Attendance, support, marketing, promotion,
and other eternal Rice dilemmas

Webletter spring feature.....Part Four

Part three:  Scant attention from media big part of Rice problem.....
Part two:  Was '98 the benchmark, or was '97 for real?.....
Part one:  Owl fans' cup far from empty.....
Counterpoint:  Demise of SWC cited as biggest single negative.....
BTW:  Current student support nothing short of (a)pathetic.....

Owl fans say big picture, small details
both need Rice attention, promotion

Institute said on the right road, but more of the same,
plus some new approaches, are needed to turn corner

springstad.jpg (13676 bytes)

70,000-seat Rice Stadium:
If we fix it,  will they come?

HOUSTON (Mar. 19) -- Supporters of Rice athletics -- students, alumni and community -- generally appear keenly aware of the dilemma facing its administrators and coaches as the Institute seeks to parlay its recent successes on the playing fields into an improved long-term fan support base. That dilemma has been outlined in the first three installments of this report, and, if reader response is any indication, out there are some relatively untapped sources of ideas, energy and enthusiasm, waiting in the wings to help move the Owls to the level they deserve.

We’ve received a couple dozen or so responses offering suggestions on matters as global as scheduling and conference affiliation and as minute as concession stand menus -- some have been posted in the past few weeks. While that response is hardly of statistical significance, it does illustrate that there is at least of nucleus of ardent supporters who want to do what they can to foster and promote Rice success on the playing fields. What follows is a distillation of some of their more frequently mentioned, or forcefully argued, ideas, suggestions and proposals.

Generally speaking, the consensus is that Rice is moving in the right direction – on the field, obviously, but off the field, too. Rice athletics administrators are considered accessible and well liked. The highest marks go to AD Bobby May and promotions director Mike Pede’, – Bobby, as the recognized architect of Rice’s sports rejuvenation, and Mike, as a solid, talented promotion man who puts a friendly external face on Rice athletics. Of course, those two guys are perhaps the most visible of all Rice sports administrators -- and this isn’t meant to be a referendum on managerial style. But it’s good to get a little recognition.

If you fix it, they will come

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a whole host of categories for proposed improvements. Moving from the specific to the general, we could begin with a few suggestions for the Buildings and Grounds department.

Make Rice "Tailgate U." Rice has one of the finest college football facilities in America, and it’s located in one of Houston’s most attractive, established residential neighborhoods -- but the parking area in between is considered something of a no-man’s-land which could stand some improvement. Some Owl fans who’ve traveled to Ivy League and other eastern and midwestern college football venues come back fixated on the "tailgate culture" which typically surrounds football Saturdays there. Not to appear snooty, but we’re not talking about the Winnebago with the Longhorn steer-silhouettted  banner waving from the aerial. Our people can be more creative than that, but they could do with a more conducive environment in which to focus their activity.

The emphasis here is on exterior landscaping around Rice Stadium. In the short run, the perimeter, especially in the smaller, west-side lot, has shrubbery and oak trees which provide shade and greenery. With little expense, permanent tailgating slots could be chalked off, chockablock by the hedges; the prime spots reserved for VIPs and by reservation, but the more distant ones available game day on a first-come, first-served basis.

A longer-term project, however, could involve a more complete integration of the stadium and the west end of the campus into the surrounding neighborhood -- especially the Rice Village shopping district, which has undergone considerable renaissance in recent years. Realistically, one could do without every single current parking space. The west end lot could be transformed into a park-like setting, with reserved and VIP parking maintained, but also featuring a green belt, perhaps with picnic tables, trash receptacles, grills and other amenities built in – and ready places for game-day tent pitching and dedicated, shaded tailgating slots.

Naturally, any game-day special activities – rock bands, corporate barbecues, homecoming gatherings – would fit right in to such a setting.

It’s been seriously suggested that the Alumni Association consider the funding of Tailgate Park, perhaps as an undertaking of the Young Alumni Committee. One Owl has even suggested that the project go forward as a sort of "Habitat for Humanity" project, giving recent alums the chance to contribute via the sweat-equity route.

In the long haul, a more park-like, Ivy League setting, it’s been said, would go far to pull in support of both West U. -area Rice alums and alumni of other schools with a similar orientation. "Ideally, on game day, we shouldn’t be able to tell where Rice Stadium leaves off and the Village begins," one writer said. "Kids everywhere."

Give player parents their due. As a component of the Tailgate Park project, it’s been suggested that a special area be dedicated for use by Rice player parents. The families typically tailgate or tent together prior to all home games. A prime spot for this gathering, in a place where the player families could be highly visible, has been suggested. This group has always been a major resource for Rice football, but there’s not enough of a pipeline between them and Rice students and alumni. The Owl moms and dads need to feel a little more appreciated. Readers say we need to give them a spot where they can easily be found, talked to, and patted on the back once in a while.

Make the best of Autry with current resources. Our readers want to talk about basketball, too. The broadly-held hope is that, at least within a few years, we’ll be getting a new arena. But for so long as Autry continues to be used as basketball venue, it’s been proposed, an immediate spruce-up is in order. This would center around the temporary bleachers which occasionally are set up at end court for big games. Put ‘em up and leave ‘em up, Owlies say. And lose the curtain. The erector-set stands, which seat about 500, could be assembled in time for the first game in December – or at least for first conference game in January – and left up until season’s end. Even if mostly empty, they give Autry Court a more finished look and could bring more atmosphere down to floor level. The short gym (74-foot, junior-high sized) used to be necessary for intramurals but no longer should be, with the addition of new phys ed space. The MOB could be posted, then, in end court, even closer to the action. And a food court could be set up behind the bleachers, with scheduled activities to encourage mingling of students, alumni, fans, player families.

Other ideas: repaint the white concrete with a flat grey, dirt-hiding finish. And get rid of the dinky end-wall scoreboards and invest in a high-tech, center-court four-sided monster with TV monitors, and the like. Expensive, true, but it could be done with the intent that it eventually serve the new arena and meanwhile be used at Autry.

The little things mean a lot

Enough basketball. On to a second category, loosely grouped into the concept, "It’s the little things that count."

Make ticket acquisition more user-friendly. Owl fans express more than occasional consternation with the limited hours sometimes encountered with the Rice athletics ticket office. Parking’s difficult at the gym. Some wish that tickets could be available all day, on each and every football and basketball game day. A more open-door policy, more dedicated parking would go hand-in-glove with an increased level of creative promotions.

Make Frankie B. Mandola Concessions Czar. Well, maybe not directly, but you get the idea. Frankie’s good chow and outgoing personality add festivity to game-day atmosphere. More of the same, from him or from others, would be a plus. Also, remember that most football games are played in balmy, if not searing, temperatures – so a good ice-cream concession would be a nice touch.

While we’re at it, emphasize concessions quality for mass media. We know what the media guys really care about -- food! Improve quality of food for press box and mass media, and develop a reputation for putting on a really good game-day spread, and you’ve built a better mousetrap. One specific request: Barbecue and Mexican food catered by Jim Goode of Goode Company fame. He’s done a couple of basketball dinners, and they were great.

Encourage attendance by local private school alumni. This would go hand-in-hand with Tailgate Park and some directed scheduling. Navy comes in this fall. Duke is on the home schedule in 2000. This city has an enormous reservoir of university alumni of all stripes from all over the country. It just so happens that the population of alumni from schools having the most in common with Rice tends to live nearby the Rice campus, in the West U. -- Southampton -- Medical Center area. Owl fans want to see us schedule more home games in whatever we can, if not football, then baseball or whatever, with Vanderbilt, Tulane, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, the Ivies -- and when we play them, make their local alumni feel especially welcome. This might include venue provisions and event planning assistance with their local alumni associations. The idea: make them feel so much at home, that they’ll want to adopt Rice as their local team. A lot of local support comes from non-Rice private school alumni,  already. Rice sports administration needs to do more to foster it.

