The Morning After, Part 1: Rice

JetSki ran for 214 yards and 3 TD's against what was once a very respectable program. (Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE)

Well, that was an adventure at times, but thankfully it looked pretty good in the end.

I don't need to do a lot of recap, as I think we all noted a lot of the same things. The offense clicked pretty well and has big play capability. The defense was aggressive, sometimes, too aggressive, but unlike last year, it got better during halftime and finished strong. The PAT's were an obvious issue. The punting and kickoffs were not. There were scattered mental errors, fewer than what we have seen in the past, but still more than zero. There was a lot of good, but there were still enough problems that we are far from secure just yet.

Oh, and Ron Zook is one of the worst announcers ever, and TJ Simers is one of the worst people ever.

In summary, it was a good start. We handily beat a team we were much better than. We saw some obvious targets for improvement, but I'll bet that the vast majority of Bruin fans are more optimistic about this team and this season this morning than we were at at any time last year.

But one game against Rice doesn't make for a very valid analysis of the big picture. We will get a much more valid score next weekend in Pasadena. So I don't know how much we can really take away from U.C.L.A.'s performance last night last night's game. But I do know one great one great thing we can take away with regards to U.C.L.A.'s program.

I don't want to be Rice.

I know Rice. And we need to be careful, because we have been quietly walking on Rice's path for the last decade. Here's my fear.

I spent 4 years in school across the street from Rice. Literally. The Texas Medical Center is on the south side of Main Street just southwest of downtown (inside the loop for those who know) and Rice is on the north. Because it was that close, I spent a fair amount of time at Rice. They have a beautiful campus with ivy covered brick buildings and oak tree lined streets and walks. They are known for great academics. The grassy areas on campus don't have fire ants. I ran stairs in the football stadium, which at the time was second to the Cotton Bowl as the largest stadium in Texas, a state which puts a lot of weight into bigness. The stadium hosted both a Super Bowl and Pink Floyd, and I have pictures with one of my U.C.L.A. buddies who visited me on the field. I used to ride my road bike around the bike track next to the stadium, since it was safer than the streets where Texas drivers view cyclists like armadillos, only quicker, making it a more fun challenge. Adjacent to campus, Rice Village is a really neat area, with nice shops and places to eat and The Gingerman, which is one of the best bars you will find anywhere. The West University neighborhood surrounding the school is one of the nicer areas in Houston.

There were several Rice graduates in my class, including a really good volleyball player who I played with a lot, and a gorgeous Pakistani girl I tried hard to date with only minimal success. As a group, the Rice grads were really classy, really nice, and really smart people.

But despite all these great things that the students and graduates of Rice University had going for them, they had very little school spirit or devotion to their University compared to the Longhorns and Aggies and Horned Frogs that I knew.

For several decades, Rice has been a small fish in a big pond, holding on to the low place in the food chain role for the predators of Texas and A&M and Oklahoma. Rice was long the perennial whipping boy of the mighty Southwest Conference, and then was relegated to the WAC when the Southwest Conference big boys were absorbed into the Big 12, and now finds itself looking for respectability in Conference USA.

But it wasn't always that way.

There were references this week to President Kennedy's (unless it was Mayor Quimby's) famous moon speech when he called for America to put a man on the moon. Kennedy was at Rice when he gave that speech:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

When Kennedy gave this speech in the fall of 1962, Rice was 5-5 in it's previous 10 games versus Texas, and would tie Longhorns later that fall. At the time, Rice was right on par with the bigger dogs.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the years since. Forget about Rice being competitive with Texas in football anymore. Most of us think that Rice shouldn't be competitive with U.C.L.A., and we haven't exactly been on a roll lately. But why worry about football? Rice does have a very good baseball program, and it has several good Olympic sports, particularly women's sports. And as I said above, it has a great academic reputation. It has an academic alliance with a particularly outstanding medical school and Medical Center across the street. And it has a beautiful campus with a nice community surrounding the school.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Look at the picture of JetSki at the top of the page. See those empty seats behind him? Those empty seats at the home team's opening game? Rice's average attendance was 17,329 in 2011.

With last night's game, we got a glimpse of what happens to a program that doesn't keep pace with its peers and neighbors. And U.C.L.A. needs to be careful that it doesn't follow that same pathway. Because one of the consequences of going down that path is that while you may produce some really great people from your school, those people aren't the same kind of loyal diehard supporters in the way that the Longhorns and the Aggies and other grads of noted football schools are. Attendance goes down. Donations get smaller. Loyalty and allegiance wane. The gap to the neighbors gets bigger and bigger, and finally becomes insurmountable.

That's the importance of football to a University.

Could U.C.L.A go this way? Probably not. The sheer volume of the student population and alums and fans at U.C.L.A. make comparisons to tiny Rice a bit unfair, but I think the principle is still the same. A healthy football program is vital to maintaining a healthy and supportive fan base and donor group. And when the state is reeling in its support for the University as a whole, the holes need to be filled in by those students and alumni.

So look at Rice, then and now. And look at us, then and now. See if there are any similarities, and then reread these words from President Kennedy:

We choose to ... do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win...

Changing the leadership at U.C.L.A. is hard. But it is necessary, and it is a game that we intend to win. I hope Coach Mora and his team will take the good from last night's game, fix the bad, and move forward, inspiring all Bruins to move toward U.C.L.A.'s future. A future that I hope will look a lot like certain better times in our past.

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