Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Rice adjusting to life as national champs

By Michael A. Lutz
The Associated Press

HOUSTON - The smallest school in NCAA Division I-A finally has a trophy as impressive as its graduation rate.

The Rice Owls' baseball team marched into Reckling Park to a hero's welcome Tuesday night, clutching the College World Series trophy that represents the first national sports championship at the 91-year-old institution.

A capacity crowd of 4,500 poured onto the field and waved "Way to Go Owls" banners as the team strolled onto the infield.

To their right, the scoreboard proudly displayed the linescore of Monday night's 14-2 victory over the Stanford Cardinal that clinched the national championship.

"This is the way it was meant to be, amateurs who were really good students and really good, gifted, hardworking athletes, putting out their best efforts in front of the whole country," Rice president Dr. Malcolm Gillis said. "It should make us all proud."

Rice, with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,700, has been called the Harvard of the Southwest because of its academic standards. It ranks No. 1 in the nation with a graduation rate of 91 percent.

Athletic director Bobby May, a former star track athlete at Rice, thought of all the fans who supported the school's athletic programs through decades of losing teams.

"Almost anyone who's had an interest in the program would be thrilled beyond belief to see this," May said. "I know I'm one of them. All of them would really be elated to see this happen."

May observed the celebration and already was calculating the benefit to the overall athletic program.

"Right now there is a buzz around the whole program," May said. "There's a lot of interest on the part of a lot of different people. I guess we're hopefully growing our fan base and that should translate into a program that has more and more support."

A side benefit of the championship could be a more heated rivalry with the Texas Longhorns, whom the Owls eliminated from the CWS.

"That's a great rivalry we like to think and the more we can do to promote it the better," May said. "We have a lot of Texas folks in the area and Rice folks like to play Texas, so the more we can be connected with them the better it is for us."

The Owls' progress through the playoffs boosted the sports bars closest to the Rice campus, including Buffalo Wild Wings, where the 15 television screens typically attract crowds hungry for pro football and basketball, or games played by other major colleges.

For the last few days at the chain's Rice Village location, assistant general manager Catherine Danihy said fans clad in Rice blue have been the ones downing chicken and beer while watching the Owls win the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

"When (Rice fans) are here, you don't really notice them normally," Danihy said. "They just really came out in full force and overtook us the last couple of days."

The inaugural NCAA title didn't come for lack of trying. Rice was chartered by Houston multimillionaire William Marsh Rice in 1891, though its construction was delayed by legal fights after his New York City murder in 1900.

Finally, in 1912, the school opened after William Rice confidant Capt. James A. Baker - grandfather of eventual Secretary of State James A. Baker III - shepherded the estate and fulfilled the philanthropist's dream of building an academically renowned college in Houston.

Rice began big-time athletic participation in 1914 as a charter member of the Southwest Conference, and in the league's early decades the Owls were consistently competitive in many sports. Gradually, the SWC's larger state-supported rivals began to dominate athletically, and the league disbanded in 1996 with Rice as its final baseball champion.

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