While every Texas university has its stereotypes—from pearl-clutching Baylor ladies and party-hearty Red Raiders to effete Teasips and the budding Yupsters of SMU—with the possible exception of Texas A&M, no student body of any Lone Star State institute of higher learning has as strong a stereotypical brand as Rice University.
Every so often a story will come down the pike that just seems so dang Rice, it’s another entry in the ongoing saga I call the Riciest Things That Rice Ever Riced.
Most recently, it was the story of computer engineering senior David Nichol, who ordered 13,000 plastic balls from China in order to transform his dorm room into a Chuck E. Cheese-style ball pit.
Why? Why not?
I think when you have an idea you should just go for it. You shouldn’t worry about what’s going to happen next or what’s going to happen after that. If you’re going to keep doing that, you’re never going to be able to do cool things like have a ball pit room.
Riciness is always marked by ingenuity, usually of the scientific variety, and while it occasionally manifests in awww-inducing cutesiness, it is often paired with a no-holds-barred irreverence the British call “damned cheek.”
Nothing, on campus or off, is sacred to the Owls. Riciness generally stops just this side of cruelty, though often the intelligence on display far outstrips the wisdom of the action. It’s born of desperation, or as one former student put it, “Mass lunacy is the only way to relieve the competitive pressures at Rice.”
Here are few highlights from the last few decades:
THE RICIEST HALFTIME PERFORMANCE THAT RICE EVER RICED
The Aggies v. the MOB
Mass lunacy has long been the hallmark of the Marching Owl Band. Since 1970, the MOB has ditched the trappings of the traditional college band and served instead as a Fedora-clad parody of the same, always poking fun at their rivals and themselves, sometimes with results that teetered on the brink of disaster.
Most notoriously, there was November 17, 1973, the day that went down in infamy as MOB Pearl Harbor Day.
Texas A&M rolled into Houston to play the Owls at Rice Stadium. Led by future pro QB Tommy Kramer, the Owls took a commanding 17-0 halftime lead. And then the MOB took the field to add insult to injury:
Goose-stepping onto the field to the tune of an old German march, distinctively unmilitary in a variety of silly hats and helmets, the MOB was greeted by booing which continued as Bob Hord, the rubber-booted drum major, led them down the field. The first formation was a chicken thigh, as guest of honor Marvin Zindler, an ex-baton champion carried out a virtuoso twirling routine. Zindler, the man famous for closing down the Chicken Range in LaGrange, was also booed by the A&M sections.
“As any A&M freshman will attest,” the loudspeaker announced, “at the bottom of every Senior Boot is a big heel.” The MOB formed a boot; parts of the audience laughed.
The Aggies didn’t. Ice and paper began to fly onto the field, intensifying as the band formed a fireplug for Reveille, the female collie mascot of A&M, and a twirler paraded with an empty leash, to the tune of “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”
The last MOB formation was a ragged attempt at the countermarching “Aggie War T” done, not to the War Hymn, but to “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” The trumpeters blew Retreat, the Aggie band started playing, and the Aggie team pushed through the MOB on their way to the bench.
The scene in the Aggie stands was equally confused. As the MOB returned to their seats, a cacophony of obscenities, insulting gestures, and challenges to fight exploded. Although the Aggie yell leaders and officers attempted to restrain the crowd, two band members were assaulted, and one knocked down. Neither was injured.
Meanwhile, on the field, the Aggies turned the tide. They rattled off 21 unanswered points to take a 4-point lead. That advantage lasted mere seconds, as Rice returned the final Aggie kickoff 100-yards for a game-winning touchdown, amping Aggie rage to levels seen seldom before or since. Their sacred traditions and beloved pooch had been mocked and then their team had lost in heartbreaking fashion. Lost to Rice, in fact. To many among the maroon faithful, these were slights that had to be avenged with bloodshed.
After the final gun sounded, the stadium emptied of Rice fans, while many Aggies remained behind, still enraged at the MOB. A buzz-cut of Aggies chased the band into a tunnel under the south end zone. There they remained in this Helmsdeep until their rescue came full hours later via an armada of hastily conscripted Rice food service trucks.
THE RICIEST SCIENCE EXPERIMENT THAT RICE EVER RICED
The T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project
In 1995, Rice seniors Chris Gouge and Todd Stadler performed a battery of scientific experiments on Hostess Twinkies and broadcast the findings of the T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project, or “Tests With Inorganic Noxious Kakes In Extreme Situations,” on the then-nascent World Wide Web. (Twenty years later, the site is still there!)
Twinkies were electrocuted (“We noted that Twinkies pass almost no current, probably because they are almost totally sugar”); soaked in Houston tap water for 48 hours (“If you put your Twinkie in water, don’t plan on eating it”); and dropped out of a sixth-story window in a “gravitational response test” (“Twinkies are affected by gravity. However, their reaction upon impact is much smaller than expected, and they maintain a good deal of structural integrity from such a lofty fall”).
