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There Is a Wrong Way and a Rice Way

Hank Williams warned us it would happen like this. Back in the 1950s, Hank sang “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.”

And so it has come to pass, in the football-berserk state of Texas, in the glorious and glamorous Southwest Athletic Conference--less formally known as the Southwest Conference and still less formally known as the SWC--that all the cheatin’ hearts have spoken up more or less at once. Even the Christian schools are going down in disgrace and dishonor.

Of the eight SWC schools in Texas, seven have basketball or football programs either on probation or under NCAA investigation. Southern Methodist University is in such deep cow do that the Southern Methodists might convert the campus into a mall. Or a real university.

That leaves the University of Arkansas, which isn’t in Texas.

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And Rice.

Tiny Rice University, near downtown Houston. It’s the smallest university--2,600 undergrads--anywhere trying to play major college football, and trying to do it legally.

Athletically speaking, this is the Littlest Big Non-whorehouse in Texas.

I paid a visit to the campus Monday, to snoop around and find out why Rice isn’t pulling its weight in the Conference, violation-wise. They’ve been playing football here since 1912 and they’re still looking for their first NCAA investigation.

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They’re also looking for their first winning football season since 1963, and first winning basketball season since 1970. But at least the athletes and other students don’t have to wear sunglasses and fake beards when they go out in public, like at some schools you could name.

“It’s nice to be able to look out upon it (the scandals) from here,” said Joe Heikkinen, a Rice linebacker who will soon graduate with three academic majors. “Sometimes I think, ‘Goll-ee, it would’ve been nice to be paid.’ But in a way, we are. I’m getting a great education, and that’s payment.

"(Being clean) is something we take pride in. They (other schools) are finding out life isn’t easy. A lot have been doing it the easy way. It takes a little more time to do it the right way.”

Decades. But Rice U decided some time ago to do it the right way. Rice, understand, takes seriously, its reputation as the Harvard of the South, with all that title implies about things like integrity.

Rice even looks Ivy League, with its charming acres of green lawns, old trees, precision-clipped hedges and red-brick buildings with spires and stone arches.

It has everything but the ivy. This is a hard-core university, and the fact that Rice has a big-time football team is considered by some to be a grating ideological contradiction.

“As far as I’m concerned, they could drop football and be better off,” said Rosemary Killen, a Rice research associate in space physics.

I’m pretty sure Rice’s space physicists could kick SMU’s space physicists’ butts. But that’s not enough for most Rice students, coaches and alums. This is Texas, and if you want to be considered a real school, you’ve got to play football. Preferably in a get-down, hairy-chest conference, like the SWC.

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Now there’s even a chance that Rice soon might be able to even win a lot of football games.

“All the alleged allegations that have surfaced at other schools are already working to our advantage,” says Jerry Berndt, the Rice football coach and athletic director.

Not only are more good high school players available to Rice as other Texas programs get pinched by the NCAA, but as Berndt says: “I really believe people are being forced to come up to our (ethical) standards.”

Rice has no pipe-course academic majors for jocks. No skating allowed. Berndt has instituted a very tough drug-testing program for all Owl athletes. And he watches players and alums carefully, to make sure everyone is obeying the rules. He wants to improve the athletic program without sacrificing its reputation.

Not that this is any time to be gloating.

“I want to keep a low-key posture right now,” Berndt said to me over the phone before I flew to Houston. “I don’t want to be an Elmer Gantry, standing on my soap box.”

But Berndt, who has been at Rice a year, couldn’t resist putting at least one foot up on the soap box when asked about the Rice philosophy.

“With all that’s happening in college athletics right now, with all the problems in the SWC, there’s something to be said about a school that believes in educating people, not just giving them a degree, and believes in the honest approach,” he said.

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Berndt’s last job was football coach at Penn, where he took a perennial hound dog of a team and won four straight Ivy League championships. He thinks Rice can be a winner, too, even in the SWC, although a lot of people around Houston think Rice should get out of the league.

After all, the Owls haven’t won more than four games since 1973, and they suffered an 0-for-26 drought against SWC opponents between 1981 and 1985. The last time Rice won a SWC football title was in 1957. The Owls have lost to SMU 10 years in a row, by an average of more than three touchdowns.

Rice puts itself in a real tough situation playing the big boys, as past Rice coaches have discovered. When the Owls went 0-11 in 1983, then-coach Ray Alborn stuck out his chin and said, “I plan on being here a long time.”