More tub-thumping needed

Recent athletics department publicity and promotional efforts are generally recognized and appreciated as a step in the right direction.  In that regard, the April 17 George Strait concert and extravaganza at Rice Stadium were lauded as a great way to get over to our place people who otherwise might never venture near the campus.  But both more grass-roots efforts and added official attention to Owl marketing efforts have been suggested, as well.  The general theme:  an extra level of involvement.

Write 'em, call 'em, E-mail 'em. A grassroots effort among Rice fans should be fostered and coordinated by Owl Club and R Club officials with letters to the newspaper sports editor sports call in shows,  and, yes, even Craig Roberts on TV2, Owlies say. When Coach Hatfield, Bobby May or some other Rice coach or official  goes on a call-in show, organized effort should be made to bring calls in. When negative or near-nonexistent coverage occurs, local media editors should get letters, letting them know about it.  The approach should be upbeat and positive -- but Owl fans are traditionally silent about perceived mistreatment, and that collective habit should be broken.  Remember, marketers understand, typically, that one opinion actually voiced by mail or phone reflects that same opinion held by at least a hundred others, but not voiced.

Be expansive and inclusive:  organize an IPTAY club.  Or maybe "IPFAY" -- this, long ago, was a concept of our own, revered Jess Neely, when he was  at Clemson.  The idea was "I pay ten a year" --   maximum inclusion in a booster organization by  using a low threshhold of enrollment. In recent years, efforts have been made, somewhat, to high-falutinize and render more exclusive, conceptually, the Owl Club and similar Rice athletics booster clubs.  For example,  the  basketball support  "Three-Point Club" costs $300.00 a year, minimum.  Consequently, Owl assistant coaches struggle to round up more than a couple dozen boosters to attend their pre-game chalk talks.  Perhaps the $300.00 level could bring some additional perks -- but a lot of the local alumni support base for  basketball lies in recent alumni, many of whom are discouraged by the $300.00 tariff.  With Rice's small numbers, the official doors need to be flung open, to no small extent aided by low front-end fees on booster organizations. 

Nevertheless, there is a place for exclusivity, and increased support should be encouraged by an ever-esclating package of perks.  Yet while the high end fundraising, including black tie, should continue unabated and with even increased effort, Rice sports marketers should bear in mind that the notion of exclusivity does not particularly serve as an attraction to the rank and file of Rice alumni.  And although  the R-Room is not a large facility, and game-day access to it must have reasonable limits, really, R-Room privileges are not of paramount importance, especially to younger alums.  But a sense of support and belonging, and a whiz-bang newsletter, for perhaps a fifty-buck baseline membership, would be a great set of perks of IPTAY membership.  A stronger effort should be made to bring new and young alums into booster club membership in this manner.

The coaches and assistants should go into the colleges. Prototype for this approach was set by Scott Thompson during his tenure as basketball coach. Already, in the late '80s, the student body presented as diverse geographical origins as in the present day.  The vast majority of them did not grow up ingrained with Texas college sports traditions.  But Thompson was able to demonstrate the power of enthusiasm, linked by personal contact.  Trips to the colleges, enthusiastic open- house sessions, and a lot of handshakes were used by Coach Thompson to create a feeling of  common endeavor.  The Rice students are only human -- they'll become more interested if they receive a strong impression that their presence and supported is wanted and in fact needed -- and if they feel like, "We know those guys.  Those guys are our friends." Rice is small enough for that to become a genuinely true statement.   Head coaches and assistant coaches should take greater advantage of that diminutiveness, and make the rounds for dinner at the colleges, as time allows in the off season, to break bread with the students and bring along a message to each meal.   Being a part-time good will ambassador for Rice athletics should be part of the official job description for each Rice assistant coach. Right now, it's not.

Student athletes should be especially encouraged to be active in college extracurriculars. Despite the horrendous time contraints intercollegiate athletics puts on every student athlete, they each have an advantage when it comes to this area:  with the combination of athletic prowess and academic accomplishment required of anyone who wants to play ball at Rice, they're almost all natural-born leaders.   They should be encouraged to join, and when opportunity arises, to lead campus organizations and student government, and be seen by fellow students as primus inter pares in more ways than on the playing fields.  Public speaking, organizational   and motivational skills should be a regular part of the tutoring programs offered, and in fact mandated, for Rice's student athletes.

Get real yell leaders. While Rice's students and alumni will never be confused in their level of fanaticism for the hordes of true believers populating Nuremberg-on-the-Brazos, their support is staunch, given their small numbers.  An illustration from this writer's college generation (early Pleistocene) may be instructive here.  In the late 60s/ early 70s, the Rice students greeted every A&M home basketball game with a special set of cheerleaders.   Eligibility for this special squad of Aggie Cheerleaders was limited to particularly unpulchritudinous offensive and defensive linemen from the football team.  They'd line up in plain view of both student sections, like so many stuffed sausages in their trademark- infringing  white jumpsuits. Their "yells" were clever takes on the traditional, A&M yells, but with a twist against A&M and in favor of Rice -- which of course served to incite to near-riot level the A&M students in attendance, and pump up the Owlies in both their levels of enthusiasm and hilarity.  The point is, the exercise took the Rice students' natural penchant for cleverness and irony and put it to use in a way that fostered support and, frankly, helped us win some games against a heated rival.

The current Rice cheering squad certainly exemplifies the national trend in bouncy, visually attractive acrobatics -- but in terms of exhorting and leading the student body during athletic events, they're virtually a non-starter.  What a luxury it would be to augment them with four or five students who actually organize and lead basic yells during games, but also serve as coordinators and liaison with students, band, athletes, etc. Ideally, they might serve as goodwill ambasssadors and promotors for major team athletics, within the student body and in the community generally. How great would it be to have a handful of enthusiastic, involved student leaders in a position of prestige among the student body, as the heart and soul -- we dare not say "spirit" -- of Rice student support for its athletics teams.  "Aggie Cheerleaders" gone straight.

Going global

In the easier-said-than-done department, our readers did not hold back in setting some rather lofty, long-term goals for Rice athletics, primarily in the areas of conference affiliation and scheduling.  The keys, they say:  Think big, stay heads up.

Play at least five games a year at home; six in years when UH is on the home schedule. Rice fans say we should always try to schedule one, but not two, "Murderer’s Row" road intersectional games both for payday and national exposure -- we need both.  But the Texas and Michigan back-to-back games this fall present a case of overkill.  At that point, in the words of former Owl coach Ray Alborn, about all you can do is "save the equipment."  Owlies realize the anomalous '99 schedule was the result of  league reaffiliations.  But they stress that Rice, if it is to establish lasting success when it comes to fan support, must develop a tradition of playing good teams at home -- and consistently winning against them.  Now, this presents a classic, chicken- and- egg problem.  The big boys are ill-disposed to come to Rice Stadium to play in front of potentially sparse crowds, and especially when they're very likely to get their fannies whipped.  Ask BYU. In response, Owl fans say, it's going to be essential to provide adequate financial incentive for major programs to come in and play intersectional games at Rice Stadium – it will pay in the long run.

Consider hiring a marketing consultant on matters of conference affiliation. May, Pede' and Co. have their hands full running and promoting Rice athletics in its current configuration.  It would be unfair to expect Bobby May to be on top of every bit of realignment gossip and speculation -- and unseemly, to boot.  But with the treacherous waters likely to be encountered over the next five years, and the apparent dog-eat-dog behavior of Rice's bretheren schools, someone needs to be constantly manning the watch.  Hiring a marketing firm to monitor activities, serve as runner, broker and presenter for Rice's interests, both short-term and long-term, and buffer Rice administrators from the mud-wrestling pit of conference reaffilation, may be a sound move.   We can't afford to be blindsided.