THE RICIEST CAMPUS PRANK THAT RICE EVER RICED: MACRO EDITION
The Turning of Willy
On the morning of April, 10, 1988, the campus awoke to find that the school’s symbolic centerpiece—a one-ton cast-metal statue of school founder William Marsh Rice—had been lifted off its base, rotated 180 degrees, and set back down in place.
Only one of the eleven-person team was caught at the time—graduating senior Patrick Dyson—and over the days that followed, the media heard how Dyson’s band of miscreants pulled off the audacious feat of mischievous engineering.
The plot—as elaborate as any heist concocted by Guy Ritchie—had been three full years in the making, conceived by engineering student John Q. Smith and a shadowy alumnus known to this day only as “the Mastermind.” In 1986, the team managed to lift the statue off the base, but encountered an unexpected problem and set it back down. In 1987, they were foiled by an unforeseen security patrol. The third try proved lucky.
Using plans of the statue taken from Fondren Library, they simulated the transfer load through a computer model. They built two 24- foot A-frames, which they painted black to blend with the night, and put a beam on top that supported a three ton hoist in the middle and two one ton hoists on the sides. The A-frames were tested at an off-campus garage by lifting a 2,250-pound Toyota that was swung back and forth to simulate rotation. A pair of Houston police officers looked on after being told the car hoisting was “a senior research project. “
These same police officers stopped the students as they were hauling the A-frames back to campus. Convinced it was only a school project, the officers gave the students a police escort to Entrance 8.
Lookouts and decoys positioned themselves around the Quad and communicated to each other through walkie-talkies using code names from the X-Men comic book series. The light on Anderson Hall had been turned off every night for the two previous weeks. Each morning the pranksters reconnected the light so that physical plant people would not replace it.
And so it was done. One-ton Willy was taken for a spin.
Dyson bore the brunt of the University’s ire. He was ordered to pay a professional moving company the costs of re-rotating Willy to his rightful position—some $1,500 to $2,000. (The Willy Revolution Team claimed that their turning had set them back only $400.) Students rallied around Dyson: sales of a T-shirt bearing the legend “Where There’s a Willy There’s Way” sold so quickly that Dyson was able to pay the movers and throw a keg party as well.
THE RICIEST CAMPUS PRANK THAT RICE EVER RICED: MICRO EDITION
The Loneliest Armageddon
It was 1966. Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis were still fresh, and America was riven with Cold War anxiety and shaken by Vietnam nightmares.
One night, a Wiess College student went out on the town, and while out, a group of his “friends” (if they could be called such) broke in his room and rejiggered his radio to receive signals they were beaming from a nearby micro-transmitter. The trap was set, and the unknowing mark came in and passed out, only to be roused by his apparently terrified friends. “We’ve just dropped the big one on the Vietnamese,” they told the bleary-eyed student. “Listen.”
There began a War of the Worlds-style broadcast with a target audience of one. One student mimicked LBJ, while others portrayed senators, all of them earnestly discussing the imminent possibility of a death-rain of Soviet missiles. The station interspersed these dire speculations with music breaks, which were frequently interrupted by grim news bulletins, the last of which declared: “Russia has just launched a series of missiles, and seven U.S. cities have been identified as prime targets. One of those cities is Houston, and we advise everyone to seek cover. “
The terror-stricken student grabbed his blankets and pillows and bolted in search of the nearest fallout shelter, wondering why all else was so eerily calm on the soon-to-be-annihilated campus.
THE RICIEST WORK OF ART THAT RICE EVER RICED
The Sashimi Tabernacle Choir
Like many great works of art, and virtually all great feats of science, Rice grad student Richard Carter and the late Rice alum John Schroeter started with one simple question: “If one singing, dancing fish can be that annoying, what can you say about 250?”
It was Christmas around the turn of the millennium, and drugstores and gift shops from coast to coast were chock-full of dancing, singing rubber fish and lobsters, all singing “Take Me to the River” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” (One such even made a memorable cameo in The Sopranos.) Schroeter and Carter decided to turn what appalled them both into something that has delighted tens of thousands ever since: the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, a sky-blue Volvo festooned with twenty-score-and-more synchronized dancing and singing rubber fish and lobsters.
Carter and Schroeter went to work, and five miles of electrical wire, five six-volt golf-cart batteries, a LINUX server, and 250 rubber fish and crustaceans later, they created the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, ever since a perennial favorite at art car competitions from coast to coast. Under the baton-waving leadership of conductor, The Lobster Formerly Known as Larry, the choir sings and sways in synch to everything from “Hooked on a Feeling” to Handel’s Messiah, and the choir occasionally gives star turns to its soloists: the Three Basses, Jose Carperas, Placido Dolphingo, and Luciano Ichthyology.
Carter, a Rice mathematician, said that anyone could solve the problems presented in the car’s construction. “What is really required is just enough lack of common sense to start a project like this and think you can pull it off,” he once said. Which could be a motto for Rice as a whole, when you think about it.