In 1989 Fred Goldsmith took over the black hole of the Southwest Conference, the Rice Owls. Fans of the Owls witnessed just eleven wins in the previous seven seasons, including two winless campaigns and two seasons of only one win. The Owls were also in the midst of an eighteen game losing streak, the longest in college football.
Goldsmith came from conference power Arkansas, where he coordinated the defense for Razorback coach Ken Hatfield. In a vote of no confidence when asked why the Owls went with Goldsmith, the head of the Rice search committee J. Evans Atwell (yes, that is the Riceiest name of all time) said, “why we picked him over any particular individual, I don’t know.” With that, Goldsmith was off to the races, for no particular reason.
His first hire was Mike Heimerdinger, an OC from Cal State Fullerton. Heimerdinger brought a passing offense to West University, and he found his quarterback on the defensive side of the ball. Donald Hollas was a safety under the Jerry Berndt regime, Goldsmith and Heimerdinger moved him to quarterback.
They found their best wide receiver in the backfield in Eric Henley. Henley came to Rice from the LaVerne California where he made the All-San Gabriel All-Star squad along with such stellar performers as Eric Bieniemy and Ricky Ervins. He came to Rice as a receiver but made his home as an Owl at running back in 1988, rushing for a team-best 4.9 yards per carry on Berndt’s 0-11 squad.
Goldsmith and Heimerdinger feared Henley’s slight frame couldn’t withstand the punishment an every-down back must take, but coveted his athleticism, so they moved him to receiver. At 5-8, and a biscuit shy of 160 pounds, Henley wasn’t going to make a living between the tackles. The position change was a wise move.
In the first game of the 1989 season, Rice broke their eighteen game losing streak and pummeled SMU in the Ponies first game back from a two-year hiatus due to that whole death penalty thing. Henley caught two touchdown passes from Hollas who added two more on the ground. After a loss to Tulane, Henley sat second in the country with fifteen receptions for 178 yards. He added six catches in a week three loss to Southeastern Louisiana.
In 1989, Rice discovered they had an added weapon in freshman running back Trevor Cobb. Cobb, Hollas, and Henley gave the Owls a few pieces of a serviceable offensive unit as they headed into a demanding conference schedule. Rice headed to Austin for its second conference game, looking for its first over Texas since 1960. Hollas threw for 366 yards as the Owls put the fear of Goldsmith into the Longhorns in a 31-30 loss. Henley caught a team-best seven passes.
While he didn’t possess blazing speed, Henley did have toughness in spades. He made his living going over the middle, catching balls, and absorbing punishment. “I go across the middle, and I see those linebackers and defensive backs drooling all over themselves. They don’t just want to hit me; they want to break me in half,” Henley told the Galveston Daily News. For Henley, tough was the only way he knew to play.
Henley became the lone bright spot as the conference season carried on and the losses mounted. He caught ten passes for 103 yards against TCU. He added six catches and a score against Texas Tech. In a blowout loss to Texas A&M, Henley caught eleven passes for 88 yards. Hollas ranked among the nation’s leaders in passing yardage, but wins didn’t materialize for the Owls.
A week later, Goldsmith’s former employer, 11th ranked Arkansas came to Rice Stadium. The Owls hung around, tied into the third quarter before the Razorbacks turned on the jets on their way to a second straight league title. Henley again hung double digits on an opponent. Hollas broke his fibula against the Razorbacks, yet somehow, two weeks later, Rice grabbed its second win on the season in an epic 6-3 upset of Baylor in Waco. Rice picked off five Baylor passes in the win. Owl quarterback Greg Willig struggled in Hollas’ stead, throwing for just 95 yards, but Henley managed to catch six passes for 57 yards.
In the season finale, Houston came as close as anyone to shutting Henley out, limiting him to just one catch in a 64-0 shellacking. Andre Ware wrapped up his season and won the Heisman while sitting in the Rice Stadium’s visitor locker room.
On the season Henley caught 81 passes for 900 yards, the most receptions in Owl history and second-most yards. He finished fourth in the nation in receptions. Henley made first-team all-league receiver along with Houston’s Manny Hazard.
The AP named Henley a preseason All-SWC receiver heading into the 1990 season. After another fast start to the season, but his production fell off. After catching a pass in seventeen straight games, Tech finally shut him out midway through the ’90 season. His 48 catch, five-touchdown season wasn’t poor by any definition, but he couldn’t replicate the success of his ’89 campaign. By 1990 the offense began to center around future College Football Hall of Fame inductee Cobb and the Owl rushing attack.
His body started to betray Henley as well. He played part of the 1990 season with broken ribs and even a broken wrist. Defenses also took note of Henley, double teaming him at every turn. Still, with one hand, the Rice junior helped the Owls fight to within one win of their first winning season in since 1963.
The rising senior set a Rice record for career receptions after his junior season. His senior season Henley caught 31 passes. He left Rice as the Owls leading receiver, caught the third most balls in SWC history, and top 20 in NCAA history.
In a disappointing post-script, authorities arrested Henley for conspiring to distribute 25 grams of cocaine in 1996. Henley pled to five years for possession with intent to distribute as part of a larger criminal enterprise involving his older brother Darryl. Darryl, a former Los Angeles Rams cornerback, served time for drug distribution. While incarcerated, authorities uncovered a plot by Darryl to put assassinate a Federal Judge and a Rams cheerleader who testified against him. The elder Henley brother is serving a 41-year sentence.
Felonious tendencies aside, while he never replicated his 1989 season’s numbers, Eric Henley was one of the best and toughest to ever suit up for the Owls.