Foster the concept of a solid, regional conference.  Owl supporters, for many years, have cottoned (pun intended) to the idea of a Southern Ivy League, with Rice, TCU and SMU playing ball with the Tulanes and Vanderbilts of the region.  Rice should keep the lines of communication open with schools of similar characteristics --and not necessarily just the privates.  Despite whatever forces of both stasis and destabilization come to bear, over the next few years, with the exigencies of Proposition IX placing and enormous financial burden on college athletics programs, the pressure will be great, on all programs but the biggest football factories, to coalesce into manageable, regional conferences whose members have similar, or at least compatible, missions and philosophies.  Rice should identify schools in the region with such similar or compatible goals, communicate with their administrators at the university-trustee (in addition to the athletics- director) level, and be ready to react quickly to changing sands when the time inevitably comes.

Make friends with the U of H.  Despite being very disparate kinds of universities, Rice and the University of Houston are both substantially in the same boat when it comes to support in the city of Houston. UH has a few built-in advantages: they can recruit anybody (no English necessary), they have the ear of local media, and for now are in a conference better calculated to bring in national exposure, media and otherwise.   But they lack the (potential) national recruiting base that Rice is in a position to develop.  Despite a laudable effort to improve the same, they lack the campus facilities of Rice -- and here, we're not talking about just ball fields. Their poor track record  for student- athlete academics at some point stands to work against them, especially if the NCAA adopts a scholarship penalty for low graduation rates.   But the U of H has a talented, energetic athletics adminstration, and at least the potential for a greatly expanded alumni fan base.  To stir the pot locally, Rice and UH need to schedule each other  regularly in all major sports and act mutually to drum up Rice-UH sports events in the community. The current bank-sponsored annual baseball series serves as a logical example.

A major financial concern voiced by UH university level  adminstrators is the enormous expense of maintaining Title IX viability in such a geographically widespread conference. Obviously, a more regional conference affiliation -- all other things equal -- would make sense for the U of H.  Bottom- line:  Eventually we need to be in the same conference. In this city, a regular Rice-UH rivalry is a whole that potentially can be much greater than the sum of its parts.  We both bungled the rivalry situation last time around.  There needs to be another chance.

In summary...just win, baby

Of course a steady dose of winning is seen to be the best ointment for all the ailments chronically afflicting  Rice athletics.  The strongest single consensus is that Rice should, and most certainly can,  make lemonade out of the WAC lemon by becoming even more competitive in each major sport in this smaller league with no dominant powers, and get over the top in football and basketball by winning some championships.  If we accomplish that, Owl fans say,  the results will make anything else we do look like a stroke of  genius.
Your turn.....

Webletter spring feature.....Part Three

bmay2.jpg (8707 bytes)
AD Bobby May turned
it around for RIce

Scant attention from local media
big part of the problem for Rice
Lack of coverage, lack of interest
vicious circle that's hard to break

Owl promotion team making inroads;
winning gives something to work with

HOUSTON (Mar. 10) -- From the days when Rice University athletic teams collectively lost their winning ways in the 1960s, the Owls mostly have remained  unwanted, unattended stepchildren in the eyes of Houston sports media.

Although there is cause for new hope in light of Rice's return to steady success on the athletic fields, attendance problems continue to plague Institute teams, and, especially with the demise of  the Southwest Conference, Owl sports publicists continue to fight an uphill battle in the war for column inches and air time. The dilemma is complex.

During the years when Rice was backsliding into a consistent sports also-ran, the city of Houston was evolving from a locally-focused, provincial city of a few hundred thousand souls into a diverse, if not cosmopolitan, metropolis of some four million inhabitants. Such a population increase was fostered by incoming masses of  Latin American and Pacific Rim immigrants,  thousands of the displaced from Rust Belt cities, and many more from god-knows-where. They all had one thing in common:  they all knew nothing of and cared not a whit about Rice, neither the institution nor its athletic teams.

The Institute in the '60s and '70s did little to open itself to and foster interest among  the larger community-- and  why should it have?  Rice was busy hoisting itself from the second tier to the very highest echelons of American academe.  While its athletics programs foundered, academically it progressed while maintaining costs, and thusly became known as the best "Ivy League" tuition bargain in the country.  Applications soared.   Eventually Rice became as tough an admisions nut to crack as  MIT, Harvard or Princeton.   And played just about as good a brand of ball.

Meanwhile, the student body become more diverse geographically, and as more matriculated from out- of- state, more scattered to the four winds upon graduation.

Reporters, would-be fans felt little in common with "weirdo" school

Local reporters, and the average would-be subway alum, both tended to feel little in common with the institution, with its "weirdo" students, and, until lately, have seen little on the playing fields to grab attention.

The makeup of the local media corps reflected such centrifugal forces. Many from the North lands, with allegiance to faraway universities and primary interest in strange sports like, say, ice hockey, were supplemented with jaded, sanguine locals  from J schools at the University of Texas (e.g. Al Carter, Ed Fowler)  and U of H (e.g. Dale Robertson). The style of a Grantland Rice held little sway for the new breed of sports reporters, boosting only a winner, bearing only sarcasm and ridicule toward losers-- no matter how one played the game.   The standard that traditionally applied to pro sports, was applied to all.  Playing within the lines became almost an object of derision.

All a case of very bad timing for Rice, which played between the lines, but, between 1960 and 1990, mostly lost.

And Houstonians' allegiances even to the local pro sports franchises tended notoriously toward the superficial and the fickle.  In truth, nowhere in the nation could such a large population base be found with so little to bind allegiances to local institutions --   first, because they were simply from somewhere else, and second, because they received little in the way of constructive signposting upon arrival.

Transplanted Houstonians' icons:  Urban Cowboys,   Phi Slama Jama

Some tried.  Local media convinced many that the purchase of a drugstore cowboy outfit and the affectation of certain, uh,  interests, made one a true- blue local.   They made a movie about it:  Urban Cowboy.

Then there was Bum Phillips and Luv ya, Blue.

The bellweather college sports institution of the past quarter-century was Coach Guy Lewis' University of Houston basketball team, christened in the early 80s by Houston Post sportswriter Tommy Bonk, "Phi Slama Jama." Adulation reached a peak in 1984 with a terrifically talented Cougar squad which lost in the NCAA finals to Jim Valvano's North Carolina State. The one area college team that did indeed capture the imaginations of a generation of unaffiliated Houstonians lived on in the two-time NBA champion Houston Rockets, featuring two U of H all-time greats:  Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

It lives on today in U of H's hiring of Clyde to resurrect Cougar basketball fortunes.   Clyde's Coogs, as the city's media-christened Junior Pro team, get the ink.   The players barely manage to obtain, and maintain, eligibility.  Virtually none of them graduates. Last December, they lost to the Owls.  But they still get the ink.

It's ironic, but perhaps less than surprising, that the '84 Phi Slamma Jammin' Coogs, the most heralded college team of post-JFK Houston history, sent more of its graduates to the penitentiary than it put through college commencement exercises.

But, oh, were they the darliings of the local media. And there was no one more adulatory than long- time U of H chief tub-thumper, Craig Roberts.

Craig Roberts poster boy for ailments plaguing the Owls

Perhaps it's unfair now to pick on Craig, who, in recent years as KPRC sports director, has mellowed somewhat his formerly vitriolic stance toward Rice athletics.  But his case study stands as a microcosm for The Rice Media Problem, and Craig remains a poster boy for the ailments plaguing the Owls.

