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Pick whatever criteria you want to use and you'll get the same result: Wayne Graham is synonymous with outstanding baseball. Whether it is turning players into all-America honorees and pro draft picks, or coaching teams to conference titles and a national championship, the Owls' head coach continues to deliver.
Now in his 14th season at the helm of the Rice program, his 25th overall as a collegiate head coach, Graham has produced highly-skilled players that work together to form winning, and usually dominating, baseball teams.
Are all-America selections the criteria for an outstanding coach? Graham has coached 18 different Rice players to a total of 31 all-America awards. Perhaps it's turning a player into a pro prospect. No fewer than 30 former Owls were playing professional baseball in 2004, including four in the majors. If you count Graham's active major leaguers from his previous post at San Jacinto Junior College (pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte), he is two-thirds of the way to fielding a nine-player lineup of his former pupils active in MLB.
Are team accomplishments the criteria? Consider Rice has won nine conference championships in a row including every WAC title since joining the league in baseball in 1997. He's led the Blue and Gray to 10 NCAA regionals, four super regionals and four trips to the College World Series. In 2003 Graham led Rice to the school's first team national championship (in any sport).
At first, there were small steps for a program which had never won even a conference championship or advanced to NCAA tournament play. Year one in 1992 showed a 13-game improvement in the win column. Year two (1993) was another seven games better. In year three (1994), the Owls had their best finish ever in Southwest Conference play at 12-6 and their first appearance under Graham in the SWC postseason tournament. Year four (1995) boasted of 43 wins and Rice's first bid to the NCAA tournament. Year five (1996): a SWC tournament title and another NCAA entry.
The Owls won the 1996 SWC championship in storybook fashion. Entering the last conference tournament in Lubbock as the number-six seed, Graham's Owls swept through the field in four straight games, topped by a 16-8 romp past Texas in the final. It was the most satisfying week in Rice's SWC baseball history.
Then there was Graham's sixth Rice season in 1997, the Owls' foray into the Western Athletic Conference. Led by a duo that Baseball America called "one of the greatest power packages in college baseball history" (pitcher Matt Anderson and first-baseman Lance Berkman), Rice soared to a 47-16 record and its first WAC team championship. A 13-game winning streak over the last month of the regular season ensured titles in the WAC-South and at the league tournament, resulting in an automatic berth in the NCAA field.
Rice returned to Lubbock for the 1997 Central Regional where South Plains magic continued from the year before. The Owls romped through the regional, earning the school's first entry into the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. It was a season that netted Graham kudos as the western region's coach of the year as voted by the American Baseball Coaches Association.
In 1998, Rice posted a 46-17 overall record and was even more successful in the WAC. The Owls ran through their division with a 26-4 record and capped the year with another four-game sweep in the postseason tournament. Graham's charges were the top seed in the Central Regional in College Station, but a pair of slugfest losses ended the year prematurely. Damon Thames was the ABCA national player of the year, and Bubba Crosby was the Owls' fourth first-round draft choice in four seasons. Graham won recognition as the WAC coach of the year in balloting by his peers.
The 1999 season ran true to form. Led by one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball, the Owls never left the top 10 in any of the national polls, enjoying the school's first number-one ranking in any sport on two different occasions and finishing at number-five. Graham was named Baseball America's national coach of the year, as well as repeating his WAC honor. The conference tournament was another four-game sweep, but the return trip to Lubbock for the regional was a bit less routine.
After an opening round upset at the hands of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Owls swept through Rutgers, UWM and host Texas Tech twice for its second regional title. In the new Super Regional, Rice also dropped the opener to Southwestern Louisiana before stopping the Cajuns twice to win the trip to Omaha. That was six straight wins when elimination was only one loss away. The head coach had convinced the squad to keep fighting. At Omaha the Owls fell to eventual national champion Miami in their opener. Rice's first-ever CWS win, over Oklahoma State, followed before elimination by Alabama.
