HOUSTON—Visitors to Reckling Park, home of the Rice baseball team, are given exquisitely simple directions when looking for the office of coach Wayne Graham.
“Oh, it’s easy. Just follow the trophies.”
So, just as instructed, you follow the trophies—the 14 that represent the number of consecutive conference championships the Owls have captured in three different leagues, either regular-season or tournament. And the 15 that represent the streak of NCAA tournament berths the Owls have achieved. And seven plaques, one for each of the trips the Owls have made to Omaha for the College World Series.
Oh, and there’s also the 2003 National Championship trophy.
Not unlike the yellow brick road, this path of gold leads straight to the office of a wizard of sorts, the man who has come to define baseball in the state of Texas.
“I’m one of those guys who’s lucky to be able to do the job that he prefers to do above all other jobs,” said Graham, who took over the Rice program in 1992, piling up 830 wins during his time there. “I had to pay an awful long apprenticeship to get here (getting the job at age 55), but that’s one reason that I continue doing it. I tell people all the time that I died and went to heaven when I came to Rice, so why would I ever leave?”
That’s the question that always hovers over Graham—when will he finally hang ‘em up? Closing in on his 74th birthday, Graham has no timeline for retirement. As long as he’s having fun, Graham will continue to coach.
“I think I have enough pride and rationality to not continue if I feel that I’m hurting our cause,” he said. “But I really enjoy it. I enjoy the process of watching breakthroughs, watching talent or guys doing wonderful things and teams melding. The whole bit is interesting. There’s nothing I like to do better.”
And nobody does it better.
Sure, he’s been wildly successful at Rice, but Graham had already earned a reputation as a winner long before arriving at Rice.
Link To The Past
In his 10 years of high school coaching in Texas (nine at Scarborough and one at Spring Branch), his teams won seven district titles. In 1981 he moved on to San Jacinto, turning the Gators into a junior-college juggernaut. San Jac, featuring pitchers like Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, strung together seven straight seasons of 50-or-more wins, three straight of 60-plus wins, and won five NJCAA World Series titles in his 11 years there.
Not bad for a guy who almost gave up the game in desperate frustration after failing to carve out a career in the majors.
In 1957 he signed with Philadelphia and wound up spending 11 years bouncing around the minors as an outfielder and third baseman. Graham was enough of a prospect to get callups with the Phillies (1963) and Mets (1964), but not good enough to stick (30 major league games, a .127 average in 55 at-bats).
“This sounds odd, but I thought that in a way my life had been useless up to that point,” Graham said. “I wanted to be a major league player, but I got only 90 days (in the majors), so I went back to school to be a teacher. During that time I was completely away from baseball for four years.”
After finishing up his degree at the University of Texas, Graham decided that his place in the world would be in a high school classroom, teaching history.
A glut of teachers in the Austin area had Graham heading back to Houston, where he landed a job at Scarborough High School. And when the baseball coach decided to join the football staff, Graham unexpectedly found himself back in the game.
And, much to Graham’s surprise, his passion for the game returned.
“In a roundabout way we restarted the romance,” he said. “I always loved the game, even though I became disenchanted because of pro baseball. But once I hit the field that first year (at Scarborough), there was no doubt that I was going to do it (coach) for the rest of my life. Even if I never got out of high school, I was going to do that for the rest of my life.”
That’s easy to understand given that Graham, the son of Earl Graham, who spent decades as an umpire in the Southwest Conference, was practically baptized in a dugout water fountain.
His longevity in the game gives Graham an anachronistic, generation-spanning biography. He has one foot in a distant era of newsreel legends like Bibb Falk (his coach at Texas), Casey Stengel (his manager with the Mets) and Southern Methodist football star Doak Walker (one of the biggest reasons Graham wears No. 37, which also was Stengel’s jersey number), and the other in a time of SportsCenter stars like Lance Berkman, Clemens and Pettitte.
And while Stengel didn’t think much of his potential as a player, Graham is quick to list the “Old Perfesser” as one of his greatest influences.
“I was (with the Mets) for only two months, but most of that time was spent on the bench with Casey,” Graham said. “Not next to Casey, but within hearing range. I never heard him say a word that wasn’t dead-on, like which pitch should have been thrown. Casey influenced me in two areas—how important each pitch is, and the importance of understanding human nature.”
Graham got a first-hand lesson in the latter when, seeing the end of his major league career, he hesitantly approached Stengel to ask a favor.
“He didn’t see much of a future for me as a big league ballplayer,” Graham recalled.
“But one time I really wanted to play because we were at old Colt Stadium and this was probably the last game I was ever going to be play in Houston as a major leaguer.
“Batting practice had already taken place, but I asked him if there was any way I could get into the game that day. He changed the lineup, and I started that day.”
A Perfect Fit
After building the program at San Jac, Graham had one last remaining dream—to guide a Division I program. After all, he had a comprehensive network of contacts throughout high school and juco baseball, and he had an unerring eye for talent that allowed him to recognize the potential in a pudgy kid out of Spring Woods named Clemens.
But after applying for 15 coaching jobs without success, Graham worried that he would never get his opportunity to move up to the next level.
That’s when Rice came calling. It was far from being a dream job—”My wife (Tanya, his best friend and greatest influence) is the only one who wanted me to take the job,” Graham said—since there were few resources devoted to baseball and Reckling Park, the Owls’ home-field palace, would not be erected until 2000.
Still, it seemed like an odd marriage—an institution with such exacting academic standards pursuing a junior-college coach, but it turned out to be a perfect fit.
“He showed us that he had the passion and the knowledge,” said Steve Moniaci, former Rice assistant athletic director in charge of operations who is now at Houston Baptist. “He was very interested not in only coaching, but was also interested in continued learning (getting his master’s degree in 1973 and still taking graduate hours), which is something that Rice has always been about.”
That pursuit of knowledge continues to this day.
Graham is a voracious reader, and his favorite novels—Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is at the top of the list—are ones that deeply examine human nature. Graham feels that such insight helps him keep in tune with his players, despite the ever-widening chasm of years that has to be bridged.
“Human nature does not change that much,” Graham said. “Everyone wants to be respected, and everyone wants to love and be loved. Things like that don’t change, do they? Think about that. They never change. So it all comes down to human nature.
“You may have to penetrate a lot of chaos and mess, but you get back to the basics in people—that desire to be respected, to be loved by their teammates and the feeling that they can depend on their teammates and their teammates can depend on them. Most people have normal desires, and there’s a goodness in most people. There’s also badness in people, but you have to learn how to tap into that goodness and inner drive.”
And after going 43-18 last season and plowing through the Conference USA tournament, how is this year shaping up?
“The good news is that we finished in the top 10 last year, but the bad news is we’re terribly dissatisfied because we didn’t get to Omaha,” said Graham, whose Owls lost to eventual national champion Louisiana State in the Baton Rouge Super Regional. “But that’s just the way we are here. We’re always optimistic. I think it has something to do with life beginning on opening day. We always believe that we’re going to be good, and in a lot of cases that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Michael Murphy is a freelance writer based in Houston.