An Illinoisan, Craig came to KPRC in the late 1970s, having made TV sports standup whistle stops in Aurora, Ill., San Francisco, Anaheim and Indianapolis.  The former Southern Illinois University scholarship baseball player in short order picked up a moonlighting job doing play-by-play for the University of Houston--a school that would seem to have much in common with SIU. 

It wasn't good enough just to play homer for his beloved "Coogs" on TV sportscasts, however.  Craig's sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes caustic reporting of  mostly losing Owl efforts prompted many a 10:30 pm phone call among Rice fans --  "Can you believe what that guy said tonight?"

Amazingly, those statements continued to be made by Roberts as an employee of among the most wealthy and influential Rice alumni, the Hobby family.

Ok, skeptics would say, just prove that anything Craig Roberts ever said  -- or anyone else, for that matter -- put one less fan in the stands for Rice athletics events.   One can't point to courtroom-style evidence, but one nevertheless can observe a vortex of media ridicule, losses, media indifference, declining crowds. 

Rice lost. Rice received ridicule or scant attention in newspapers and on TV. Rice lost some more. Attendance fell.  Long-time local fan support literally died off.  Student support eroded, and the alumni base declined as well, as more left the area on graduation. To recent Houston arrivals, Rice was known only as the butt of local TV reporters jokes.  And so on, and so on, into the abyss.

In time, the media treatment became the single, biggest element of a very complex problem that seemed to defy solution. Then along came Bobby May.

Bobby May turns it around, then faces two bombshells

When the former Rice All-American high hurdler was named athletic director in January, 1989, Rice athletics was at low ebb in all respects -- won-loss records, attendance, morale on the field and in the stands.  Bobby May came in with enthusiasm and fierce loyalty, and started out by making good coaching choices.  Fred Goldsmith brought in two consecutive winning seasons in football -- the first since '60-'61, before he went on to Duke -- and oblivion.  Rice basketball was DOA when Scott Thompson arrived, but he, too, turned it into a winner, and charismatically secured the highest level of student support ever, before leaving  for the Big Bucks at Wichita State -- and eventually, too, consigning himself to relative oblivion at Cornell.

Undeterred, Bob brought in Ken Hatfield, an old-fashioned, boy-scout kind of guy who turned out to be a match made in heaven for Rice football. His first year, with little material, he brought the Owls a share of the SWC football championship.

Then, in 1995,  the bombshell -- UT and A&M, Tech and Baylor  were dumping their SWC brethren after 80 years of union and heading for the Big 8's greener, albeit cow college, pastures.

After that, Rice was no longer a member of the indigenous, major college hometown league -- that distinction was left to the Texas state schools, minus the University of Houston, which went on to a league of its own.  Now, the same number of column inches in the local paper was being divided among three leagues, instead of one. And the Big Twelve ate at the trough first; the Coogs second.  Ditto for local TV sports coverage.

Truncated, 8-team WAC presses onward

May, Hatfield, and Rice persisted.  The school appeared to land on its feet by joining TCU and SMU in the Western Athletic Conferene.  Hatfield came through with   two straight 7-4 records.  Sports promotion slowly became more formalized.   Then, after two years,  another bombshell -- Airport Al and his fellow university presidents from eight, old-line WAC  schools met in a Frequent Flyer lounge and proclaimed, "Nuts to you, we revoke,"  and the cumbersome 16-team WAC went down like the Hindenburg.  After that, nobody expected the gutted league to survive into its first, eight-team season.  But  apparently it shall.

Still, it's a jungle out there. And Rice publicists have started to beat the jungle drums.  Last week we mentioned the '97 season, in which Rice average football attendance jumped from 20,000 to over 35,000 a game -- the largest increase in the NCAA for that  year.  But, owing mostly to an unattractive schedule, attendance plummeted once again in '98.

Rice has two aces up the sleeve, one outside the hedges in Chronicle Rice beat reporter Neal Farmer, and one inside, in Rice promotion director Mike Pede'.  Neal, a competent, levelheaded journalist who, unlike many of his colleagues doesn't seem to believe that his credibility is based upon how many brickbats he can throw, writes with demonstrated appreciation of all the hurdles Owl teams and athletes have to overcome. Within the limited number of column inches he's given, Farmer reports on Rice sports credibly and creditably.

Mike, a U of H alum with solid knowledge of the local landscape, has coordinated efforts which drew crowds in the 45,000 - 50,000 range in his two annual versions of "Operation Sellout," in '97 against Air Force and in '98 against SMU, two schools which wouldn't be calculated to bring in big crowds on their own.

But another so-so schedule greets the Owls this fall, at a time when Rice's participation in major college athletics appears to be at a crossroads mostly not of its own making. It will be a challenge to improve average attendance significantly over '98.    Yet as rumors of league defections and conference realignments abound, it will be an essential challenge.  Each element will need to make increased effort -- season ticket holders will have to dig deeper; Mike Pede' and his staff will have to burn the midnight oil; the students, for heaven's sake, with have to get off their apathetic rear ends and show up occasionally.  And the Owls?  In the words of Oakland Raiders boss Al Davis, "Just win, baby..."

A parting note to anyone who thinks that simply winning will solve all of Rice's media attention need to write a letter to KHOU-TV's sports director, Gifford Neilsen, thanking him for the extensive coverage Channel 11 gave to Rice baseball's achieving number one in the nation.  At the end of last Monday's sportscast, Giff devoted to that story all of four seconds' time.

Current student support nothing short of (a)pathetic
Post Gen-Xers don't get what Baby Boomers intuitively understood

nerds2.jpg (15997 bytes)
  Rice students throng Autry
Court in late '60s

HOUSTON (Mar. 10) -- With all the off-field turmoil surrounding the consecutive demise of two leagues, where do the Rice students stand in their support of  Owl teams?  Good question.  Not in the bleachers, anyway.

By all measurable standards, while results on the field hold firm or improve from year to year, the Rice student body appears to be more and more preoccupied.  The gulf of empty seats which makes up the Rice student section grows wider every season.  The MOB is a shadow of its former self.  Students who do attend appear unenthusiasic and lackadaisical.  Why?

Is this an era when Rice students' academic load takes collective stress levels to an all-time high? Are social and politcal opprobrium nowadays attached to support of the school's teams?  Has stratification of the student population led to alienation from the university's culture and institutions?

No, not at all -- but those circumstances, instead, quite succinctly describe the late '60s.  Then  was a comparatively lonely time to spend four years on  the Rice campus.  The student body, slightly smaller in number to begin with, was extremely polarized--liberals were friends with and dated only liberals, conservatives consorted only with conservatives, jocks only with jocks, weanies only with weanies, etc., etc.  The student population was thusly sliced and diced, politically as well as culturally.

Science and engineering still ruled supreme, the amount of coursework required in even the simplest of academ courses was daunting, and the male - female ratio was around three to one. Too, intercollegiate athletics was, as we now say, purely Politically Incorrect.   An affected ennui for traditional institutions was the order of the day.   If one were a Liberal, or even a with-it Moderate, one risked the ridicule of one's fellows by being so out-of-it as to attend football or basketball games.

Nevertheless, in such a climate, the Rice student body supported its Owls at a level approximately twice that of the present day.  We repeat, TWICE that of the present day. Regularly crowds of 1,100 or 1,200 jammed all the lower bleachers, and one full upper section, at Autry Court.  Come football Saturdays, one and a half full sections of Rice Stadium were filled with Rice students, along with a few -- pitifully few -- dates.

A for-all-the-marbles basketball game with Baylor in 1970 was attended by 2,200 students -- virtually the entire student body, with the leaders of the radical SDS seen on the front row, screaming invective at the referees. (We remember the students.  We remember the refs.)

Of course, much of the Rice student population of the late '60s comprised pure nerd-dom, and most of that possessed the happy trait of not caring much about what other people thought.   And again, the composition was much more local--about one-third Houston area, one-third, rest of Texas, and one-third, out of state.  Two thirds of the student body grew up with SWC football and basketball as king.

