Twenty-Six: Rice's SWC Losing Streak

Perhaps we should go back. Before Rice's 26 game Southwest Conference losing streak, its record ineptitude, the two coaches, before the three year drought and look at better days, the Owls last win before it all went south. The salad days before the drought came.  

November 14, 1981: A Good Record Before Bad

Before the longest losing streak in Southwest Conference history the Rice Owls were celebrating not just a win over Baylor but a record tying touchdown pass by Michael Calhoun. Calhoun was a rarity at Rice, first he was a junior college transfer; second he was from California of all places; and  third he was a phenomenal athlete. Against Baylor, on the road, Calhoun threw to fullback Tim Sanders to tie the SWC mark for most touchdowns in a season at 21. 

It was the Owl's fourth and final win of 1981, defeating the defending SWC champs on the road. The game winning throw to Sanders tied Calhoun with Chuck Hixson and the Owl's own Tommy Kramer for most TD passes in a season. No one knew that it would be 1,428 days until the Owls would celebrate another conference win. Two weeks after Calhoun's record tying performance the Owls would get rolled 40-3 at home at the hands of Houston. Any hopes of Calhoun holding the record outright went out the window. That same November day, a few states over Bear Bryant beat Auburn to become the all-time winningest coach in college football history. Rice's head coach Ray Alborn was technically competing at the same level, but it certainly didn't seem like it. 

Rice hadn't managed a winning season since 1963. Alborn was former Owl offensive lineman who played on the last Rice squad to make a bowl game back in 1961. He came to Rice after Homer Rice went 4-18 in two seasons in charge. Two things have historically hindered Rice: first, as a premiere academic institution with less than 10,000 undergrads the Owls were and are required to recruit a very particular type of student athlete. If that student athlete combines great athletic giftedness with the requisite SAT score, then Rice would be fighting with Stanford, Northwestern, the Ivies, or the Service Academics for his services. Have you been to Palo Alto? Herman Park is nice but it pales in comparison.

Second, the Owls didn't cheat. While the rest SWC was busy cornering the market on pay for play schemes and getting slapped with the death penalty or other sanctions, the Owls weren't running afoul of the NCAA's amateurism rules. It's a noble idea, but when you're getting drummed by Arkansas, Texas, and A&M regularly it's akin to charging a tank with a nerf gun. The results were predictable, Rice was first in graduation rate, last in the standings. 

Such was the hand that Ray Alborn was dealt at Rice. The chances of winning were grim, but no one could have anticipated what the next three plus years would turn into. 

October 16, 1982: Randy Gann, Dream Killer

Rice's SWC losing streak was at an infinitesimal three games on October 16, 1982 as the Owls welcomed Texas Tech to Rice Stadium. Things went according to plan as Tech jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The Red Raiders emptied the playbook as they threw what must be the shortest flea flicker touchdown in organized football history, a play that spanned all of five yards. By the fourth it was 20-7 and Tech was cruising. 

Doug Johnson 

Doug Johnson 

But here came the Owls. First time starter Doug Johnson led Rice to within 20-19 with two fourth quarter touchdowns. Ray Alborn gathered his entire team on the sideline after the Owls drew within one and in a scene straight out of Remember the Titans made the gutsy call to go for two. Johnson hit tight end Stan McKinney in the corner of the end zone and the Owls took a 21-20 lead. Perhaps Alborn should have gathered his team again and instructed them to stop the Red Raiders from executing the go ahead score. Oh well, those inspirational bits only work so many times. 

Morgan Freeman's character "Red" in Shawshank Redemption said that "hope is a dangerous thing." He's right of course, Morgan Freeman's characters always speak the truth. There would be no Zihuatanejo for Rice. Tech kicker Randy Gann would serve as a special teams border agent, preventing the Owls from reaching  their sandy piece of post prison heaven. 

Tech quarterback Jim Hart guided the Red Raiders 60 yards in the closing minute and Gann booted thru his third field goal of the day, this one from 30 yards with three second left to destroy any chance the Owls had of ending the streak early. 

November 28, 1982: 70 Year Itch

When a phenomena occurs once in 70 years it's typically a comet, but in 1982 Rice secured its first winless season ever. In the proud 70 year history of Jess Nealy, Tommy Kramer, and Dicky Maegle the Owls had never laid a goose egg. The 1982 squad did just that. 

The Owls and Cougars met on the last Saturday of the year and the first half was a good old fashioned shoot out. Houston led 21-14 at the half but the Owls battled back to tie in the fourth. Houston would score on a three yard jaunt with seven minutes left to take the lead.

Could the Owls come back?

No. Did you not read the title of the article or the end of the first paragraph of this section? Hell no. The Owls got the ball back just long enough to fumble it back to their crosstown rivals. Zero and eleven achieved. Egg laid.

Unfortunately for Rice there was always next year. 

1983: A total team effort 

The 1982 Owls were winless but they would have kicked the hell out of the 1983 squad. And yes, the 1983 squad managed to win a game, a 22-21 thriller of Louisiana Lafayette, but trust us, 1982 Rice would have scheduled 1983 Rice for homecoming. 

