Rice Basketball Hits the Reset Button, Starts Search for New Coach

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John Royal
The Ben Braun era at Rice has ended.
Ben Braun resigned as Rice's head basketball coach on Thursday morning. Braun was a good man, a good coach, who had previously taken Cal to five NCAA tournaments and who won a NIT. He's got 615 career wins, 12th best among active coaches, 41st all-time among all coaches. But he had just one winning season out of six at Rice. His tenure was rocked with controversy. And it was doomed to failure.

The last coach to leave Rice with a winning tenure was Don Suman. His final season as Rice head coach was 1959. The Owls have since had nine coaches. And all of those coaches have departed with losing records. The school's not seen the NCAA tournament since 1970, or the NIT since 2005. Success and Rice basketball aren't words often seen next to each other. It's a place where coaching careers go to die.

There's a new athletic director on campus at Rice, Joe Karlgaard, a young hotshot hired away from Stanford. Stanford's kind of like Rice, one of the places full of very smart kids that claim not to dumb it down too much when it comes to recruiting athletes. Stanford plays in a power conference and its teams are expected to win. It's no different now for the Owls.

"We expect to win," Karlgaard said. "We expect to do so without compromising our values of integrity and academic excellence. Winning, and winning the right way, are not mutually exclusive endeavors at Rice University, and we expect to do that in each of our 16 sports in which we compete."

The attitude is changing at Rice. The losing mentality, the staying-competitive mentality, appears to be no more. Wayne Graham and the Owls baseball team have demonstrated that an athletic team from Rice can compete nationally, year in and year out. David Bailiff has taken over the football team and turned it into one that's capable of winning Conference USA every season. The two coaches have accepted the limitations at Rice, that they can't recruit the same level of players as Texas and Texas A&M, but they've proven they can be successful. And now it's time for men's basketball to join in with the others.

"I'm optimistic that a fresh perspective can lead us forward," Karlgaard said. "You have to have somebody who maybe, not necessarily, has had experience at an institution like Rice, but one who can quickly access what Rice is and embrace it, not try and fight it. You look at the success that we've had this past fall in football, and what we've done in baseball for the last 18 years, and Coach Graham and Coach Bailiff did not come in having worked at a place like Rice before, yet they've made it work here."

Karlgaard's handling the search on his own -- none of those idiotic search firms/headhunting firms that so many schools/athletic directors use as cop-outs so that they can deflect blame if the selection goes bad. And he says he's already got a list in mind, a couple of candidates he's waiting to talk with, though he made it clear that some of those talks might have to wait until after the NCAA tournament is over because some of the people he wants to talk to are likely to be occupied as coaches or assistant coaches in the tournament.

But then there's that whole history with Rice and basketball. The history of failure. Of careers on the decline. A history of irrelevance. The school's almost an afterthought when it comes to basketball that plays in a second-rate conference that's lucky to get one bid a year into the NCAA tourney. And it's with this background that Karlgaard's going to try to find a new coach.

It almost makes one wonder why it is that Rice dumped Willis Wilson after the 2008 season. Sure, the team was 3-27 that season, but that was also the season the Owls bounced around the state of Texas, playing home games at the Merrill Center in Katy and at Reliant Arena and Toyota Center. Wilson's also the winningest coach in Rice history, winning 219 games and guiding the team through three conferences and three NIT appearances. And his reward was being fired before he could even coach a game in the renovated Tudor Fieldhouse.

Rice football and baseball have shown that they can win games in Conference USA. Now it's time for the basketball team to take the next step. And that next step is finding a coach who can get close to replicating what Wilson was able to do at at the school.

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