Remembering My Introduction to College Football: Rice Owls 1961

The college football season is off and running with a feast of games this weekend, and one of the games, Rice vs Texas from Reliant Stadium in Houston, has triggered a flood of memories.

I was an 8 year old third grader in 1961 when my father, a Captain in the U.S. Army, returned from a tour of duty in Korea to an assignment as an ROTC instructor at Rice University in Houston. I had spent he previous year in Greenville, Alabama, our family home town — population 6,000. So the move to Houston was a big deal. My Dad had played college football at Auburn, University, so the first thing he did when we got to Houston was to get season tickets to the Rice Owls football games.

In those days, Rice was a on the b side of a period when it had been a major force in college football. It played in the now defunct Southwest Conference — but in 1961 the SWC (consisting or Rice, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A & M, Arkansas, Baylor, SMU, and TCU — see I can remember them all without having to look it up!) was a major conference whose winner won an automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl which, back then, was one of the big 4 New Years Day bowl games. Rice also figured in what is still considered to be the most famous play in college football — the 1954 Rose Bowl game in which Rice’s Dicky Maegle was free and running down the sideline for what would have been a 95 yard touchdown run when Alabama’s Tommy Lewis–on the bench at the time–got caught up in the moment and tackled Moegle as he ran down the sideline. After a brief conference, the officials awarded Moegle a touchdown and Rice went on to beat ‘Bama 28-6. The play caused such a sensation that both Maegle and Lewis were invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan show as a result of it. (Check out this Youtube clip showing Magle’s run and Lewis’ tackle, with commentary by Maegle.)

The first game of the season was Rice vs LSU, a night game, and I’ll never forget the site of 70,000 fans in Rice Stadium for that game. I was absolutely in awe as Rice took on an LSU team that included All-American Running Back Jerry Stovall and future NFL star tight end Billy Truax — and beat them handily, 16-3. The other highlight of that first year was Rice making it to the Bluebonnet Bowl with a record of 7-3. Not coincidentally, the Bluebonnet Bowl was played in Rice Stadium, and we were able to get tickets. The game was a disaster — a driving rain reduced the crowd to 52,000, and Rice played Kansas State who, behind future NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback John Hadl, whipped Rice handily 33-7.

Here’s a picture of a play from that 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl between Rice and Kansas State. Note the umbrellas in the crowd — I was there, wet and cold but happy as a clam to be there.

It was a bit typical of my father that right then, that first year at Rice, he made certain decisions for me about my future, one of which was that I would go to college on a full football scholarship and that I would be a Rhodes Scholar. (I was 8, remember.) The Rhodes Scholarship talk was fueled by the player on the Rice squad whom my Dad identified as the one I should emulate — offensive tackle Bob Johston, big number 70, who ended up as an all SWC player and yet — a Rhodes Scholar.

Bob Johnston, Rice Owls Offensive Tackle who would go on to all SWC honors and win a Rhodes Scholarship

I thought it was a little strange that my Dad could be so sure about my future … but then he set about making sure I could go down that path, getting me set up in a pee wee football program (actually it was called F.U.N. Football with F.U.N. standing for “Football United National”), but also setting ground rules that I could play sports — but only so long as I never got anything worse than a “B” on my report card. A “C” would mean dropping out of whatever sport I was playing until the academic deficiency was remedied. All of this supervised by a drill-sargeant-like demeanor that was in my face non-stop. I guess the final irony is that his approach worked — at least to a certain degree. I did end up going to college on a football scholarship, and I did end up almost becoming a Rhodes Scholar — I was a Finalist in 1974, meaning I became one of two representatives from my state, and one of 100 nationwide to make it that far. 24 scholarships were awarded and I was not among the winners……

Rice went 7-3 that first year, not quite so well the next year — and then we moved on, to an assignment in Germany, and I lost touch with Rice for many years. Over the years from time to time I would check in on them, just enough to know that they were near the bottom of the heap of the entire NCAA top division schools. Then in 2008 they made it to a bowl game for the first time since 1963 — and since then they’ve been doing better. Keep an eye out for them, it looks like the Owls could be coming back. 😉

Here’s a pic of me with my F.U.N. Football Teammates in Houston:

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