My Q&A with Rice's Wayne Graham

While talking to Rice Coach Wayne Graham the other day, a strange question came to my mind. Not a question to ask him, but more of a rhetorical question: What do you get a guy like this for Christmas?

Man, this is a guy that has it all. A storied life he loves, a profession in a game he can't bare to get away from, a wonderful wife, six kids, a handful of grandkids, a spot in the Texas sports Hall of Fame, six national championships (five at the J.C. level), the most successful sport at a prestigious academic institution and the admiration and respect of everybody involved in college baseball.

Oh sure, I suppose you could get this guy another national championship as a gift. But other than that, I'm thinking he's got it all. No wonder he seems to smile a lot.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Coach Graham about 45 minutes before the Owls final game of the Houston College Classic on Sunday night. I waited outside the dugout for him to finish a conversation with Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who has credited Coach Graham for his model of success he's used in building his Commodore program. More about that below.

After they got done, I was able to take a seat on the well-cleated wood bench in the Rice dugout and start rattling off a few questions to the venerable coach.

Me:
For starters coach, I just want to tell you that I'm not going to ask you anything about retirement. I figure you get enough of those questions anyway. But I would like to know if this is still fun for you? Is starting over every January still a joy?

Wayne Graham:
Oh sure. I talked Augie (Garrido, Texas coach) about the same thing and he said, "What else would you do? You get to do the things you like to do all the time." You know, it's stressful at times, but when you've been in it your whole life you have a certain amount of ability to handle the ups and downs.

Me:
Personally Coach, between you and I, I hope you coach here for another 30-to-40 years.

Wayne Graham:
(Laughs) That'll set a few records.

Me:
No doubt. Which brings me to this, when you were at San Jacinto J.C. and since you've been here at Rice, did you ever have any other offers that you entertained or has there ever been any thoughts of leaving?

Wayne Graham:
Well, in the early days at Rice the Mississippi job came open and I was a little bit interested in that. But when I was a San Jac I applied for 15 jobs and didn't get them. Fifteen division I jobs... nothing.

Me:
Suckers! They didn't realize what they were missing out on, huh?

Wayne Graham:
Well, I'd like to think that anyway. (Laughs). But since I've been at Rice I've been pretty well taken care of. Then it kept growing, and we got the new stadium and a lot of things happened in the right way. So now... this is it.

Me:
Good. But did you ever imagine turning the program around as well as you have or it being at this level when you took the job, being that Rice didn't have much of a winning tradition before that?

Wayne Graham:
I really did. I said in my news conference when I got the job, I told them that I thought we could win a national championship at Rice because of two things; we have a great recruiting area and a great academic reputation. I also felt that as we won, the resources would increase. And they have.

Me:
Do you think that your success at a small private school like Rice can set an example to some of the other smaller schools that don't emphasize the sport right now?

Wayne Graham:
Sure. I think it was a source of inspiration to both Vanderbilt and Tulane. I think they both have very competent coaches. And I think Vanderbilt made a great commitment to Coach Corbin when he came there and now look at their team. It's been great.

Me:
By the way, I always dig the way you guys schedule, you always play anybody and everybody in the non-conference and it's great. Is that your philosophy about scheduling?

Wayne Graham:
Within reason, I think you only get better by playing good teams. And frankly, if you play teams that don't have a chance to beat you, it's boring. I don't like that.

Me:
(Laughing) I guess I'm referring more to the teams that will play 40 home games against tomato cans in the pre-conference, but you guys are always playing people like Fullerton, Arizona State and Texas.

Wayne Graham:
Well I think you get better by playing good competition.

Me:
(Realizing that's a point of emphasis, now just move on) Lets talk over a few things about this year's team. Your offense has struggled a bit in the early going, is that any kind of surprise to you?

Wayne Graham:
Well hitting always comes and goes, but I think it has more to do with distractions, you know?

Me:
Sure.

Wayne Graham:
We've got a lot of guys in their draft year, pressing a little bit, and those high pre-season rankings and heavy amount of attention has gotten to some guys. But I think they'll come around and get focused now. As I said, hitting kinda comes and goes anyway.

Me:
That freshman pitcher you threw last night, Ryan Berry, looked outstanding. What kind of future do you see for him?

Wayne Graham:
He's the kind of guy that you feel is going to give you a solid outing every time he goes out there. 'Coz he's got unusual command for someone his age and he can throw four pitches over the plate.

Me:
So I'm assuming you expect big things from him in the years to come.

Wayne Graham:
Oh yes. (With that squinty-eyed reassurance)

Me:
Okay, just talk about your staff in general. How does this year's staff rate in comparison with some of the better pitching staffs you've had in the past?

Wayne Graham:
To be honest, if we were healthy, it would be one of the best we've had. But I just don't know right now if we're gonna have Bobby Bell or Cole St. Clair. And we'll still have a good staff, but we need those guys for our staff to be great.

Me:
I wanted to ask, who was tougher on you, Gene Mauch or Casey Stengal?

Wayne Graham:
Actually, Mauch is a little more demanding. (Laughs)

Me:
So all that stuff about Stengal saying "if they keep sending me these guys like Graham, we'll never win," that is true?

Wayne Graham:
Oh yeah. It's true. (Laughs)

Me:
Oh, one last thing, I noticed the picture of you in your Phillies uniform from your playing days in this year's media guide, I thought that was really cool. I hadn't seen it in past media guides for you guys.

Wayne Graham:
I'd seen the picture before, but never in our media guide. I will say this, the wife liked it. (Laughs).

Me:
Thanks coach. That's it. Good luck this season.

Wayne Graham:
Thank you.

And with that, we shook hands and I was off to the Houston airport and Coach was off to fill out his lineup card for the Texas A&M game.

But thinking about it, I probably should've added one more thing: my condolences to his wife. She's the one who has to buy this guy Christmas presents.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert