John Royal Rice coach Wayne Graham reflects on his career.
His teams have won five junior college world series, and his 2003 Rice Owls squad won the College World Series. His players have included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Lance Berkman, Anthony Rendon, Jose Cruz Jr., David Aardsma and Bubba Crosby. The only national title ever won by a Rice sporting team came from his baseball team. And he's won over 1,500 baseball games while coaching San Jacinto and Rice.
He's already a member of the Junior College Hall of Fame, the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. And tomorrow, he's being inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Being named to this Hall of Fame is actually the pinnacle of college baseball, and that's something that all of us, if we're going, we ought to seek it," Graham said Thursday afternoon.
Building the Rice program while playing in Texas, a state with many high-profile college baseball programs, hasn't been easy. The school can't recruit to the same level as most others because of the academic standards. And because of the baseball draft, which allows high school players to be drafted, Rice can't always afford to focus on the most talented of players. They look at talent, but they also have to look at what Graham terms as high projectabilty.
Lance Berkman was one such high-projectability guy. Graham and his staff thought that he could be a great hitter at some point, but he wasn't really pursued by the other colleges in the state. But he became that hitter they projected he could be. Graham said he was decent as a freshman and great as a sophomore and magnificent as a junior, at which point Berkman was drafted by the Astros, where he went on to establish himself as one of the game's great hitters.
Berkman still visits with Graham whenever he can, as do many former Owls baseball players. And Graham said on Thursday that at some point in the future, Berkman could be returning to Rice to get his degree and if that happens, Berkman may work with the team as a student hitting coach.
"He really wants to coach," Graham says. "And we talked for a long time, and it was very gratifying. Lance, I hate to take his time, but in general, Lance has been a guy that if I ask him, if I told him I needed to see him, he'd get out here. He's really a good guy."
Graham is gratified by the support he's been given by the Rice administration, noting that it's always easier to coach a team when you have the support of the administration. This support was strengthened just a few weeks ago when the Owls extended Graham's contract for another five years. But isn't that the only thing that can be really done for the man who's made at least one Rice sports program into a major national power.
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"In some ways it's more significant than just going into a big-time program and just continuing it," Graham says of his work at Rice. "It's very gratifying that it happened at Rice because growing up, my family viewed Rice as the best thing that Houston had to offer in terms of prestige and honor and all of those things. So it was ironic that I would wind up at Rice...To give them a legacy in another sport is a wonderful thing for me personally."
College baseball is undergoing a few changes, most brought about by the decision several years ago to deaden the aluminum bats. The games are no longer 11-10 slugfests, and the importance of pitching has returned to the forefront. Graham notes that Arizona, the team that just won the College World Series, is the model that schools should be going after -- a team with good pitching that doesn't try to win with power but by hitting line drives. (Graham stated after the Owls lost in the NCAA Regionals several weeks back that he wanted to focus his hitters on hitting line drives like the Arizona players.)
He also noted that Arizona won the College World Series despite not having won its conference, and he said he would be more than happy to see the Owls not win their conference if it meant getting back to Omaha and the College World Series. And who knows, maybe if student hitting coach Lance Berkman can teach the Owls to hit a few line drives here and there, they just might make it back to Omaha sooner rather than later.