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After The Aughts

The total stands at eight.

With roughly six weeks remaining before National Signing Day and the UIL state playoffs set to drop its curtain, the Owls have just eight commitments for the Class of 2010. With 13 scholarships available David Bailiff has plenty of work remaining before this class is complete and he can take the next step toward building Rice football into a consistent winner in C-USA.

That feeling bubbling within is related more to concern than panic, although panic lurks around the bend ready to pounce following the defection of two previous commitments. When Bailiff dropped the 'you win with Jimmys and Joes, not X's and O's' cliche┬┤ a few weeks back, it succinctly captured his thoughts on the need for superior talent while surmising that responses to play-calling and game-day schematics are often overblown. Before Bailiff can coach like Nick Saban he has to sign players like those at Alabama. Well, in a relative sense of course.

However, while tuned in to Rivals Radio en route to campus on Monday morning and listening to pundits describe Buffalo, San Jose State and UNLV as 'stepping-stone jobs' one question came to mind: Is Rice such a gig? One particularly loathsome defensive guru believed so, but Bailiff has verbalized on multiple occasions his conviction that Rice can be a destination, not part of the coaching journey. But the fact remains that no coach since venerable Jess Neely has posted a winning career record while working on South Main for at least two seasons. Through three seasons Bailiff is already seven games under .500, and given the history of Rice football since Neely stepped aside four decades ago, Bailiff will need to get the next decade off the a rousing start in order to begin a reversal of his 15-22 career mark at Rice.

The fact is Rice has not enjoyed a winning decade since the 1950s. Here is a review of the last seven decades of Rice Owls football, starting with Neely in 1940 through Bailiff and 2009:

DECADE          OVERALL          CONFERENCE

1940s             63-36-4 (.631)        36-19-3 (.646)
1950s             58-48-3 (.545)        29-30-1 (.491)
1960s             37-61-4 (.382)        25-43-2 (.371)
1970s             29-77-3 (.266)        19-54-1 (.263)
1980s             22-86-1 (.206)        13-65-0 (.166)
1990s             52-57-1 (.477)        37-38-0 (.493)
2000s             46-72-0 (.389)        34-46-0 (.425)

First of all, condolences to those who played, covered or supported Rice football in the '80s.

These numbers reveal that the program began its decline as Neely concluded his tenure and bottomed out with 37 losses during one 40-game stretch between 1981-85. If Fred Goldsmith and Ken Hatfield proved anything it's that Rice football could be resuscitated, their combined and miraculous mark in the '90s providing ample evidence. But is near-.500 football as good as it gets at Rice? Even during the halcyon Neely days lulls were intermittent, with winning seasons in 1940, '41 and '42 followed by losing records in '43, '44 and '45. The Owls were plus-22 overall between 1946-50, 10-10 over the following two seasons, 16-5 in 1953-54 and 6-13-1 in 1955-56. The pendulum swung for seven additional years before Neely finished with three successive losing seasons and an 8-21-1 record from 1964-66. It wasn't all glorious.

So what can Bailiff do? How many more solid recruiting classes will it take for 2-10 seasons to become a thing of the past, and how badly (quickly?) does he need the ceaselessly discussed End Zone Facility to maintain recruiting momentum? Rice has posted consecutive winning seasons only twice post-Neely (1992-93 under Goldsmith; 1996-97 under Hatfield), so even if everything falls into place and the Owls ride 2010 grassroots Heisman Trophy candidate Sam McGuffie, Charles Ross, Vance McDonald and The Taylors to success next season and in 2011, what will 2012 bring? Are you as fans willing to accept the occasional 5-7 season as long as Rice is bowl-eligible twice every four-year cycle, or are such expectations too modest?

Will the dawn of a new decade usher in a new era of Rice football, or is status quo inevitable? If Rice isn't destined for mediocrity, what must happen for it to permanently turn the corner?
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