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Interview with: Wayne Graham
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: August 25, 2009
DG: Today is August 25, and we are in the offices of Reckling Stadium, in the offices of the baseball department of Rice University Athletics, talking with head baseball coach, Wayne Graham. How are you today, Mr. Graham?
WG: I am fine.
DG: Great. We are interviewing Mr. Graham for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. Coach Graham, let's begin at the beginning. Tell us where you were born and when.
WG: Well, actually, I was born in Yoakum, Texas, but my father moved here to get a job when I was 2 years old, so I was raised in Houston.
DG: That was in 1936?
WG: I was born in 1936. I think we moved here in 1938.
DG: What are your earliest memories of Houston?
WG: Well, I just remember roaming the neighborhoods barefooted all the time. It seemed like we were barefooted 8 months out of the year and, you know, it was much smaller. I lived very close to downtown, only 1 mile from downtown in the old north side. I just remember early having contact with athletics because my dad always loved athletics. He ushered at the old Sam Houston Coliseum where they had wrestling. He would usher. He ushered at the Rice football games. So, one of my earliest contacts with Rice was through coming to football games when I was very young because my dad ushered. And he managed semi-pro baseball teams. So, he had a love for athletics. My earliest remembrances of going to Sherman Elementary School and searching for ways to compete in athletics.
DG: Was baseball always your sport?
WG: No, I loved all of them. I loved football. I was real skinny growing up but I played junior high football and I played some high school football at Reagan. And early, I played some basketball at Marshall Junior High but I gravitated to baseball probably because I was not good enough to play all 3.
DG: Did you play baseball at Reagan?
WG: Reagan High School, yes.
DG: How did you do on your high school team?
WG: I was the MVP my junior year and the MVP of HISD as a first baseman, pitcher. My senior year, I led the district in hitting. I had hurt my arm so I became a position player with a scholarship to the University of Texas.
DG: Tell us a little bit more about Houston in those days. What were sort of the boundaries of your universe. You said the city was smaller back then. What do you remember? What was significant to a kid at Reagan High School in Houston during those years?
WG: There was no 610 loop. I mean, a lot of any time you went outside your immediate domain was bus travel. I remember that you could ride the bus to downtown for a nickel. I remember the old North Side Theater, you could get 4 cartoons a cereal like Captain Marvel and a double feature for 9 cents. That was in the late 1940s though. I remember nickel Cokes and nickel ice-cream cones. I remember that a quarter was a lot of money for a kid.
There weren't many opportunities at that time to be in organized sports. Little League came in the year after I was too old to play in Little League. So, we were searching for places to compete in organized sports. Of course, you had junior high football and junior high basketball but you had to get to junior high to do that. So, competition for kids under 12 when I was growing up was almost non-existent as far as organized competition was concerned. Little League came into being at Canada Dry on the Gulf Freeway. They built a Little League complex. The earliest great star of Little League here I remember was Jimmy Bethay (sp?). You may have heard the name. But it seemed like he hit a home run every game and I would go to almost every game because I was envious because I was like 2 months too old for the first organized Little League here.
DG: So, did you play in the street? Did you play in somebody's yard?
WG: I played a lot of workup ball on the grounds of Sherman Elementary. I sometimes would go over to Marshall Junior High and play there. They had a little bit of a baseball field there. And then, there was a loosely organized league that took place in the summer at the Parks & Recreation and the year I was 12 years old, I managed to organize a team in our neighborhood through threats and pleading. I remember we got on the bus. They mistakenly put us in a league at Memorial Park in conjunction with the Parks & Recreation. We had to ride the city bus to St. Thomas High School for a nickel, each of us, to carry our bats and everything and then hitchhike to Memorial Park the rest of the way to play. And we were just grateful to play.
DG: Born in 1936. You were 5 years old . . . Pearl Harbor, and you were a young boy during most of the World War II years. Do you remember anything of that in Houston, the shortages, the rationing?
WG: A little bit. I remember it seemed like that on announcement, it seemed like to me that me and my family were going to a movie downtown at either the Loews or the Metropolitan - somebody came on the stage and said Pearl Harbor had been bombed. That seems like what happened. Maybe it didn't. It seemed like we always had enough to eat. It didn't seem like we were very mobile, you know. It was going to school and stay within our neighborhood and things like that. My dad and mother were both working. My mother was working at the lunch counter for Weingartens and my dad eventually gravitated to being a machinist for McCullough Tool Company. But he still was always involved in sports. During the war years, my dad managed semi-pro teams that played at Old Buff Stadium in what they used to call the Houston Post Tournament once a year. He would get a semi-pro team entered in there. And some of the professional ballplayers were in the service and you could get them on your team. He had, I remember, Tex Houston, the Red Sox pitcher, and Red Munger played for him during the Houston Post Tournament that was played at Old Buff Stadium. I was a bat boy. I was exposed at a very young age to people who played basically for the love of the game, some pro baseball players, and learned baseball from the standpoint of listening to people who were basically playing for the love of the game.
DG: Other than baseball and sports in general, did you have any other interests when you were young?
WG: Well, I was trying to make good grades because that was hammered in my house that if you hoped to rise above your station in life, you had to have a good education. That may be one of the reasons I have always been in education or baseball, one or the other. But I remember that the education I thought was very good. We lived in terror of our fifth and sixth grade teachers. It wasn't like it is now. I still remember Ms. Perry, my sixth grade teacher. She must have been 8 feet tall, because we lived in total fear of her. And whatever she said went. She wanted your writing to be very legible, so my writing has continued to be legible. You can read it. That is Ms. Perry. I remember some of my teachers from junior high, particularly from high school. We had great algebra teachers and English teachers at Reagan, I remember that. I thought the educational levels were good and I was very prepared when I went to the University of Texas because of the education I got at Reagan at the time.
DG: What led to the decision to go to Texas? Did you consider other schools?
WG: Yes, I considered Rice but my folks had kind of targeted me for engineering school which, once I got into the engineering school, I decided that was not what I wanted to do. But I went to Texas because I thought I could handle both baseball and engineering school at Texas and my uncle had been a real great player at the University of Texas. He is mentioned in all the old books. Arbor Graham was his name. So, we had a history there, and Ben Faulk was reputed to be a great coach and they had a great facility. So, that is the reason I went to the University of Texas.
DG: Anything we should know about your years at Texas?
WG: Well, the freshmen could not play. They had a freshman team so we were good. But my sophomore year, we got 2 pitchers hurt. It was one of the worst teams Texas ever had. And then, I signed after my sophomore year because I was married and already had a child. And so, we were kind of a hardship sign. And I went into pro ball after my sophomore year.
DG: Where did you go when you first went in?
WG: I was signed to the Philadelphia Phillies and I went to the Georgia Florida league in Brunswick, Georgia. My first year at that time was B ball. They used to have B ball, C ball, B ball, A ball. It went on up like that. You don't have that anymore. It starts with A now.
DG: That has got to be around 1956?
DG: Now, people who watch this interview, chance are, they are only going to think about baseball the way it is right now; you know, 260 hitters making three million a year.
WG: It is amazing.
DG: Tell us what it was like back then to play minor league baseball in the late 1950s.
WG: Well, the owners were in total control obviously. You were betting on the ______ trying to get to the big leagues and you were underpaid. You did not have a lot of meal money. The only thing I remember is one thing they did for us . . . we tended to stay at pretty good hotels. So, it really wasn't bad. The travel was tough, very tough, at times because you played every day. Very few off days in the minor leagues. You traveled on buses, obviously, and sometimes they were old beat-up school buses or old Greyhounds that were in disrepair, so you never knew whether you were going to get there on time or not. But we loved to play and, like I say, I think some careers were aborted at that time - I know they were - because players were not treated very well and some guys just didn't put up with it. They just quit. Myself, I loved to play so I played.
DG: Your parents wanted you to be an engineer but, of course, your dad was a sports fan. Were they disappointed when you decided to go play baseball?
WG: No, they loved baseball. They were not disappointed that I signed pro. In fact, every summer, they would come and watch me play for a couple of weeks.
DG: Right, well, you had some good seasons in the Minors. Did you have a sense you were being groomed, developed? Did you get a lot of personal attention or was it just sort of an every-man-for-himself survival?
