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On May 24, Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard announced that head coach Matt Bragga had been fired after three seasons and a 51-76-1 record.
Bragga seemed like an odd fit at Rice when he was hired in 2018, given that he had no ties to the program, no experience coaching in the state of Texas and no coaching stops at a highly academic private school like Rice, but you certainly couldn’t argue with his prior results.
In 15 seasons as the head coach at Tennessee Tech, Bragga turned the Golden Eagles into a consistent winner in the Ohio Valley Conference. He led them to three regular-season titles and three regionals, and in 2018, his team advanced to a super regional after it upset host Mississippi in the Oxford Regional.
At the time Bragga was hired, it was clear that Rice was not the power it had once been. It was coming off of missing the postseason for the first time since 1994, it hadn’t been to a super regional since 2013 and hadn’t been to Omaha since 2008.
Fair or not, the expectation was for Bragga’s Rice teams to show positive movement in the right direction fairly quickly, but after a 25-33 first season that featured a few quality wins worth celebrating, things headed in the wrong direction. The Owls went 2-14 in the shortened 2020 campaign, albeit against a tough schedule, and finished 2021 with a 23-29-1 mark overall, but more importantly, an 11-20-1 record in Conference USA, which kept them out of the conference tournament for the first time since 1993.
It’s also jarring to look up and see Rice without any premium prospects for the upcoming draft. That’s also an area where the program has slipped in recent years, but it still produced righthander Matt Canterino and shortstop Trei Cruz, second- and third-rounders in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
The abrupt ending to Bragga’s tenure in Houston is a bit jarring and it must be acknowledged that two of Bragga’s three seasons at Rice were disrupted by the pandemic. Ultimately, Rice no doubt felt like it was between a rock and a hard place. The brand still holds cachet due to the success it had under Wayne Graham, but those days continue to get further in the rearview mirror and they weren’t willing to extend any more time to see if Bragga was the guy to reverse that trend.
Previous Head Coach
Matt Bragga: 51-76-1, 3 seasons
The history of success for the program is chief among the reasons why the Rice job is still an extremely attractive one, but there’s more to it than that. Reckling Park is no longer a crown jewel in college baseball as it once was, but it’s still excellent. Being in Houston, it’s also right in the center of one of the best prep baseball hotbeds in the country. The academics of the institution can cut both ways, to be sure, but for a certain subset of players, that’s a big plus. The drawbacks are also clear. Not every player can qualify academically, and even for some who do, the cost of attendance can be prohibitively high. A partial scholarship just won’t get you very far at Rice compared to the public schools in the state. It’s also fair to wonder how much the last decade has hurt the brand. It’s not irreparable, but a 16-year-old player being recruited right now was in middle school the last time Rice made a regional and was 8 years old when the Owls were last on the doorstep of the CWS. The job of the next head coach will be nothing short of returning Rice to a place among the best teams in the country, and it’s clear there may not be a lot of patience when it comes to getting it done.
Will the Rice Investment be a game changer?
One of the perceived reasons that Rice’s grip on a place among college baseball’s elite slipped is that, relative to other private schools, it wasn’t doing enough to support players who could get into school but whose families couldn’t easily afford the high cost of attendance. In 2018, Rice launched a program called the Rice Investment to try to remedy that, so perhaps that’s changing, but it may take some time to bear fruit.
Will they stay inside the Rice family?
Given that Rice went so far out of the family the last time—to the consternation of some—it may be inclined to put a premium on finding someone with Rice experience on his resume this time around. If that’s the case, it will have good choices, including Texas-San Antonio head coach Pat Hallmark. But just as important as that, probably, is finding someone who either has extensive experience recruiting in Texas or experience dealing with the specific challenges of coaching at a private school like Rice, or ideally, both.
Rice was actually a pretty veteran team in 2021, with a number of holdovers from Graham’s time at the helm still around, including the two top hitters on the team in Braden Comeaux and Bradley Gneiting. The top four hitters from last season, Comeaux, Gneiting, Cade Edwards and Will Karp are moving on. One of the most often-used starting pitchers, Mitchell Holcomb, is also set to depart. But there were bright spots among the younger players. Brandon Deskins, the team’s most effective pitcher, was just a sophomore. So was Blake Brogdon, the team leader in innings. Two-way player Guy Garibay, the top recruit in the most recent recruiting class, made an impact both ways. Hal Hughes, one of the better defensive shortstops in the sport, has the option to return, as does outfielder Connor Walsh, a premium talent who never quite got going last season and missed significant time with injury. Rice is a long way from being where it used to be, but there is some young talent in place. If it returns, that could be a part of the core that gets the Owls headed back in the right direction.
The end of Graham’s tenure was messy and given the unease around the program at the time, things were always going to be tough for the next man up. The next coach won’t be burdened with being the man who replaced the legend, but expectations remain high and he will inherit a team that has disappointed for the last few years.
Texas-San Antonio’s Patrick Hallmark played at Rice and was an assistant on Graham’s staff for a decade. He moved on to Missouri for a season in 2017 before beginning his head coaching career in 2018 at Incarnate Word. He was a head coach at UIW for two seasons before moving across town to UTSA, where he’s been for the last two years. If Rice wants a coach with a connection to the school, Hallmark, 47, is the most accomplished.
Texas’ Sean Allen doesn’t have Rice on his resume, but has spent the last decade working under David Pierce, who was a longtime assistant coach under Graham. He’s been a strong recruiter for Texas, worked at an expensive, strong-academic school in Tulane and knows the city of Houston well, having played and coached at UH. Allen’s experience makes him ready for a head coaching job.
Mississippi State’s Jake Gautreau has a similar profile to Allen. He’s been a strong recruiter at Mississippi State and played and coached at Tulane, giving him an understanding of what it takes to be successful at a school like Rice. Gautreau is a Texas native, but has no clear Rice ties.
Dallas Baptist’s Dan Fitzgerald is one of the most well-respected assistant coaches in the country and has played a key role in making the Patriots one of the most consistent mid-major programs in the nation. He also has head coaching experience, as he spent five years leading Des Moines Area (Iowa) JC.
Rob Childress is an interesting name to watch. He spent the last 16 years at Texas A&M and led the Aggies to 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and the College World Series twice, but did not have his contract renewed this year after a last-place finish in the SEC West. Childress, 52, knows Texas and has a long track record of success. If he’s interested in the job, Rice has to seriously consider him.