The 2000 season is one of Graham's most outstanding coaching achievements. Adjusting to six new position players and the loss of all-America pitcher Jeff Nichols due to an injury, the Owls staggered through the first half of the schedule. After April 1, though, the head coach righted the ship to lead the Owls from a sub-.500 record to their fourth straight WAC title on the final weekend of the season.
More success followed in 2001. Led by an all-America pitching staff led by Kenny Baugh and Jon Skaggs, the Owls spent six weeks as the nation's number-one team. The amazing comeback win over Baylor on Memorial Day clinched the Owls' second trip to a Super Regional.
In 2002, the Owls adjusted again after Baugh and Skaggs were first-round selections in the professional draft. Graham combined two new players in the weekend pitching rotation -- transfer Justin Crowder and freshman Philip Humber -- and five new position players with four returnees, keeping the Owls near the top of the national rankings most of the year. Graham was named the WAC and ABCA western regional coach of the year as the Owls again advanced to Omaha.
In 2003, his 12th season, Graham's mind and energy were focused squarely on the goal of Rice's first national championship. The team combined the best pitching staff in the nation with the best defense to win 58 of its 70 games. The Owls spent more than two months ranked as the top team in the nation, and the team ran off an eye-opening 30-game winning streak. Sophomore pitchers Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, Philip Humber and Josh Baker combined for a 47-5 record, and closer David Aardsma had a Rice-record 12 saves. Every Owl starter won at least one postseason honor and Graham was named the national and WAC coach of the year.
In 2004, the Owls went 46-14 and won another WAC title to qualify for another postseason appearance. Graham came up with yet another Rice first. The pitching trio of Humber, Niemann and Townsend were all selected among the first eight picks of the major league draft (numbers three, four and eight overall). It was the first time in MLB history three pitchers, or even three players, from the same school had been selected that high in the draft's first round.
He boasts the most wins (582) and best win percentage (.710) in Rice history. Another way of looking at the .710 win percentage is that it's the equivalent of a major league team winning 115 games in a single year. Now maintain that same win percentage for 13 years.
It's not just at Rice. He guided San Jacinto to five national titles in 11 years. Graham was Collegiate Baseball's coach of the decade for all levels in the 1980's and the newspaper's JC coach of the century. His uniform number (37) was retired by San Jacinto and he was inducted into the junior college hall of fame in May, 1995. All of Graham's coaching accomplishments naturally led to his induction into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame at Fort Worth in 2003. He will be inducted to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in February of 2005.
A native Houstonian who followed the Owls since his earliest days, he played high school baseball at Reagan High in the Heights and matriculated to Texas, where he played two seasons under the legendary Bibb Falk. After his playing days as a Longhorn ended, Graham embarked on an 11-year professional career as a third baseman and outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets organizations.
Despite several strong seasons in the minors -- he hit .300 or better in six of 10 minor-league stops, including a .311 average with 17 home runs and 70 runs batted in at Dallas-Fort Worth in 1962 to earn Texas minor league player of the year honors -- Graham had just two brief stints in the major leagues. The first came in 1963 when he appeared in 10 games for Gene Mauch's Philadelphia Phillies. A year later, Graham played 20 games for Casey Stengel and the New York Mets.
Following his playing days, Graham returned to UT to receive his B.S. in physical education in 1970, and he added a master's of education from the University of Houston in 1973.
Graham's coaching career began at Houston's Scarborough High School. In nine seasons at Scarborough and one at Spring Branch, Graham's teams compiled a 98-13 (.883) district record, won seven district titles and never finished lower than second place in the district race.
After 10 successful seasons on the high school level, Graham moved on to San Jacinto, where he proceeded to turn the Gators into the nation's most celebrated JC team. His first squad in 1981(featuring freshman Roger Clemens) went 43-7 and finished second in the Texas JC ranks. The following two seasons brought 89 more victories(only 22 losses) and a pair of conference titles.