WG: Every-man-for-himself survival because I was not a bonus boy and I figured every spring, they were going to release me. So, when I reported to spring training, I was always 100% in shape because I was coming from Houston where you could get in shape for the warm weather. And so, I was fighting for a job it seemed like every year. I don't think I was one of the fair-haired boys of Philadelphia. I think they did consider releasing me several times but I kept hitting 300s, so it was tough to release me.
DG: Well, you hit 300 or better in 6 of your 10 Minor League seasons, including a 311 average with 17 homeruns and 70 runs batted in. At Dallas-Fort Worth in 1962, you were the Texas Minor League Player of the Year. Do those years stick out for you? How good did you have to be to get to the Majors if you were hitting 300 all those years?
WG: I was somewhat bitter when I got out of pro ball but as a coach, now I realize why they made the decisions they made. I didn't hit with great power and I wasn't a great fielder. So, you know, I wasn't someone they thought was going to make a real difference if I made the Major League so, you know, I had to make it all the way. I felt like I could have been given a little better chance because I never played 2 games in a row, I don't think, in the Major Leagues ever. I never started 2 games in a row. But I can see why they made the choices they made.
DG: You got called up in 1963?
DG: You played for Gene Mauch Philadelphia Phillies?
DG: What was that like?
WG: I had a lot of respect for Gene because he was a very good tactician. He knew the game. I am not sure he was a great communicator but maybe he didn't want to be. Maybe he wanted a little wall between the players and himself. He was very bright. He had a long career as a manager and I have a lot of respect for him.
DG: How did you end up playing for the Mets the following year?
WG: I was having a good year at Little Rock. I think I hit 305 with 11 homeruns going into August. And Philadelphia made a trade to get Frank Thomas. They were trying to win the Pennant. They wanted an extra right-handed bat in the lineup so they traded for Frank Thomas and traded me and Gary Croll (sp?) to the Mets for Frank Thomas.
DG: And you played for Casey Stengel there at the Mets?
WG: For 2 months, yes.
DG: Any memorable Casey Stengel stories?
WG: Well, I was on the bench most of the time but I liked to sit next to Casey on the bench because he really gave a running commentary on the game. Casey talked a lot and if you listened carefully, it made a lot of sense. He talked about the way the pitcher was pitching the hitter all the time. I think I gained something from that, a knowledge of how to pitch hitters. One night, coming back from, I think it was Los Angeles on a long flight, all the management sat in first class with the writers. All the players in those days sat in tourist. For some reason, I was on the bulkhead and I remember Casey saying, because we were in last place, we weren't doing well, and Casey, his voice raised . . . I was sleeping but it kind of jolted me and he said, "How do you expect me to win if you keep sending me mediocre players like this Graham?" I really remember that. I don't think I was dreaming. I heard that. But it was kind of a jolt.
DG: So, why did you stop? Did they release you? Did you decide to quit?
WG: Well, I broke my arm in winter ball in 1964 after the Mets season. I went to winter ball in Venezuela and played with Luis Aparicio at short stop for the winter league team and Jimmy Wynn was in centerfield and Jerry Grody was behind the plate, the catcher for the 1969 Mets. So, we had a great ball club but I broke my arm and it never healed really and I did not hit well after that. In 1965 or 1966, I hit poorly and they sent me back to AA in 1967 and I was released. I had an opportunity to hook up with another team but I decided that was probably it because I had not done well for 2 years.
DG: During all that time, when did the coaching bug sort of take hold for you?
WG: I really had no idea that I could be a coach. I was a little uneasy speaking in front of people and so I didn't really relate to that. It is really odd because I went back to school because there had been some problems in my life. My first wife and I had gotten a divorce after I got out of baseball. There were problems with professional baseball players and different things. So, I determined that I wanted to have a positive impact on my society. And I said, well, you know, education has always meant a lot to me, so I went back to Texas and got my degree with the intention of just teaching. But I was fortunate enough, there was actually an oversupply of teachers at that time. That sounds odd but there was an actual oversupply. When I got my degree at Texas, I could not get a job in Austin, not even as a teacher. Well, so, I was able to get a job in Houston as a coach and a teacher. First, I had a job at Highlands coaching 7th grade football and teaching history at Sterling. Well, by the time August arrived, I was offered a coaching job at Scarborough High School by someone I had gone to school with at Texas and I was offered the JV baseball job and 9th grade football. I said, great, you know. I am going to have an opportunity to teach 4 history classes and coach football, which I had not seen a football in a long time, but I was going to do it, and JV baseball. Well, by the time I got there, the head baseball coach said, "I don't want to coach baseball. Do you want to be the head baseball coach because I am a football man?" I said, "Great, I will coach baseball. But, to be honest, this is really what happened. The day I walked on the field to coach baseball, I knew I was born to do it. And that is the first time I really knew that this was, really, I was very fortunate. I was picked for it. This was what I really wanted to do. And I liked teaching history. I taught 4 history classes for 9 years in the public schools.
