The Rice Owls were the laughingstock of college football for many, many years. One-win seasons, three-win seasons, losing season after losing season. A small school in a major conference playing the big-boy football programs season after season. But that’s the Rice Owls of years past, the Rice Owls who cycled through head coach after head coach, trying to figure out some way to be a competitive football team.
The Rice Owls are now entering the ninth year of the David Bailiff regime. Bailiff has coached the team to four bowl games and three wins in those games. The Owls have won a conference championship. For the first time in school history, the team has put together three straight seasons of seven-plus-win seasons. And here’s the thing: Just as always, the Owls go up against some of the best teams in college football season after season.
“I have a very dedicated staff that works their tails off with recruiting,” Bailiff told the Houston Press, giving them as much credit as possible for the team’s success. “It was great after 2008 when we had a ten-win season to go out and share our vision of what we thought we could accomplish. A lot of young men in the state trusted us. Now, the last two years, we’re the second winningest program in the state of Texas.”
Another key for Rice’s success has been stability. Bailiff’s going into his ninth season as head coach. Chris Thurmond’s entering his fourth season as the defensive coordinator, while co-offensive coordinators Larry Edmondson and Billy Lynch enter their second year as coordinators after serving multiple years on the staff. Thus the systems don’t change from year to year, meaning the players don’t have to learn new offenses or defenses every year.
“Not only have we retained our coaches, we have all of our equipment people, all of our trainers,” says Bailiff. The continuity is throughout the sports department, he says. "That really helps to accelerate these young men’s learning. It keeps us all on the same page. We don’t have to really teach coaches on how to recruit to Rice. Everybody is familiar and how we need to go about business here.”
There is some player turnover, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But the Owls endured many, many injuries on that side last season, which meant that many of the young kids got some unexpected playing time, also meaning that they’re not just young kids with very little experience going into this season. And while there’s some turnover on offense, quarterback Driphus Jackson is back for his final season. Jackson’s Rice career started in the backup role with not much playing time, but he’s become one of the keys to the team’s success.
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“I’ll tell you why I’m so proud of Driphus,” Bailiff said. “Here’s a young man who, in 2013 when we won the conference, any time Taylor McHargue got hurt, he came in and competed. He won the Armed Forces Bowl for us because Taylor got hurt. But he never complained about the backup role. He just kept preparing like he was a starter. He grinded through it. A lot of young men today, they just transfer out. He’s just matured. His leadership transcends this entire football team.”
The Owls kick off the season on Labor Day weekend by hosting Wagner University. But then the Owls go on the road for the rest of September, including to Austin and Waco to play Texas and Baylor, just like last season when Rice visited Texas A&M and Notre Dame to start the season.
“When you play a UT or Baylor early, what it will expose is what we’re good at, and what we need to work at, very similar to Notre Dame last season.,” Bailiff said. “We look forward to playing those guys. Our guys want to play in those games.”
The Owls are going for a fourth straight seven-plus win season, along with a fourth straight bowl game. This is unheard-of territory for Rice football, and it’s something that many people thought would never happen. But those people never met David Bailiff. He’s a special coach at a special program who’s figured out what many others before couldn’t. He figured out how to recruit and how to win. The result is that the Rice Owls have become one of the most successful football teams in the state of Texas, and that’s something that nobody ever expected out of the Rice Owls. Never.