In truth, the Rice student population of that era, though put upon, frazzled, stratifed and, in some cases, high on something other than life, nevertheless adhered to traditional institutions, even while at the same time occasionally decrying them (c.f. the controversy surrounding the 1968 appointment of William Masterson as university president, when virtually the entire student body marched on the administration building -- dressed in coat -and -tie.)

Now, that generation, in the process of turning 50, can look back upon its college years and realize that it was in the embracing of the university's institutions, and in the steepage in the unique culture of those institutions, that one added length and breadth to the experience of an undergraduate education. Baby boomers nowadays can realize:  we are, at least in part, what we belong to; what we belong to is what belongs to us.

Perhaps it's simply emblematic of the short- attention- span Generation X -and -a -half that now populates our universities to be more occupied with Sega Game Boys and the Internet to be.... wait, that doesn't work either.  Rice students don't even use the Internet in support of their teams! Ever seen a Rice sports web message board?

The fact is that student involvement is the linchpin of  alumni and community support.  Clearly, with a more geographically diverse population nowadays, more Rice students fan out to the four corners of the nation upon graduation. But that doesn't disturb the basic paradigm:  if students don't develop affiliations as undergraduates, then they certainly can't be expected to maintain those affiliations upon departure.  That goes for the friends one makes, for the groups and organizations one joins, and for the teams one supports.

All of those affiliations make life richer and more rewarding.  The Rice students of this generation just don't appear to get this simple fact.  And when they're 50, it'll be too late.

Webletter spring feature.....Part Two
Was '98 the benchmark, or was '97 for real?
Big gains year before last,  but slim crowds last year
Strenuous marketing effort can invoke history, traditions

onceupon.jpg (16414 bytes)
Once upon a time...

HOUSTON (Mar. 3) --   A storied past, a burgeoning metropolis, and standards worthy of emulation all seem to have helped only little in recent decades when it comes to bolstering fan interest in football among Rice students, alumni and the Houston community.

But in 1997, a favorable schedule plus the strenuous efforts of Rice athletics marketing people  paid off in that year's  largest one-year attendance increase in the NCAA. The successful '97 campaign,  how- ever,  was followed by a '98 season in which a basically crummy home schedule was greeted by some of the sparsest crowds in recent memory.  So which year was for real, and which was an aberration?

1997 crowds of 53,000-plus greeted both the Texas game and a heavily -promoted season opener with Air Force.  The season per-game average was just over 35,000, an increase of 15,000 fans per game over the prior year --and nobody else in the NCAA could boast of such a percentage increase.  The average attendance doubtless would have edged even higher if the televised Texas game had not been kicked off at the ungodly hour of 11:00 a.m.--in September-- and the BYU game had not been played on a Saturday night when it poured buckets all day, and continued to storm for the first three quarters of the game, holding attendance down to 23,800.

Then came 1998.  The season opener against SMU once again was touted as "Operation Sellout," and 42,500 tickets were sold.  But a lot of the actual attendees looked like youngsters whose main interest lay in getting to run around willy-nilly on the field after the game.

The next home game, the Owls drew 16,000 against Northwestern, and continued to draw crowds of a similar nature against Tulsa, Colorado State and UNLV.  Opposing teams' fan support, local or otherwise,  didn't help a bit.  None of those three WAC opponents put more than two or three hundred of their fans  in the stands.

Undoubtedly, the Owls' early-season stumble and poor showing in Austin did little to rally support.  In any event, the crowds were as slim as they ever had been in the Jerry Berndt or Homer Rice eras.  And this, with a far better product on the field to watch.

The scheduling gods appear not to be treating the Athenians kindly in '99, either.   Only four home games are on the card --after two, murderous road games with Michigan and Texas, an early-  season bout with Navy which likely with have to do for Operation Sellout III, and then three conference games with San Jose State, TCU and UTEP. Not a schedule calculated to get the blood boiling and the tailgate candelabra polished up.

A fifth "home" game begins the season across town, with the University of Houston.  But stay tuned.  The Coogs appear to have hired the Three Stooges to run their stadium expansion contract, and, to date, ground hasn't even been broken.   So the Owls indeed might begin their season with a fifth game at home, flipping the home-and-home on upcoming Rice and UH schedules.

Wasn't always that way

In any case, that's the realistic picture as of off-season, 1999. And it wasn't always this way, for the Institute.

Let's go back to the heydays, and pick a typical year, any year.  How about 1958? Like the '98 team, the '58 Owls won five games that year, but were in the conference chase through season's end.  Army came to town undefeated and number two in the nation, coached by Col. Earl "Red" Blaik and featuring "lonesome end" Bill Carpenter and All-American RB Pete Dawkins.  The Owls and Cadets drew only 69,000; Army won, 14-7.

Against Texas, they had to put temporary bleachers above the end zone stands to accommodate the 72,000 who wanted in. Coach Jess Neely's Owls rolled, 34-7.

The A&M game drew 57,000.  In 1954, Bear Bryant scheduled every Rice -A&M game for fourteen years in Rice Stadium,  under the theory that the Houston venue was   larger than and superior to Kyle Field and more Aggies lived within an easy drive from the Rice campus.  No Rice-A&M game was ever played in College Station between 1954 and 1968. And going out to Rice Stadium for the Owl-Aggie game was an annual ritual for thousands of local schoolkids like this writer.  (Couldn't go the Rice-Texas game, though.  Adults only--too tough a ticket.)

Third in the nation in attendance

The Owls drew 343,000 in '58--an average of over 57,000 a game.  Rice was third in the nation -- in the nation-- in attendance, behind Ohio State and Michigan. And that was the norm.

Gee whiz, with such impressive attendance figures, Rice must've had a juggernaut marketing team in place, right?  Well, let's see, there was Bill Whitmore, the ebullient, never-say-die SID, and then there was... there was... well, that's about it!

Granted, the Rice teams had an informal army reserve among the sportswriters and raconteurs of the Houston community.  Anyone who can remember the drive away from the Rice Stadium parking lot,  in the those days, must also remember the unforgettable drawl of Morris Frank on his post-game radio show:  "Thoshe Owlsh done whupped thoshe Ag-yihs, fo'teen to nairn...."  Sportswriters, many of them then youngsters, Mickey Herskowitz, Bob Rule, Clark Nealon and Lloyd Gregory among them,   kept the Institute teams in favorable limelight, without blatant boosterism..

Aided by such informal, but ready, promotion, Bill Whitmore's exhortations could help keep fan interest sustained for a few years after that --but not for very long.  In the early sixties, pro football came to town in the form of Bud Adams'  AFL Houston Oilers --if you could call it pro football-- and the consistent on-field success of Coach Neely just flat deserted him.

1961 was Rice's last bowl team.  1963 was the last winning season for 28 years. After the 1966 season, Jess Neely retired. Not until Fred Goldsmith's fourth year at the helm in 1992 did the Owls once again surface above .500.

Of course, since then, Rice has been a consistent winner, with winning records in '92, '93, '96 and '97, and with 5-6 seasons in '94 and '98.

Years of losing took their toll

But the years and years of losing did take their toll, slowly and inexorably, on the studio audience.  In 1972, Rice could still draw 55,000 for its first win over the University of Houston.  That year, a Bruce Gadd- quarterbacked team could still play before 28,000 in a late- season, non- conference home victory over Clemson.

But by 1995, a Rice Stadium, SWC  "turn-out-the-lights" game with the U of H barely drew 20,000.

By then, KPRC-TV sportscaster and former Southern Illiinois scholar Craig Roberts made it a point to make the Owls the butt of jokes and snide remarks in his every postgame report, Rice win or Rice loss.  And he had company among the local sports-reporting mass media, not a Rice alum and virtually no native Houstonians --or Texans-- among them.

Belaboring the point, and spelling out all the sad details of Rice's gradual, inevitable attendance decline and the consequential feeding frenzy of local sports media would only irritate you readers, and cause a number of you to fire off letters reminding us how the glory days of the '40s and '50s  was a bygone era; how there was no pro football in town; how the Rice Institute teams then were the darling of  the local media; how things were just so very different in those days--and that's all too evident to all of us.  We'll delve into those distinctions, and the problems they have posed and continue to pose, in the next installment.

For now, allow us only to serve up a reminder that Rice athletics, indeed, features a storied past, and that it generally, down through the decades, has been a most admirable, if not consistent,  of Davids, in a battlefield filled with Goliaths.   Rice is no UNLV.  It is no Colorado State.  And that is the case, of course,  both in the classroom and on the athletic fields.

While the paradigm may have shifted enormously, what was acomplished in the past can serve as an image and example for emulation in the present. In this city of Houston, where tradition means little, and long-term allegiances tend toward the few and the distant, a dollop of winning, and a strong dose of marketing which invokes a bit of Rice's great history, has the potential of restoring at least a degree of past fan support.  And only a bit, frankly, is really all that's needed for interest to take hold and grow sua sponte.

Next week, we'll review some of the obstacles Rice must face in its efforts to maintain public support of its athletics programs.  Then, in a fourth and final installment, we'll make a few  suggestions for future directions.  But what we really need, of course, is to hear your opinions.

coach5.jpg (9812 bytes)
Hatfield and Rice:
good marriage

Webletter spring feature.....Part One
Owl fans’ cup
far from empty

Rice athletics in ascendancy;
overall records best since 50s

But attendance still lags as students,
alumni, community stay away.  Why?

HOUSTON (Feb. 18) --  Alumni and supporters of Rice University intercollegiate athletics have a lot to cheer about at century’s end, as a snapshot of major team sports shows, overall, the best results since the days of Sputnik.

The Rice baseball team currently is ranked number two in the nation in the most recognized collegiate poll. Wayne Graham is widely considered the dean of college baseball coaches, and, although he is nearing the age of retirement, when he steps down he will leave a solid, national-power program in a new, $7-million, state-of-the-art facility.

The Rice basketball team just closed out its 1998-99 home campaign with a 13-1 record, the best since 1955-56, and remains in the chase for the conference championship and the NCAA tournament. The NIT remains as a very possible consolation if those goals are missed. And the current squad makeup promises solid NCAA contention over the next two years.

Willis Wilson appears finally to have got his groove.

In football, Rice has, in Ken Hatfield, perhaps the best possible marriage–one in which both partners are comfortable, relaxed, successful, good for each other.

After two consecutive seven-win seasons, the Owls last November, despite injuries and early -season letdowns, were playing for a division crown the last game of the year at Air Force -- and came within a play of taking it. Once again, under Ken Hatfield, Rice has become a team to be feared in November, just as it always was during Jess Neely's quarter- century reign.

For Division 1A's smallest school, with the severest of academic retrictions on recruiting (and even practice time), Coach Hatfield has done a tremendous job in molding a competitor, year after year, by finding a niche stategy and recruiting highly-motivated and -principaled athletes. Given all the inherent limitations,  it's as much as Rice supporters can reasonably expect, to be playing for keeps each November-- except perhaps for a little luck once in a while, to push us to an occasional conference title and minor bowl game.

Presiding over every measure of Rice's latter day success is Bobby May, an athletic director who could have just about any AD's job in the country, but who chooses to stay put out of an intense loyalty to his alma mater and a fierce personal determination to see Rice succeed at an even greater level.

And nowadays, Rice is clearly the Houston community's superior collegiate sports product, with the University of Houston in a down period in football and facing disappointment, thus far, in the results of its dice-roll with Clyde Drexler in basketball.

WIth NFL football not on the city's horizon for several years at least, all elements appear in place for for springboard effect to propel Owl teams toward greater and greater success with each passing year.  It's happening on the field.

But not in the bleachers.

In the two primary revenue sports --football and basketball-- despite strenuous efforts by Rice's sports promotion staff,  attendance has simply failed to go anywhere.   With the exception of the heavily promoted home opener against SMU, Rice football crowds last fall lingered in what generously was assessed to be the 15,000-- 18,000 range.   Basketball, despit on-court success, averaged about 3,000 for conference games, roughly the same as during its 6-22 campaign the previous year.

Obviously, Rice faces the same major obstacles to fan support as does every other urban, private university which plays major-league college sports-- and a few more, which are unique to its own circumstances.

With the efforts given these days, and the results obtained,  by Rice's genuine student- athletes, it's high time for all who care about Rice athletics to undertake an earnest effort to consider and analyze  the circumstances and the possible reasons why these fine young men and women are not consistently supported by the attendance that they deserve to have --and then to resolve, one by one and in concert, to take action to do something to bring about improvment.

During this late-winter lull between signing day and spring practice, we intend to present, over the next couple of weeks,  a multi- part series which examines some of those problematical circumstances.  Our intent is not to lay blame or to lecture Rice fans who read this publication --that would be preaching to the choir, to say the least, as all of you are among Rice's most loyal.  Rather, the hope is to open a brief dialogue, to help us to know where we are going in our support of Rice athletics, which leads to ideas how we can support it better and spread our enthusiasm and involvement.

Our student-athletes and our coaches deserve no less.

Counterpoint:   Demise of SWC cited as biggest single obstacle to increased Rice attendance

Brian Yarbrough:  "Just win, baby..." Omnipresent cliche holds true for Owls
Mike Fabiano:  Competitive team plus attractive schedule equals people in seats
Jonathan Sadow:  Attendance standard exceeds those of  '70s, '80s
Brian Yarbrough:  Numbers just don't add up when it comes to alumni support
Stephen Woods:  Facilities upgrade will help baseball, would help other sports
Marty King:  Rice environment still a bit strange to local community
Barry Chovanetz:  Future lies in alignment with more competitive, local conference
Adam M. Halperin, Brian Perschall:  How about ticket team-up by Rice, UH?

"Just win, baby..."   Omnipresent cliche holds true for Owls

I am deflated as I announce my surrender to an omnipresent cliché. After years of declaring there has to be a way to make Rice Football fun for Houston fans without depending on our win-loss record, I finally admit that winning will solve all of our football problems.

I used to think that an atmosphere such as the one enjoyed by the Green Bay Packer fans of the early 80's could be created for our beloved Owls. In the early 80's, when the Packers stunk up the field against all manner of opponents, it was always in front of a sold-out home stadium. "Cheeseheads" went to these games for tradition, tailgate parties, age-old rivalries, and because the city of Green Bay actually owned the team. Wins had nothing to do with it.

I used to wonder, "If a small town like Green Bay, Wisconsin can build such a following, why not a sprawling metropolis like Houston?" This feeling was only heightened by my experiences with Rice classmates and professors. I truly felt privileged to be counted among this exceptional group.

So where is our ingenious master plan to establish an exciting football institution . . . one that relies on tradition and pride instead of the fair-weather affection lavished on a winning program? I truly doubt that it is possible at this point. Here are the reasons I feel my vision will never materialize:

 -- The majority of Houstonians seem to admire Rice, but cannot manage to relate to the school. For example, Craig Roberts usually refers to Owl teams as "the Smart Kids." While it sounds flattering, such a reference implies an arrogance that alienates many potential Houston fans.

--  The post-SWC conference affiliations have damaged heated local rivalries. It was easier to stir up Houstonians when the city brewed for an entire week over clashes with Aggies, Longhorns and the like every year. These rivalries not only helped to fill the stands, but they improved local media coverage.