DG: Your degree at Texas was in physical education?
WG: And history. You had to get 36 hours in your second subject, so I had 36 hours in history and added 6 more at the graduate level for 42 hours of history.
DG: You were at Scarborough for 9 seasons and then 1 at Spring Branch.
WG: Yes. I think I may need to correct myself here but I thought that it was 8 seasons at Scarborough and 1 at Spring Branch. We need to check that because I am almost certain. I started Scarborough in 1971, the fall of 1971, so my first baseball team was 1972, and my last baseball team was 1980 at Spring Branch so that would be 9 years.
DG: Let's back pedal a little of Houston's history. You were there in the 1950s. It is now the 1970s. 20 years saw a lot of changes in the city.
WG: Oh, unbelievable.
DG: Anything stick out in your mind? I mean, you were gone a lot . . . you were coming home I assume in between seasons? You were coming back to Houston? Houston was home? What were the big changes . . .
WG: A little bit of culture shock when you started teaching because the control was not as strong in the educational system. I mean, obviously, drugs had become a problem in the public schools and parents were not as trusting of the administration or the teachers as they were when I grew up, so it was a change. You made your adjustments. From my standpoint, I was a demanding teacher and a demanding coach because I thought it was very necessary at that time, because a lot of that control was not there. You had to have personal consistency in controlling your classroom and on the athletic field if you were going to get any results.
DG: By the 1970s, a lot of it was settled but do you remember the racial conflicts in the city during the . . .
WG: You know, it was still in a lot of . . . it was integrated but you had schools that were not very integrated. Like, you had Booker T. Washington, you had Cashmere, you had Yates. So, there was still a lot more separation it seemed like than there is today. There were no problems. I thought that HISD was under the administration of an outstanding athletic director in Joe Tusso (sp?) who handled everything as well as it could be handled. And then later, an ex-teammate of mine, Jimmy Ashmore, became the athletic director in HISD. He was a teammate of mine. In fact, he was my ride to school at Reagan and his dad was the baseball coach at Reagan. So, I think that the transition had basically taken place pretty much by the time I arrived into coaching.
DG: And what were the big issues facing HISD in those years? Was it constraints? Changing demographics? What were the things teachers would talk about?
WG: Well, it is always economics. I mean, that is the limiting factor, I guess, and I think people, from what I saw, the people I was associated with at Scarborough and Spring Branch were, for the most part, dedicated educators and, like I say, I thought Joe Tusso was outstanding. I thought people were doing the best they could given the resources that they had.
DG: Let's get back to baseball. You won 7 district titles and never finished lower than second in the district. What was the secret? I mean, you hadn't been a coach before and you just got there.
WG: Well, I knew baseball and I had an idea of what won games. A lot of winning is keeping it relatively simple and we worked ad infinitum on defense and pitchers throwing strikes. And so, one of the things that I was proud of when they inducted me into the Texas High School Hall of Fame was the guy that inducted me said one thing he remembered when he looked at box scores at Scarborough, he could always depend on when you looked at the era column, you would either see 1 or none every game. One error or none. So, we played defense and we threw strikes and we executed. We weren't always the biggest guys and when we got up against the biggest guys, we never won the state championship because it gets to a point where the talent will get you. But we learned to do things well.
DG: Did you have any outstanding players during those high school years?
WG: We had a player named Earl Campbell at Scarborough that later on went on to be an NAIA All American at Scarborough, and Charlie Garza became a good pitcher for the University of Houston. His dad was an area superintendent in HISD, by the way. And then, at Spring Branch, we had Todd Edwards who became a real good player at A&M. I remember that. Of course, the player I got out of Spring Branch was the player playing for Spring Woods, Roger Clements. I took him . . . when I got the job at San Jac, I remembered him and he was still available in June. I went and got him immediately because he could throw strikes and I needed a pitcher, another one, at San Jac. So, the connection in that district led to me . . . we beat Roger for the district title that year in the final game. But when I got to the San Jac job, I remembered and I took him.
