year,
has a shot at becoming the fifth player from Rice since 1995 to
be selected in the first round of the major league baseball
draft. "We are showing people that you can win at the highest
levels with student-athletes who are as serious about academics
as they are about athletics," says Rice athletic director Bobby
May. "Wayne Graham has been the linchpin of an athletic
renaissance at Rice."
Graham, 63, is a Sparky Andersonesque mix of fire and nice. He
grew up in Houston and played college ball at Texas only because
the facilities at Rice were virtually nonexistent in the 1950s.
"Back then Rice was the classiest thing in Houston," says the
coach. "And I'm not sure it still isn't." Graham spent 10 years
in the minors before savoring cups of coffee with the
Philadelphia Phillies in 1963 and the New York Mets in 1964.
Sitting near Mets manager Casey Stengel on a team charter
flight, Graham overheard Stengel whisper to a reporter, "How in
the heck do they expect me to win with guys like Graham?"
"That was my first clue to look for another kind of job in
baseball," says Graham.
He eventually went back to school, finished his degree in 1970
and started coaching at the high school level. In 1981 he landed
at San Jacinto-North Junior College in Houston, where for the
next 10 years he developed players such as New York Yankees
pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and won five national
titles. In 1998 Collegiate Baseball named him juco coach of the
century. "Wayne's a gamer," says Clemens. "He's a good teacher,
and that's why he gets respect."
Graham's tutorials on things such as hit-and-run strategy,
pickoff moves and staying alive at the plate with two strikes
are peppered with references to baseball history. Yet his
instructions are often brilliant in their simplicity. The Owls'
staff ace, junior righthander Jeff Nichols, who already owns the
Rice record for career wins (32), was struggling with his
mechanics until last week, when Graham suggested that he release
his off-speed pitches later. Nichols was throwing across his
body, so the coach drew a line in the dirt in front of the mound
and told Nichols not to cross it after releasing the ball.
Problems solved. "We take it as a high honor that we can win
without the greatest resources here," says Graham.
In 1995 the Owls won 43 games and made it to the finals of the
NCAA South Regional. The next season, though, Rice finished tied
for last place in the old Southwest Conference. Perhaps shocked
back to life by Club 13 (named because the group only runs in
the buff on the 13th, 26th or 31st day of the month), Rice
peeled off four straight upsets to win the final SWC tournament
crown. The team's rings from that year read SWC CHAMPIONS
FOREVER. The next season Rice made it all the way to the College
World Series, losing to LSU and Auburn in the double-elimination
format. "Everything changed for us right there," says Graham of
the SWC title. "We changed the entire view of Rice athletics."
That landscape continues to change. The university, which was
founded in 1912 and has an enrollment of 2,600, has announced
plans to build a $6.4 million baseball stadium with a seating
capacity of about 3,500 in time for the 2000 season. It will be
the first new athletic facility at Rice in more than 30 years
and a monument to Graham's leadership and success. It may also
give the Owls a recruiting edge.
Not that the coach needs any help in that regard. He's got a
commitment for next year from Greenhill High's Tony Adler, a
senior righthander who last week struck out all 18 batters he
faced in a six-inning, 8-0 win over Episcopal School of Dallas.
Adler threw 75 pitches--72 fastballs and 55 strikes.
Graham focuses almost exclusively on Texas ("The most fertile
place in the world for baseball talent," he says), and he has
perhaps the game's best eye for untapped potential. In fact,
most of his players who become first-round draft choices--guys
like pitcher Matt Anderson, who went to the Detroit Tigers as
the first pick overall in 1997, and outfielder Lance Berkman,
the Astros' No. 1 choice the same year--were high school players
that no major league teams were interested in. "Before Coach
Graham, Rice baseball didn't exist," says Anderson. "This is a
man who has dedicated his life to baseball. You watch him and it
changes how you approach the game. It's still a rush for me to
see a school so small beating up on powers like Texas and LSU."
Players arrive on the Rice campus with an underdog's mentality,
hungry to learn and improve, and they're either too grateful or
too focused to complain about road-trip breakfasts catered by
Whataburger. (Graham also understands the academic pressures his
players face. His wife, Tanya, will graduate in May with a
bachelor's degree in exercise physiology.)
Rice goes after scrappy kids such as outfielder Will Ford, who
has battled back from a knee injury last season to hit .411 with
six homers through Sunday, and the sweet-swinging Thames, the
Owls' career leader in batting average and slugging percentage
(.420 and .787, respectively, at week's end). Thames, who led
the NCAA with 115 RBIs last season and tied the collegiate
record with 36 doubles in 1998, did not receive an offer from a
major Division I school other than Rice when he played at San
Jacinto in 1997. Drafted in the 10th round by the Yankees after
the 1998 season, he turned down the Big Apple for some more
Rice. Thames, a triple major in managerial studies, economics
and sports management with a 3.2 GPA, has what most big-time
college athletes only dream about: options. "This is basically a
team made up of a lot of people no one wanted except for Rice,"
says Thames. "Yet somehow this is also a team with a shot at a
Indeed, if, as expected, the Owls qualify for the College World
Series in Omaha, they could be playing in the tournament on June
13. That, we should warn you, is also an auspicious date for Club
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Thames, the 1998 national player of the year, could be a first-round draft choice.
"Wayne's a gamer," says Clemens. "He's a good teacher and
that's why he gets respect."