Alborn quit in 1984, proving that time is relative.

Berndt not only plans to stay at Rice a long time, he plans to keep the school in the SWC.

“It’s a great conference,” Berndt says. “It’s catching a lot of flak right now, rightfully so, but financially it’s profitable for us to be in this conference. The income we receive from the conference is very beneficial. Football is close to breaking even here right now, and without being in the Southwest Conference, that wouldn’t happen.

“We want to serve notice that we’ve made a commitment to be a major-college football program. And to be honest, I think the Southwest Conference needs Rice. I think Rice is a breath of fresh air in all the problems that have surfaced.”

Berndt makes sure of that.

“If I see a kid (Rice football player) who might be from an impoverished area, all of a sudden driving around in a new BMW, signal flags go up,” says Berndt, who is well aware of the legendary generosity of Lone Star boosters. “I’ve met with a number of players (to investigate suspicious circumstances).”

So far he has uncovered nothing. And you not only can’t get a free car at Rice . . .

“You can’t get your grades fixed here,” says Steve Kidd, a defensive back and punter who will graduate with a triple major, in managerial studies, political science and sports management. “Sometimes it’s a mark against you with the professors that you’re a football player.”

Not that the Owls are outcasts on their own egghead-oriented campus. I think I detected a definite pride among the students for their Owls.

“We’re honorable, we have (players) who are actually students,” said Katherine Stone. “I have a friend on the football team who is taking junior-level physics and double-E.”

Double E? At some schools, that would be Eating and Evolving?

“Electrical engineering,” Stone explained.

Stone and several other students mentioned that a key factor in drawing students to Rice games is the halftime show, starring the notorious MOB. That’s not the Mafia, but the Marching Owl Band, which doesn’t actually march, but scrambles, and which serves up biting satirical parodies of opponents.

“A lot of times I stay through halftime, then leave,” Stone admitted.

Most students don’t seem embarrassed by the team’s long history of frustration.

“It’s almost a part of the tradition of this school, cheering for a losing team,” said Beth White, who plays on the Rice tennis team and who dates the Owl football center.

Another student, Sonja Pemberton, pointed out a vital role of football at Rice. “This campus is so serious,” she said. “Football sort of makes it more like other schools. It keeps everyone from being such a geek.”

Neil Folsom elaborated on the anti-geek theme, saying: “Football gives the school balance. You gotta have balance or you go off the deep end, and you never know where you’ll end up.”

Somewhere near SMU, maybe.

I wonder if the other Southwest Conference schools look at Rice as the twinkie little guy in the tough neighborhood, the kid who takes violin lessons instead of stealing hubcaps.

After all, this is Texas, where the governor himself has elevated sports cheating to an honorable necessity.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not according to the Southwest Athletic Conference guide, which says: “Organized in 1914, the SWC was formed because of the need for higher academic standards and ethical practices.”

Now stop that snickering. Just because a few universities have taken a few wrong turns along the path of life and football doesn’t mean there’s no hope. The NCAA cavalry is riding over the hill, bugle blaring. And they can’t turn on the heat high enough to suit Berndt.

“All the guilty parties ought to be punished,” fumes the Rice coach. “I wish we could throw the (rule-breaking) alumni in jail. And the players at SMU who were totally dishonest are picking up at SMU and going somewhere else, without a punishment. I think everyone ought to be held accountable.”

Who can blame Rice for crying out for a little justice. Haven’t the Owls labored long enough under a massive handicap of playing by the rules?

Seems like Rice has always been on the wrong end of dirty tricks. The most famous play in the school’s history was Dicky Moegle running for a 95-yard touchdown in the 1954 Cotton Bowl and Tommy Lewis jumping off the Alabama bench and tackling Moegle at the ‘Bama 40.

If there’s any justice, you would think the cheating at the other SWC schools over the years would take its toll on the psyche, would gradually suck the spiritual sap right out of them, and maybe Rice would win a few games.

Then they would be known throughout Texas as the proud Fighting Owls again, and not the Rice Puddings.

Maybe that’s already starting to happen. Rice won four games last season, Berndt’s first, and missed winning two others by a tick’s eyelash. Berndt has worked miracles before and he might have another one cooking.

And if Rice doesn’t rise again, at least it will be able to make a statement several other teams can’t.

As junior quarterback Quentis Roper said: “We can always say we gave it our best shot, that we didn’t have to cheat.”


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