A strange thing happened during the late innings of the C-USA baseball championship game. The Rice fans cheered. Not the polite hand clap saved for a departing pitcher. Not applause for scoring a run. The fans cheered, and they cheered loudly. But not for the reasons you think. Goaded by visiting Southern Miss fans, the Rice crowd broke out in loud cheers. That's what it took during that championship game to get the Rice fans to finally do something besides bellow loudly at the umpires...or worse.
The Rice basketball team closed out its season on Saturday, March 13. The team trailed Tulsa by a very large margin, something that was all too familiar during the season. Then, with the game seemingly out of reach, the guys went on a run and with just under a minute left, the Owls had the chance to get the deficit down to one bucket. Then the ball went out of bounds, flying into the stands. Instead of returning the basketball, a Rice fan chose to play hide-and-seek with the referee, bringing the action to a standstill while the fan showed just how much smarter he was than everybody else.
Rice fans don't cheer a lot. They do jeer a lot, shouting out not-as-witty-as-they-think commentary on the umpire's calling of the strike zone or a referee's inability to call traveling. It's as if Rice fans, what few there are at the football and basketball games, think they're too cool to actually cheer on their teams but are instead supposed to shout out mindless witticisms in vain attempts to sound smart.
Rice is in the process of hiring a new athletic director -- note, I've had the privilege of getting to know the interim AD, Rick Mello, over the past several years, so I'd be pleased if he was given the actual job. And one of the things the new AD is going to have to deal with is a fanbase that really doesn't show up for games, and when it does thinks that jeering officials is more important than cheering the team.
The Rice Owls are a long time away from the glory years of the Southwest Conference, back when the school was allowed to act as a major player in college athletics. The Owls are now, for the most part, a minor athletic program that gets to play the big boy schools when the big boy schools are looking for the easy win. Except for when it comes to the baseball team where they truly are a major national power.
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It's been a tough year for the basketball team, and it's somewhat understandable that there wasn't much cheering inside Tudor Fieldhouse last season -- though there were times during the season when that undersized, under-manned, underdog team deserved the positive affirmation.
What will it take to get the fans as engaged in the teams as they are with the officiating? The football team's not going to go to a major bowl game any time soon, but the Owls are coming off a bowl victory and are picked to finish in second in C-USA West this football season. That raises the questions as to whether or not a Rice Stadium crowd will exceed more than 15,000 fans for a game this season. Two seasons ago, before the basketball team defections, when the Owls were a very, very promising up-and-coming team, attendance was still slight. And it appears as if the Rice fans and alums are taking the baseball team for granted and only packing Reckling Park for teams they feel to be worthy of them.
Athletics are a challenge for Rice. It's a small school with tough admissions standards. Athletics aren't stressed at Rice as they are at some other schools. The coaches can't just go out and recruit just any stud athlete. The players are usually a touch smaller, a touch slower, not quite as skilled -- once again, not counting baseball. They have to play smarter, cutting down on errors, needing to play as close to perfect as possible to win games -- on that note, the new Conference USA should actually be a nice fit for Rice football, and hopefully the fans will both be rewarded this season while rewarding the team with some decent attendance figures.
The Rice fans that I've come to know are very smart and very passionate, and they love the Owls. But at some point, maybe they should concentrate more on aiming those passions towards the team and less towards being smartasses.