Rice and Shine

My alma mater has its first national title and the NCAA's best graduation rate. If President Malcom Gillis could reform college athletics, we'd be unbeatable.

MALCOLM GILLIS, THE PRESIDENT of Rice University, likes to tell the story of the football player who was being recruited by Rice and another Texas university of, shall we say, less intellectual rigor. The coach of the other school asked the prospect about his scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. "Fifteen-fifty" was the answer—a breathtakingly high score that is close to the maximum score of 1600. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the coach said, "Hell, son, you could get into school here twice for that."

I went to see Gillis in early July because he is a distinguished economist, and I wanted to discuss with him a most unlikely variant of the law of supply and demand: Two weeks earlier, the Rice baseball team had supplied enough hitting and pitching prowess at the College World Series to meet the demand of its fans for the university's first national championship in any sport. Next to the fall of the Berlin Wall and my children learning to get themselves up in the morning without vigorous parental prompting, nothing I have encountered in life has come as a greater surprise. I say this not only as a Rice alumnus but also as a former sports editor of the unfortunately named Rice Thresher .

During the sixties, when I was at Rice, success in athletics eluded the university with great regularity, particularly in baseball. As I recall, the rivalry between the Owls and the Texas Longhorns at the time of my tenure on the Thresher stood at something like 117 wins for Texas, 13 wins for Rice. Rice played its home games at a ballpark whose main feature was a sinkhole in right center field, so that when opposing batters smote the ball in that direction, only the head and shoulders of our outfielders remained in view as they gave chase. Attendance was sparse, except on the roof of a nearby residence hall, where engineering students used a coat hanger and surgical tubing to fashion a slingshot that propelled water balloons toward the pitcher's mound in the hope of disconcerting the enemy hurler as he warmed up. I hadn't thought of these things in decades, but as I watched Rice extend its lead over Stanford in the 2003 championship game to the final score of 14-2, I savored the memories. In the eighth and ninth innings, my phone rang again and again, bringing voices I hadn't heard in thirty years.

I met Gillis at his summer retreat, ten acres of pines, ponds, and pasture north of Durham, North Carolina, where he served as provost at Duke University before taking over the presidency of Rice in 1993. (He will step down in June 2004.) But I did not make the trip just to reminisce about the humble origins of Rice's baseball success. Gillis has been an outspoken critic of the direction in which college athletics is headed—toward more and more professionalization of the major revenue sports, football and men's basketball, which in turn leads to the recruiting of players who don't really belong in college and the frantic pursuit of more and more revenue. As I flew eastward, newspaper headlines bore testimony to his concerns. The Atlantic Coast Conference was raiding the not-so-Big East for Miami and Virginia Tech, and closer to home, the Baylor basketball program was under scrutiny following the disappearance of one its players, who is presumed to have been murdered, possibly by one of his teammates. Perhaps in Rice's success lay some lessons from which the rest of college athletics could learn.

When I drove onto his property, Gillis was wielding a farm implement I hope never to know the name of, tearing out dead pampas grass near a fence line. He looked anything but academic in sweatpants and a blue T-shirt whose sleeves had been cut off. I followed him onto a screened porch, and we sat down at a table. A wasp crawled lazily across its surface. Bang! His left fist smashed down upon it, bringing its life to an instantaneous conclusion.

Gillis believes that the big football powers are crushing the athletic aspirations of schools like Rice, with no more effort than it took him to dispatch the wasp, by denying them the financial benefits of megaconferences enjoyed by other private schools with high academic standards, such as Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt. At least Rice is a reasonable-sized fish in its smaller pond, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which is an improvement over the way things were when I was in school. "From 1966 to 1994," Gillis told me, "Rice went twenty-eight years without winning a conference championship in any sport. Then we won the Southwest Conference track championship. The next year we won the last Southwest Conference baseball tournament. We're SWC champions forever. Altogether we've won twenty-three conference championships and a national championship since '94. And we've done it while raising our admissions standards for athletes."

Following the demise of the Southwest Conference in the mid-nineties, caused by the exodus of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor to the Big Twelve, Rice joined the WAC. The new league took the bold step of becoming a megaconference of sixteen teams, but when the bigger, richer conferences paid no attention, it broke up into two unrelated eight-team leagues, the Mountain West Conference being the other. The exclusion of conferences like the WAC from the major bowl games and fair representation in the NCAA basketball tournament is an example of what Gillis calls "the cartelization of revenue" by the big conferences. They make the TV deals and they allocate the money to themselves. Still, as an economist, Gillis of all people must know that the Golden Rule is in effect in intercollegiate athletics: He who has the gold rules.

Some members of the Rice community—including a certain sports editor of the Thresher, in his final column—have questioned whether intercollegiate athletics has a place at the university. Gillis, however, is not one of the doubters.

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