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Scott Ostler

There Is a Wrong Way and a Rice Way

March 18, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

HOUSTON — Hank Williams warned us it would happen like this. Back in the 1950s, Hank sang "Your cheatin' heart will tell on you."

And so it has come to pass, in the football-berserk state of Texas, in the glorious and glamorous Southwest Athletic Conference--less formally known as the Southwest Conference and still less formally known as the SWC--that all the cheatin' hearts have spoken up more or less at once. Even the Christian schools are going down in disgrace and dishonor.

Of the eight SWC schools in Texas, seven have basketball or football programs either on probation or under NCAA investigation. Southern Methodist University is in such deep cow do that the Southern Methodists might convert the campus into a mall. Or a real university.

That leaves the University of Arkansas, which isn't in Texas.

And Rice.

Tiny Rice University, near downtown Houston. It's the smallest university--2,600 undergrads--anywhere trying to play major college football, and trying to do it legally.

Athletically speaking, this is the Littlest Big Non-whorehouse in Texas.

I paid a visit to the campus Monday, to snoop around and find out why Rice isn't pulling its weight in the Conference, violation-wise. They've been playing football here since 1912 and they're still looking for their first NCAA investigation.

They're also looking for their first winning football season since 1963, and first winning basketball season since 1970. But at least the athletes and other students don't have to wear sunglasses and fake beards when they go out in public, like at some schools you could name.

"It's nice to be able to look out upon it (the scandals) from here," said Joe Heikkinen, a Rice linebacker who will soon graduate with three academic majors. "Sometimes I think, 'Goll-ee, it would've been nice to be paid.' But in a way, we are. I'm getting a great education, and that's payment.

"(Being clean) is something we take pride in. They (other schools) are finding out life isn't easy. A lot have been doing it the easy way. It takes a little more time to do it the right way."

Decades. But Rice U decided some time ago to do it the right way. Rice, understand, takes seriously, its reputation as the Harvard of the South, with all that title implies about things like integrity.

Rice even looks Ivy League, with its charming acres of green lawns, old trees, precision-clipped hedges and red-brick buildings with spires and stone arches.

It has everything but the ivy. This is a hard-core university, and the fact that Rice has a big-time football team is considered by some to be a grating ideological contradiction.

"As far as I'm concerned, they could drop football and be better off," said Rosemary Killen, a Rice research associate in space physics.

I'm pretty sure Rice's space physicists could kick SMU's space physicists' butts. But that's not enough for most Rice students, coaches and alums. This is Texas, and if you want to be considered a real school, you've got to play football. Preferably in a get-down, hairy-chest conference, like the SWC.

Now there's even a chance that Rice soon might be able to even win a lot of football games.

"All the alleged allegations that have surfaced at other schools are already working to our advantage," says Jerry Berndt, the Rice football coach and athletic director.

Not only are more good high school players available to Rice as other Texas programs get pinched by the NCAA, but as Berndt says: "I really believe people are being forced to come up to our (ethical) standards."

Rice has no pipe-course academic majors for jocks. No skating allowed. Berndt has instituted a very tough drug-testing program for all Owl athletes. And he watches players and alums carefully, to make sure everyone is obeying the rules. He wants to improve the athletic program without sacrificing its reputation.

Not that this is any time to be gloating.

"I want to keep a low-key posture right now," Berndt said to me over the phone before I flew to Houston. "I don't want to be an Elmer Gantry, standing on my soap box."

But Berndt, who has been at Rice a year, couldn't resist putting at least one foot up on the soap box when asked about the Rice philosophy.

"With all that's happening in college athletics right now, with all the problems in the SWC, there's something to be said about a school that believes in educating people, not just giving them a degree, and believes in the honest approach," he said.

Berndt's last job was football coach at Penn, where he took a perennial hound dog of a team and won four straight Ivy League championships. He thinks Rice can be a winner, too, even in the SWC, although a lot of people around Houston think Rice should get out of the league.

After all, the Owls haven't won more than four games since 1973, and they suffered an 0-for-26 drought against SWC opponents between 1981 and 1985. The last time Rice won a SWC football title was in 1957. The Owls have lost to SMU 10 years in a row, by an average of more than three touchdowns.

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