-- We have never been able to create a tailgating environment that entices luke-warm football fans. In the Northeast, many colleges with losing programs pull in thousands of fans for their tailgate parties alone. I am mystified that we have not been successful on this front, since our climate seems to be better suited for it.

My point is not that the future is bleak for Rice Football. Under the direction of Coach Hatfield, I feel that it has never been brighter. However, I think the old cliché will hold true. The only way to overcome the reservations of the average Houstonian is to "Just win, baby."

Brian Yarbrough

Competitive team plus attractive schedule equals people in seats

The lesson that should be drawn from 1997 is that if you put a good, competitive team out there (like Hatfield always does) and attractive opponents in Rice Stadium (like 1997, but unlike 1998 or 1999), then Rice can put people in the seats. (Even though Houston sports fans are at least as bad, in terms of faithfully supporting local teams, as southern California fans.)

That means the AD and the football staff have to work superhard to get good football draws to come to Rice Stadium. They have to find a way to get Texas, Texas A&M, and LSU to come to town. Other name teams from the SEC and Big Ten should also be targeted.

The problem, of course, is that a lot of those name teams don't want to play Rice at all, and even the ones who do won't play at Rice -- because they might lose, of course. (Especially considering the Owls' record at Rice Stadium the past few years.) LSU, for example, might be willing to play at Rice if they thought it would be an easy win for them; the Tigers have a lot of Houston-area alums and like to recruit in the area. But why play at Rice and pick up an "L"? So LSU scheduled Houston instead (in a 2/1 deal, I think).

It's a tough problem. Unfortunately, you can't get the non-Rice-affiliated Houston fans to leave their houses unless you put attractive opponents in the stadium, and few if any possible Rice opponents will bring a significant number of their own fans.

IMHO, this problem is exacerbated by having a lot of far-flung conference opponents with whom the Owls have little history (a la the WAC-16). Developing more regional rivalries would help build a larger attendance base. Adding more teams to the WAC that Rice fans have no interest in would only make matters worse, in terms of attendance at Rice Stadium.

For that reason, if Benson ever got his way on incorporating the Big West into the WAC, I think Rice would have to leave the WAC to save its football program. Even playing football as an independent, with a largely regional schedule, would be better for the Owls' program than a regular schedule of Boise, Utah State, etc. No offense to those schools, but Rice can't put butts in the seats if those teams are filling the Owls' schedule. (And conversely, I can't imagine that Boise or USU fans want to see any of the eastern WAC schools, either.)

Mike Fabiano
Will Rice '86

Attendance standard exceeds those of  '70s, '80s

Your comments about attendance at Rice sporting events need to be placed in perspective - and in this case, the perspective of someone who is of a bit more recent vintage than yourself.

I was at the Rice - Southern Methodist women's basketball game in Autry Court on February 27. As I scanned the bleachers, it struck me that there were about the same number of people there as used to come to Rice - SMU men's games when I was a student at Rice (1980-4) - perhaps close to a thousand. By contrast, about 3,000 were at this season's men's game. In the early '80s, women's attendance was virtually non-existant; Rice was a AIAW Division II school who played the likes of Sam Houston State and Southwest Texas State and rarely drew more than a couple of hundred for any game in a season. The only men's opponent that could even come close to filling Autry Court was national power Houston; typically, only the games against Texas or Texas A&M could draw even a thousand. The same general trend was true for football; in fact, attendance for non-conference foes often didn't break 10,000 (and attendance for conference opponents other than the Longhorns and Aggies wasn't much higher than that).

Assessing the progress of the Rice athletic program requires that we choose an appropriate standard with which to measure. Certainly, the football and men's basketball programs aren't where they were during the '50s and '60s. Compared with the '70s and '80s, however, presently they're way ahead (and the baseball program is way ahead of any era in Rice history). Women's basketball has gone from a non-entity to a WNIT qualifier last season (and let's not forget volleyball, which just missed out on a NCAA tournament berth this year). Rice may not be where it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it's a lot better than 20 or even 10 years ago. Bobby May has things going in the right direction. While we may never see the day when Rice athletics is number one in Houston (as it was 40 years ago), a solid foundation is being built for the future, and, to paraphrase the movie "Field of Dreams", if you build it, they will come....

Jonathan Sadow

Numbers just don't add up when it comes to alumni support

You raise a question that every Rice alumnus has heard at one time or another, "Why can't Rice ever manage to fill their own stadium?" I was involved in a research project that shed some light on the subject for me personally. Imagine that you are the marketing director for Rice Athletics, and your first mission is to fill Rice Stadium. What do you do? Assume that money is not obstacle and the football team is performing at the same high level it has under Ken Hatfield (7 or 8 wins a year). Everyone points out that the city has lost its NFL franchise and suggests that this should open the door for Rice Football to become a dominant force on the city's entertainment scene. It sounds like an easy job.

Here's the catch. Rice Stadium seats 70,000 people. All of the living Rice graduates (including some in their 80's and 90's) plus the current student body total around 40,000. A closer look at the alumni population reveals that about 70% live outside of the Houston area. This means that you only have about 29,000 (4K + .7 * 36K) Rice fans to fill 70,000 seats. This presents quite a challenge.

What's the answer? Some will point out that these 29,000 Rice faithful might, in theory, bring spouses and/or children and boost attendance to the desired sell-out level. Realistically, you have to assume that some portion of this group has no interest in college football. In addition, some of the group will be attracted to entertainment alternatives (after all, there are always exciting events taking place on Satrudays in Houston during the Fall).

So let's assume a solid 18,000 or so from the Rice Football fan base and address the real problem. How do you get Houston fans with no school ties to Rice University to attend our home football games. Maybe we should lower ticket prices. No, all market research shows that the $20 ticket price prevents very few people from coming to the games who would have come had admission been free. Perhaps the answer lies in advertising campaigns and/or joint projects with the University of Houston. This could be the answer . . . after all, the SMU game was the product of a heavy marketing campaign, and it drew a huge crowd.

During this project I came up with a suggestion leaning toward more advertising, but I must admit I have no idea whether it would have worked or been an utter failure. What I did come away with was a real appreciation for the problem of filling the seats. Keep this in mind the next time you ponder why Rice fans are so lax in their support of the Football Team - there are more students on the campus of U of H this semester (55,000+) than the total number living current and former Rice students.

 Brian Yarbrough

Facilities upgrade will help baseball, would help other sports

When I was behind the hedges we always heard the adage "Rice stadium holds more than have ever gone to Rice". I'm not sure if that's true today but it makes the point. A small alumni base means fewer die-hard fans.

Other factors I would include in the mix:

1) The ascendancy of professional sports -- Fans just prefer the professional game now and no wonder with the tremendous TV and other media exposure. The only college programs that can compete are the quasi-professional ones.

2) Little press support for the hometown team -- Doesn't it annoy you to see Texas and Texas A&M on the front page of the Houston Chronicle sports section and Rice on page 7?? What is this the Austin American Statesman?

Even though we are vastly outnumbered by sips and ags, shouldn't there be more loyalty to the local teams? I think so.

3) Substandard facilities -- Rice Baseball will average at least 1000 more per game when the new stadium is completed. Autry Court is inadequate and hurts not only attendance but recruiting as well. Even Rice Stadium is in need of an upgrade.

Another factor I would throw in is the demise of the SWC. Let's face it it's just hard to work up a good hatred for Colorado State, despite the best efforts of "airport Al". But then maybe this falls under item 1 above.