Ray Alborn

Ray Alborn

The Owls were beaten by an average of 30 to 9. Rice averaged 2.1 yards a carry in 1983 and less than five yards a completion. Owl quarterbacks threw five touchdowns all season and sixteen interceptions. Coach Ray Alborn mercifully tendered his resignation six games in but in an act of either incredible bravery or daunting stupidity he remained on the sidelines to coach the Owls' final five games. 

We'll alway remember Alborn for such self reflective thoughts as "I don't think we did anything right in the second half (vs. TCU) offensively, defensively, kicking game, coaching, just a total team effort." Yep, it takes a village. 

After the Owls lost by 14 to SMU late in '83 Alborn said, "For awhile there I thought they're going to have to rehire me." No Ray, they weren't. The Geneva convention forbids that sort of torture and inhumanity. 

November 17, 1984: 38 second Heart Ache

By now the Owls league losing streak had reached 23. Three year olds had to ask their old man about a time when Rice won a SWC tilt. Enter Watson Brown, brother of Mack. Genetics do not ensure coaching success. Brown had led the Owls to exactly one epic win, that being against surprisingly plucky Southland foe Lamar. The Owls trailed 19-7 before dispatching the I-AA team. Lamar would go on to win the Southland and make the I-AA semifinals. That last part's a joke, Lamar won two games in 1984. One more than Rice. 

Still the Owls welcomed the Baylor Bears to West U in November and what evolved was a boon for degenerate gamblers who took the over. The Owls scored the most points a Rice team had scored since October of 1981 and yet it was seven points not enough.

Rice scored their first three touchdowns on one play drives: a 76 yard touchdown run, a 75 yard pass, and a 90 yard kickoff return. All told four Owl touchdowns were one and done drives. The back and forth continued late into the game as the Owls led 40-33 late. 

Watson Brown

Watson Brown

You just can't count out Tom Muecke. Well, Baylor was playing Rice so technically you really shouldn't count out anyone. Muecke, Baylor's quarterback, threw three touchdown passes, the last coming with 38 second on the clock. The Bears scored 21 in the fourth quarter to erase the Owl lead and make it 24 straight losses.

After the game Watson Brown was quoted as saying "I'm about as numb as I've ever been." Imagine how numb Ray Alborn was those last two years standing on the sidelines while the Owls lost seventeen straight in league and 21 of 22. The point here Watson is it can always be worse. Like at Christmas when Mack tells you how tough it was to lose to Alabama in the National Championship game, you can say "Well, Tom Muecke ripped my heart out of chest back in '84" then slowly walk out of the room. 

October 12, 1985: The Goal Posts are on Us

Rice's losing streak had risen to twenty-six when Jim Wacker's TCU squad trekked into Rice Stadium. Wacker was living in his own fresh hell, having suspended his best player Kenneth Davis one game into the 1985 season for taking improper benefits. Didn't Jim ever get the memo that improper benefits built the Southwest Conference? 

Such was the backdrop as Rice came into their next best chance to break the streak. The Owls took a 17-7 lead into the half but the Horned Frogs weren't going to go away easily and certainly didn't want to be the team that broke the streak. Sort of like being the guy in the drive thru line who breaks the pay it forward chain. That whole scheme is terrible by the way, if you're a single guy chances are your lunch gets paid for while you have to cover the family of six behind you. 

TCU drove inside the Owl five yardline with less than a minute to play when Rice finally stuffed the Horned Frogs for good. Rice quarterback Mark Comalander was named SWC player of the week for his 321 yard passing day. Cats and dogs co-habitated. Afterwards the Rice student body, the dozens and dozens in attendance justifiably rushed the field, exerting 1,400 plus days of frustration. As the young undergrads made their way to the goal posts, they found them guarded by Harris County Sheriffs Deputies complete with weaponry and an strong desire to crack some smart kid skulls. After some hand to hand combat and a few clubbings the goal posts did in fact come down in what we can only believe was a precursor to the Berlin Wall coming down. Watson Brown had gone so far as to offer to pay for any goal post replacement costs.

The dust up apparently caused enough of a stink that Watson Brown wrote an open letter to Rice fans asking them to refrain from fighting cops and maybe not tear down anymore goal posts. Perhaps he had just become aware of the financial commitment involved in replacing goal posts. 

The streak was officially over. Long live the streak. Rice doubled down a week later by beating Texas Tech on the road. A loss that more than likely cost Jerry Moore his job in Lubbock. Watson Brown was out at Rice after '85 as well, parlaying a three win campaign into a sweet gig at Vanderbilt.

After going 4-18 in two seasons, it's no wonder the Commodores snatched him up. 

Some pertinent numbers/facts from the streak:

  • Rice was outscored by an average of 34 to 14 in their 26 losses. 
  • The Owls worst loss during the streak was 49-7 at the hands of Texas A&M.
  • Ray Alborn went on to coach defensive line for the Houston Gamblers and later head coach at Lamar.
  • Watson Brown was the head coach who birthed the UAB program in 1996, he later was head man at Tennessee Tech. 
  • Michael Calhoun would go onto a career in the CFL and Arena League. 
  • Rice placed one player, tight end Deron Miller, on the All SWC team from 1981 to 1984. 
  • After beating Texas Tech in 1985, Rice lost seven straight SWC games before beating TCU in 1986. 

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Posted on May 3, 2017 and filed under Rice, Southwest Round-Up.