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.