Stephen Woods

Rice environment still a bit strange to local community

You realize, of course, that Rice, being the smallest division 1 school, only has about as many living alumni in the whole world as there are Aggies in College Station. We couldn't even fill our stadium if we all showed up at once! Seeing as how we are spread out all over the world (okay, a large fraction still live in Houston) that leaves even fewer RU alums to attend the games on a regular basis. On top of that, many of those who live in Houston do have other things to do with their Saturday afternoons - like family, and household chores, etc. The sad fact of life is that much of our time is non-discretionary; mine anyway. So as much as we would all like to while away a beautiful Saturday afternoon watching our beloved Owls, we can't.

Then there is the culture at Rice itself, which teaches that one needs to be well-rounded, succinctly put. So even if we could spend a Saturday afternoon in the stadium, there are so many other things to enjoy. All of this leads to needing to attract non-Rice people to the games.

Most people who didn't attend Rice think of the school as somewhat an exclusive club for smart people. They do not identify with Rice. They mostly identify with our opponents. We do not carry the name of anything they have ownership in, like "Texas...", or "...Houston". I submit also that the only reason the Cougars aren't seeing the fans they used to see at their games is because they are not winning so much now. I still remember the words of one (slightly inebriated) Texas Tech fan at a game in Lubbock over twenty years ago: "Beat the Intellectuals!...".

I did not feel like some kind of elitist intellectual. I still don't. Those who know me would not describe me that way. The same is true for most Rice alums. The university needs to make more of an effort, as they have been doing in recent years, to make friends with the Houston community at-large. This effort is going to take years, maybe decades, to show results. They need to continue their on-field succcesses.

Marty King
Weiss '77

Future lies in alignment with more competitive, local conference

I have been supporting Rice athletics for over 20 years... The biggest problem with fan support is that the Athletic Department or its Public Relations is very poor in spreading the word of Rice Athletics. They need to encourage better statewide coverage of their sporting events instead of just in the Houston area and somewhat in the Waco/DFW area. They seem to promote themselves as a small time program and that's the perception most people see. Money will be involved in such an effort but if you want to compete with the big boys, you have to take the risk.

Also, the breakup of the WAC was disastrous to Rice because the conference now seems a second rate conference at least it does to the normal fan. The major priority in the future of Rice should be to join a conference or set-up a new conference that more creditable/competitive programs years in and year out.

Barry Chovanetz

How about ticket team-up by Rice, UH?

Here's an idea marketed towards families who are not necessarilly UH or Rice fans, but are football fans.

Each school has family season tickets, why not put together a family (4) package that includes two home games at each sadium plus the UH/Rice game (or 3 at each stadium)for about the same $200 - $250 that the family season ticket goes for. This may bring in more NFL/general football fans who would be hesitant to buy a season ticket to a program they have no allegiance to, but would like to go to a nice mix of games.

The same could be done for single tix. for the regular (about $100) per seat.

The BONUS here is that if the teams are exciting on the field, we may create some new permanent UH/Rice fans (winning is contagious).

Adam M. Halperin

UH and RICE could get each of their ticket offices to combine tickets for all home games into a season ticket package.This would be presented as another package along with the existing ones. The  revenue would go back to each school up to the matched amount of season packages sold. (Example:  IF UH sells 2,000 and RICE sells 1,800 then RICE would only share profits up to the 1,800 level. ) The other 200 extra sales by UH would go back to UH in full.This keeps us honest because each school is selling tickets to its customer base on behalf of the other.The other problem could be that one school benefits more in attendancethan the other.In such a case, a percentage of revenue could be kicked back to the other because of the extra attendance benefit (ie..better tv deals,better recruiting etc...).

The package would include 10 home games at somewhat of a discounted price. You're selling seats that may not get  sold anyway.  Both schools could benefit by both increased revenue and attendance. This could work because you're promoting this to college football fans who understand that both schools need help.  The program could start next year and run for a few years until both schools are on solid feet again.  The package also targets friendly territory in that there're within the fan bases of both schools.  It would only apply to alternating game dates starting in 2000.

The benefits are: 1) increased revenue;  2) increased attendance;  3) possibly more tv exposure; and  4) better recruiting for both programs because it would counter all the negative publicity about attendance for both programs.

Brian Perschall

Rice NCAA certification study published
Contains no big surprises, but
substantiates previously released data

The Rice University Steering Committee on NCAA Certification has published its self - study document as a necessary step towards the Institute’s August, 1999, certification requirement. Essentially an NCAA compliance document, the report yields no real surprises, but does substantiate favorable, previously released statistics regarding Rice’s student athletes.

The study reveals that the Institute has never been the subject of an NCAA investigation – making it one of a handful of Division 1A institutions that can lay claim to such assertion. At the same time, the report indicated, Rice maintains no separate academic programs for its student athletes and, while it allows deviations from average test scores, does not maintain separate admissions standards for its scholarship athletes.

"Rice prides itself on its dual goal of excellence in athletic arena, and refuses to use the rigors of either as an excuse for less than high quality both the academic program and the performance in the other," the report stated.

After the Hopwood U.S. Supreme Court decision, which eliminated race as a factor for college admissions, Rice accordingly dropped a policy allowing some variance in SAT scores by race for recruitment standards. From 1984 until 1995, Rice had allowed slightly lower SAT scores for minority candidates – "to correct for a perceived cultural bias in the test," according to the report – but no more.

In any case, according to the study, admissions standards for Rice’s student athletes have never been higher. "Student athletes at Rice are not regarded as Admission ‘exceptions.’ Only fully qualifying students are admitted to Rice University. We are accustomed to having student athletes as Rhodes and Marshall scholars: it is not unusual for our student athletes to graduate with cum laude, magna cum laude, and even summa cum laude honors," the study stated.

Turning to the numbers, the study revealed that for student-athlete admission, average GPA's have been about 3.5 for men and about 3.78 for women for the past three years. Average student-athlete SAT's have been consistently above 1100 for both men and women for the past three years. That compares with General Admission students' average GPA's of about 3.73 for men and about 3.82 for women, with average SAT scores of about 1400 for both, during the same time period.

In a recent survey of the 113 Division I-A athletic programs with football teams, the report said, Rice student-athletes admissions ranked fourth nationally for average SAT for football athletes, first nationally for average SAT for men's basketball athletes, and first nationally for average SAT for women's basketball athletes. The average SAT for all athletes in all sports ranked fourth nationally amongst all 113 Division I-A athletic programs with football teams.

The rate of graduation of Rice’s scholarship athletes remains in the 74-80% range, the report indicated, and added that there are no obvious trends in the variations from year to year. However, this figure is proportionately lower than some schools with the same results, because Rice counts as "not graduating" both students who leave Rice at the completion of their eligibility to pursue professional athletic careers -- but then later get their Rice degree (it happens) -- and students who transfer and complete their eligibility and education at another school.

The committee was chaired by Zen Camacho, Rice's vice president for student affairs, and was drafted primarily by Mark  Scheid, who is director of the Institute's advising and international programs.  Alumni committee members included Bucky Allshouse, Adam Peakes, Regina Cavanaugh and George Miner.

The study expressed a commitment to gender equity in intercollegiate sports, a focus rendered a legal necessity by Title IX of the federal civil rights laws.

Other reported tidbits included the revelation that the Rice Board of Governers has gotten involved directly in the WAC - MWC fray. "The institution's governing board has been involved in the selection of a new athletic conference to join after the breakup of the Southwest Conference," the report stated. "It is currently dealing with issues relating to the future of the Western Athletic Conference after the recently announced decision of eight schools to leave the conference."

The study also pointed out that, until recently, the Institute was prohibited by its Articles of Incorporation from incurring debt for capital improvements. "Though it is too early to predict how lifting this debt financing prohibition will affect the athletic program, it is possible that some debt financing will be utilized for major facilities construction in the future," the study indicated. Hmmm...does that mean the delivery date of the new basketball arena might be moved up a peg or two? Any prospective co-signors out there?

Self study document URL.....