Joe Durrenberger remembers the night it all came together. Baylor was visiting Rice for a Southwest Conference matchup and "Big Joe" was on the mend from an injury earlier in the season. It was time for the junior to step into the spotlight that was recently vacated by the class of 1954, including All-America honorees Don Lance and Gene Schwinger.
It was 60 years ago, on February 15, 1955. The Bears' top rebounder, Joe Dickson, would miss the game with an injury of his own, but BU brought in a large, capable team nonetheless. Durrenberger hauled in a program and conference-record 30 rebounds in an 80-68 win over the SWC rival. He went on to average a double-double for the Owls en route to all-conference honors.
His record still stands as the only 30-rebound game in program history. Joe himself was even a bit surprised that the record has held up this long, as only one player has even come within five boards of the mark - Kendall Rhine (27) against Texas Tech in 1963.
"At the time, you don't think anything about longevity," Durrenberger said. "It's certainly a surprise to me. I played in a different era - rebounding was very important back then. A lot of schools we played against had good rebounders and Rice was outstanding in it all throughout the 1950s. We had height and we had some of the best boys in the state going to Rice."
Durrenberger starred for the Owls' freshman team in his first year on campus in 1952-53, scoring 22 points in his first-ever game for the Blue and Gray. He then played with that stellar senior class in 1953-54 with a team that posted a 23-5 record, won the Southwest Conference title and advanced to the NCAA West Regional. Durrenberger scored 19 points off the bench in the SWC finals to lead the Owls to the championship.
Durrenberger attributes that squad's success both to coach Don Suman and the local interest that young basketball players had in attending Rice.
"Rice developed a reputation around the time Gene got there, and he started as a sophomore and was a unanimous all-conference player in both his junior and senior seasons. That attracted a lot of other players. I went to the same high school as Gene but I was two years younger than him. Because of his success, they decided to take a chance on me. It was hard to see my potential at 17."
The bond between teammates lasted well beyond their time on campus, as the group kept in touch well beyond their graduations.
"I maintained life-long contact with Gene since graduation. We grew up in the same neighborhood in the Heights and went to the same school. Bobby Brashear was our starting guard and I still maintain contact with him and several players that have passed on at this late age."
As he returns to the Rice campus on Saturday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the record-setting game, Joe reflected on some other of his highlights in a career that was full of them.
There was the Owls' home win against Kansas in December 1955:
"When Kansas came to Rice and we beat them in my senior year, Phog Allen said after the game that he wasn't used to the aggressive play of the Southwest Conference. I got to play against him and Hank Iba's Oklahoma State team. I was just there at the right era."
Durrenberger also recalled the stretch of games leading into his record performance:
"At the beginning of the season we went on a road trip to LSU, Tulane and Kansas and I sprained my ankle at LSU. We got to Kansas and I tried to play but couldn't. We played back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday night. I remember it was December and we had to dress in a separate gym, then walk through the snow over to the main gym for the game. That's how little emphasis was on basketball at the University of Kansas then. I was unable to play the rest of December, even when Illinois (ranked No. 3 in the nation at the time) came to Rice. That was the only Big 10 team we faced in my career."
Even when discussing some of his memorable moments on the court, Durrenberger always directs the conversation back to the strong relationship with his former teammates:
"By an unusual quirk, I never had a 20-20 game. Against Kansas that year, I had 22 rebounds but 17 points. Then later in the season against TCU I had 28 points and 19 rebounds. Coach took me out because we were leading by a lot with seven minutes to play. I was angry about it at the time because I was so close to 20 and 20. But all in all, I have nothing to complain about. I was so fortunate to be a sophomore when Gene and Don were seniors because we got to go to the NCAA Regional. We lost at Oklahoma State by six points and then beat Colorado in the third-place game and beat them by 23 points. Gene and Don were terrific. We went 23-5 that year and everybody is very proud of that record."
On his trip to Houston this weekend, Durrenberger will spend some time with the current Owls and will be honored on the court during the team's game against UAB on Saturday evening. His wife and sister will also be in attendance.
Owls Burned at the Buzzer by UAB, 61-60
UAB's Chad Frazier sank a layup at the buzzer to lift the visitors past Rice University men's basketball, 61-60, on Thursday night at Tudor Fieldhouse.