As Rice University coach David Bailiff joked about his preference for chicken soup over Gatorade and lavished praise on his senior class with transparent sincerity, those with intimate knowledge of the rocky road the Owls traversed to Saturday's Conference USA title possibly pondered the following: Should Bailiff be lauded more for his unwavering patience or his audacious vision?
It required a heaping helping of both for Bailiff to lead Rice to its first outright conference championship since 1957, to complete an arduous journey that began in the afterglow of the 2008 Texas Bowl victory over Western Michigan at Reliant Stadium. With their 41-24 win over Marshall at Rice Stadium Saturday, the Owls reached a zenith that, on Oct. 20, 2012, appeared as distant as the peak of Denali. On that date the Owls dropped their 14th consecutive C-USA road game and fell to 12-32 in the 44 games since Bailiff concluded his second season on South Main.
Those who crowded the bandwagon sometime during the past 14 months view the Owls through a warped prism. They celebrate Rice for winning 15 of its last 18 games, for being bowl-eligible for a second consecutive year, for posting 10 victories in a season for only the third time in program history. The newcomers can't possibly appreciate the perseverance required to trudge through those lean years, to stand firm against mounting adversity, to show faith in a coach who, in those darkest hours, repeatedly promised that happier days were around the bend.
The newcomers can't possible appreciate the perseverance required to trudge through those lean years.
When Bailiff credited his 19 fifth-year seniors for holding the rope and refusing to submit as the losses mounted, it surely sounded like ambient noise during raucous jubilation. But the truth resonated for those who witnessed the bottoming out of a program that deceptively appeared on the rise when Bailiff led Rice to a 10-victory campaign five exhausting seasons ago.
"It was one where we knew after the (2008) bowl game that, from numbers, there were going to be some lean times," Bailiff says. "We met with that bunch individually and just continued to talk to them about if you stay you’re going to be champions. That had been a consistent message to them because they are such a talented bunch.
"After that bowl game they believed in this coaching staff and they’re all still here playing great football."
The Owls' current fifth-year seniors were freshmen in 2009. They followed the revered seniors of '08 who overcame the deception of the traitorous former coach who led them to postseason glory two years earlier only to slither out of town in the cover of night. When the Owls thumped the Broncos on Dec. 30, 2008, unbridled enthusiasm followed. Bailiff earned accolades for not only picking up the shattered pieces left by his predecessor, but for rallying the troops and giving Rice something Todd Graham didn't: An actual postseason bowl victory.
Bailiff realized that flash of success was temporary, and he shared with the incoming freshmen the difficult path ahead. The same collection of recruits wide-eyed and star struck by Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard and James Casey and Brian Raines could not possibly conceive the strain of setting the foundation for a complete program rebuild. But when Bailiff lost those 25 seniors he understood that Rice football needed to be rebuilt from scratch. The subsequent pitfalls of rebuilding with antiquated facilities and meager fan support complicated matters.
Rice lost 10 games in 2009. The Owls finished 4-8 in 2010 and 2011. Promising freshmen arrived on campus and transferred elsewhere almost immediately. Upperclassmen opted to graduate early and left seasons of eligibility unused. The confluence of those two unfathomable developments sapped depth that was further compromised by injuries to frontline starters.
The impact of losing players young and old was felt on defense and special teams, with the Owls ranking near the bottom nationally in both for seasons on end. Rice managed to scrape together enough talent to present a capable, and occasionally prolific, offense. The result of its success on that side of the football was a constant raid of the offensive assistant coaches.
Between 2008-11, Rice employed four offensive coordinators: Tom Herman, Ed Zaunbrecher, David Beaty and John Reagan. Herman parlayed the statistical potency of the Clement-Dillard-Casey triumvirate into a promotion to the Big 12 (Iowa State). Zaunbrecher was a cataclysmic failure, and his dismissal opened the door for Beaty to return to Rice from Kansas (he had coached under Graham before Bailiff retained his services) only to leave for Kansas once again after spending the 2010 campaign on South Main.
"Honestly, just keeping the faith is what did it for us."
Continuity at Rice was foreign, and for a program scuffling to construct a solid foundation while managing a string of crushing defeats, the revolving door of assistants only exacerbated the perception of a rudderless ship.
The first signs of promise fulfilled came in the weeks after Rice lost at Tulsa and extended that ignominious C-USA road losing streak. The Owls returned home the following weekend and throttled Southern Miss, and a week later won at Tulane to put their road woes to bed. Suddenly there was a glimmer of hope, and when the upperclassmen took inventory of their locker room, what came into view were teammates who had been equally committed to the cause of rebuilding together and casting their lot behind a head coach who fearlessly believed in them.
"Coming in with the class that we did there was never an option to quit because you came in with these guys and they were suffering through the same things I was suffering through, and it would be selfish to give into that kind of stuff," Owls senior quarterback Taylor McHargue says. "We also kept the faith in coach Bailiff’s plan for our program and understood that there would come a time where this could be a possibility because he had to build up his classes of guys he recruited (and) keep some staffs here intact for multiple years because it’s tough when in years past you have coordinators coming and going every year.
"Honestly, just keeping the faith is what did it for us."
Says Rice senior defensive end Cody Bauer: "Having faith in the coaches, having faith in the direction of this team and knowing that it’s going to happen (was key). Keep chipping away at it. I think that’s something we did really well."
Two additional regular-season wins followed in succession after the Owls defeated Southern Miss and Tulane last year. Rice added a victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl and the table was set for something remarkable to manifest this season.
The reward for the 2009 freshmen was earning the role as leaders, and with that the responsibility to lead by example. The Owls played valiantly in losses to Texas A&M University and Houston and, when presented with an opportunity to end decades of championship futility, the Owls did not shrink in the moment.
Saturday represented a culmination of sorts. Bailiff touted his senior class for setting a new program standard for expectations, and given the construct of a weakened C-USA, the Owls are presently positioned to sit as perennial favorites. Bailiff has excelled at recruiting, despite the limitations of the job, and can hang his hat on the 10 former players who populated NFL training camps last summer. That Andrew Sendejo (Minnesota Vikings), Vance McDonald (San Francisco 49ers), Luke Willson (Seattle Seahawks) and Casey (Philadelphia Eagles) currently hold NFL roster spots only advances the narrative of Bailiff as an able developer of unpolished talent.
The customary Gatorade shower Bailiff received Saturday was years in the making.
The Owls appear poised to reap additional recruiting rewards in the future.
Of course, additional hard labor remains. Bailiff has spent years clamoring for improved facilities, and all he has to show for his tireless efforts are increasingy stale renderings of an end zone facility publicly foisted by former Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan, whose three-year reign of nepotism, cronyism and ineptitude can best be described as an unmitigated disaster.
That Bailiff has managed to drag Rice this far given what hamstrings the program is a testament to his intestinal fortitude and, in truth, his unrelenting and stubborn refusal to wilt.
And, after providing three seasons of relative stability, Reagan officially announced his departure for Kansas (where he will serve as offensive coordinator) following the win over Marshall. But this defection comes with the program firmly entrenched and with Bailiff able to gaze over his roster and note depth superior to what he showcased in previous seasons.
The customary Gatorade shower Bailiff received Saturday was years in the making, and the frigid conditions did little to mute the warmth that engulfed his program. His promise to his fifth-year seniors required both patience and audacity, and collectively players and coaches worked to bring their championship goals to fruition. Finally, their perseverance was rewarded.
"What makes those young men so special is they never fragmented, they never cheated a day," Bailiff says. "They came here and worked hard through the hard times, through the good times.
"Their hard work and love for each other has paid off."