The setting was a sports bar patio. Ice cold beer was a necessity to contend with the heat and humidity. Plates of Tex-Mex appetizers were passed around to keep the stomachs rumble-free.
The topic Tuesday night was Rice football as charismatic new coach Mike Bloomgren officially introduced himself to about 50 Owls alums who live in Austin. The 41-year-old had been the offensive coordinator at Stanford since 2013. But Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard — coincidentally a Stanford graduate — was able to lure Bloomgren away in hopes that the coach can replicate the football success reached in academic-centric Palo Alto.
Bloomgren already had turned down several chances to become a head coach. He couldn’t say no to Karlgaard because he said the Owls sported the same type of “brilliant, self-starters” he coached at Stanford.
“Really, when you look at it, there are only five places in America where you can get that opportunity to coach at the highest level and get the opportunity to coach people who really want to pursue a world class degree,” Bloomgren said. “And that’s Stanford, Northwestern, Rice, Vanderbilt and Duke.”
Karlgaard, who made the trip to Austin, raved about his newest hire.
“He’s gotten off to a terrific start,” Karlgaard raved. “His launch over the last five or six months since we hired him has been terrific. He’s hired a great staff. That was really job one. Job two was closing out a recruiting class this year which I think he did a very good job of.”
Can Bloomgren make Rice football relevant? The plan is to hype its academic brand — a four-year scholarship is worth about $250,000 — and change the way the team plays offense.
But in the concentrated landscape that is major Texas football, Rice mostly has been an afterthought, even in its own city. There are five schools in the Lone Star State that are members of Power 5 conferences, including the flagships, Texas and Texas A&M, although Baylor and TCU can lay claim to more recent league titles.
Houston wants to be big time and might have next year’s first overall pick of the NFL draft. UTSA just produced its first-ever first-rounder. SMU’s coach was poached by Arkansas. North Texas won nine games.
Then there are the Owls, who were 1-11 last season. David Bailiff was fired in November. His 57 wins were second in school history behind only Jess Neely, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971. Bailiff led the Owls to lofty seasons not seen since Neely helped Rice secure bids to the Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls seven decades ago. Rice earned bowl trips from 2012-14 and won 10 games in 2013. But since then, the Owls have averaged three victories each fall.
Here’s where Bloomgren will attempt to turn around Rice — he plans on bringing the same physical approach that made Stanford a national contender.
With so many schools in the state, from high schools to major college programs, embracing an up-tempo approach, Rice will go more old school with fullbacks and tight ends. The approach worked for Stanford; five Cardinal stars have finished as Heisman runner-up since 2009.
Bloomgren, who was a tight end in college, joked that his offensive tastes make him a favorite of opposing defensive coordinators. But it’s one thing to easily identify a power offense. It’s another to thwart it.
“I believe the way to win championships is to pound the rock, control the clock and play great defense,” said Bloomgren, who says TCU’s Gary Patterson, Baylor’s Matt Rhule and Houston’s Major Applewhite have helped him settle in at Rice. “That’s a model that’s worked for us at every stop along the way. It’s what we’re going to try and do here.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this story has been edited to correct the amount of Power 5 schools in Texas.