It’s easy to become cynical and jaded about college football. Winning coaches are fired for not winning enough. There are player arrests, and non-arrests. There’s the academic fraud and the near-constant recruiting violations.There’s a college playoff system that virtually ignores schools from non-power conferences. And everything’s controlled by television, with game days and game times constantly subject to change to fit a television broadcast window.
The Rice Owls (5-7) finished out the season on Saturday with a 27-7 win over visiting Charlotte. It was a miserable day, gray, chilly, raining, and Rice Stadium was nearly empty. Neither team was going to finish with a winning season, despite the final outcome, and it’s easy to imagine the players and coaches just playing out the string, wanting their miserable seasons to end.
Just like alumni at bigger colleges, there are Rice fans who are not happy with head coach David Bailiff and who think he should be fired. Never mind that with Saturday’s win, the Owls finished with the most wins in a four-year stretch of any Rice team in history. Never mind the Owls coming off three straight bowl games, or having won a conference title several years ago.
But the Owls did look very bad at times this year, including a four-game losing streak that cost the team bowl eligibility this season. There were stupid penalties and stupid plays. Players seemed overmatched and under-prepared at times. All of this being enough, according to some alumni, for Bailiff and his staff to be replaced.
That’s where the cynicism comes into play with college football. Fans forget that kids are playing football. And that most of these kids will never play on the pro level and that they’re playing because they love football, and because football’s allowing them to get an education. And that at some point, it’s all going to be over.
Luke Turner played his final game as a Rice Owl on a Saturday. Turner’s been one of those do-everything kids. This year alone he’s been a running back, tight end, quarterback, kick returner, punt returner and deep snapper — all in the same game. And he’s done that throughout his career at Rice (Bailiff has compared him to Rice grad and former Houston Texans tight end James Casey).
Turner was asked after the game what his time at Rice meant to him. Turner’s response was touching and emotional. He starts to cry, he chokes up and he struggles for words:
“First off, I just want to say thanks to Coach Bailiff because that man right there gave me a chance when no one else wanted to give me a chance. Rice was my only Division I offer, and I broke my leg my senior year of high school and everyone one sold me off and that man right there stuck with me. I’ll love him forever for it.
“We get paid for a great education that I know I’ll use very well. And he let me play this game that I love. I love this university, and I love that man back there. And I’ll do anything for him, and anything for this university. It’s given me an opportunity that I’ll never get to compare to anything else. The best academics that I could ask for. And the best people in the world. My experience here has been the best. That’s all I can say.”
Turner threw a touchdown pass on Saturday. He rushed for 60 yards, and he caught a pass. He’s what people used to think about way back when they became college football fans. He goes to class. He plays football. He’s the student athlete.
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And that’s what people, what Rice fans, have to remember. Rice is never going to be a Texas or an Alabama or Ohio State or any other school that brings in millions of dollars every year off football and goes to a bowl game (or the playoffs) on a yearly basis. The Owls aren’t going to play in a bowl game every year. The team’s not going to have a winning record every season.
For the guys at Rice it’s about playing football because Rice believes in them and they believe in Rice.
“For me personally, it was not very hard [to play Saturday] because I just love to play this game,” Turner said. “It brings me joy to go out there and put a helmet on and go run into someone. Some people don’t have that — I couldn’t tell you why; it’s just been ingrained in me since I was little. I just love playing this game. And there’s a lot of guys on this team that really do love playing this game.”
So the Owls finished 5-7 this season? So the Owls won’t go to a bowl this year and didn’t compete in the conference title for the first time in several years? So the Owls were embarrassed by Baylor and Western Kentucky and Southern Miss? The Owls still produced Luke Turner and many, many guys just like him. And isn’t that what college football is really supposed to be about?