Graham was just getting started. In 1984, he led the Gators to the first of seven consecutive 50-win seasons and the national JC tournament. A loss in the championship game only served to fuel the fires that would lead to three straight national titles in 1985-87. Another runner-up showing in 1988 was followed by two more titles in 1989 and 1990, giving the Gators five championships in a six-year span while preparing dozens of players for major college and/or professional careers.
Graham's honors at San Jac were nearly endless. He was named the national JC coach of the year five times and the top Texas JC coach six times. Never one to avoid a challenge, Graham left the Gator dynasty to build the Owls into a perennial power. It was a job and a challenge that he had always wanted.
What is left for a man who has 31 straight winning seasons at the high school and collegiate level and has won nearly 80 percent of his games on the collegiate level (1,157-351 in 24 seasons at Rice and San Jacinto)? A second national championship, to be precise. With Reckling Park as the Owls' home and the venue for four NCAA Regionals in 2001-02-03-04, plus Super Regionals in 2002-03, Graham has all the pieces in place to sustain Rice at the highest level.
Graham and his wife Tanya live in Houston. She received her Rice degree in human performance and exercise science in May, 1999.
Graham's Rice Milestones
First Win: Rice 6, UT-Pan American 5 (Jan. 31, 1992, at Edinburg)
First Loss: UT-Pan American 9, Rice 2 (Feb. 1, 1992, at Edinburg)
25th Win: Rice 6, Houston 1 (April 10, 1992, at Cameron Field)
50th Win: Rice 2, Houston 1 (March 14, 1993, at Cameron Field)
75th Win: Rice 12, Clemson 3 (Feb. 26, 1994, at Las Vegas, Nev.)
50th Loss: San Diego State 20, Rice 3 (March 6, 1994, at San Diego, Calif.)
100th Win: Rice 20, S.F. Austin State 3 (Feb. 8, 1995, at Nacogdoches)
150th Win: Rice 21, UT-San Antonio 7 (Feb. 24, 1996, at Cameron Field)
175th Win: Rice 1, Lamar 0 (April 23, 1996, at Beaumont)
100th Loss: Baylor 9, Rice 6 (April 26, 1996, at Cameron Field)
200th Win: Rice 14, Air Force 1 (March 8, 1997, at Cameron Field)
225th Win: Rice 5, Utah 4 (May 15, 1997, at San Diego, Calif.)
250th Win: Rice 7, Hawaii 6 (March 14, 1998, at Cameron Field)
275th Win: Rice 10, TCU 5 (May 14, 1998, at San Diego, Calif.)
300th Win: Rice 6, Houston 2 (March 16, 1999, at Cougar Field)
150th Loss: TCU 4, Rice 2 (May 1, 1999, at Cameron Field)
325th Win: Rice 14, Air Force 3 (May 16, 1999, at USAF Academy, Colo.)
350th Win: Rice 10, UT-San Antonio 3 (March 22, 2000, at Reckling Park)
375th Win: Rice 3, TCU 0 (May 20, 2000, at Fort Worth)
400th Win: Rice 11, San Jose State 7 (March 18, 2001, at Reckling Park)
425th Win: Rice 7, Baylor 4 (May 27, 2001, at Reckling Park)
200th Loss: Sam Houston State 3, Rice 2 (Feb. 27, 2002, at Huntsville)
450th Win: Rice 9, Fresno State 2 (March 29, 2002, at Reckling Park)
475th Win: Rice 6, Texas Tech 0 (June 1, 2002, at Reckling Park)
500th Win: Rice-h 20, Liberty 1 (March 21, 2003, at Reckling Park)
525th Win: Rice-h 13, Fresno State 2 (May 24, 2003, at Reckling Park)
550th Win: Rice 14, San Jose State-h 2 (March 14, 2004, at San Jose State)
575th Win: Rice 6, Baylor 4 (May 18, 2004, at Waco)