DG: Let's talk about the San Jac job. Where did the call come from and when did it come?
WG: It was an oddity there. I had gone out . . . after I got at Scarborough, I immediately realized that to go anywhere in education, you needed a master's degree. So, I went to the University of Houston. It took me like 16 years to get a bachelor's degree going back and forth at Texas. Well, in 2 years at the University of Houston, I had a master's degree. And, oddly enough, when the San Jac job came open, you had to have a master's degree to coach at the junior college level. You don't have to here. I had the master's degree and I had the pro experience and I had been successful in high school and I was an area guy, so a lot of the qualifications just fit. But oddly enough, I interviewed one night and they didn't even offer me the job but my mother called me the next morning . . . she got up early and saw the Houston Post that I had been given the job. And I had not even been offered the job. My mother called and said, "Congratulations. You've got the job at San Jac." I said, "What?" It was in the paper. That was odd.
DG: Did they forget to offer it to you?
WG: I guess they maybe thought they did but I don't remember them offering or accepting. But I wanted it obviously and I guess because I had indicated that I wanted it so strongly, it was a moot point and they had announced it in the paper, and my mother announced it to me.
DG: You had some very successful years at San Jacinto. What stands out during that time in your memory?
WG: Well, it was a process and obviously, the National Championships are what stand out in your mind because they are what define the program. And we had a great . . . we lost the first year we went there, we lost the Championship game, and you learn from everything. And the next year, we won 6 to 5 in the final game and beat a pitcher that I think pitched 13 or 14 years in the Major Leagues. Aredia was his name. He pitched many years in the Major Leagues. It was a great game. You remembered the first one. I remember the third one a lot simply because that broke a record. Nobody had ever won 3 in a row and I remember obviously the 5th one because that broke the record for overall number of National Championships. You remember the most significant ones but you remember all the National Championship series because Grand Junction is such a unique place, they sell it out all the time. That is the only place where you play in junior college before capacity crowds.
DG: Now, you won the 3 in a row from 1985 to 1987, then you fell short in 1988 and then went back-to-back in 1989 and 1990.
DG: Do you remember 1988? Do you remember when you didn't win?
WG: Yes, because I thought we had as good a team as we ever had but it was one of those things where the team, much like Fresno this year, a team got hot - Hillsborough out of Tampa. I still remember the short stop going to the hole and throwing a loop and throws to first base and they all landed on first base for outs. They just got really. They lost about 25 games. But they got hot and they got to Grand Junction and we got the final game but we lost.
DG: Five titles in six years. You were named the Junior College Coach of the Century by collegiate baseball. Do you remember that distinction, that honor? That is a pretty lofty title.
WG: Well, obviously, my wife and my whole family felt great about that. It was a great honor and something you shoot for. Something you hope for, maybe.
DG: So, in your 11 years at San Jac, you had 5 National Coach of the Year awards and produced a lot of professionals. We have all heard of Roger Clements and Andy Pettitte. When was Andy Pettitte under your tutelage?
WG: Andy Pettitte was my last year there in 1991 and oddly enough, in both cases, we did not go to Grand Junction. When I had Clements, he was my first year and when I had Andy. But they did a great job. They were really good pitchers at San Jac. They were big winning records, great ERAs. They were responsible for the fact we had a great year but we just did not go to Grand Junction those 2 years.
DG: So, how many championships do you have to win before the big schools come calling?
WG: It was really heartbreaking in some ways because in 1986, I thought I had a championship shot at University of Houston and Lamar. In fact, Lamar called and said, "Get yourself another coach," told San Jac that and then changed their mind. We estimated that I did not get interviewed but I at least made phone calls on at least 20 jobs over the years and interviewed on TCU, Houston Lamar for jobs. Once I started coaching, I wanted to become a Division 1 coach immediately. Once I started coaching high school, I wanted to become a Division 1 coach. I was thinking of stopping coaching in high school baseball and becoming a principal because it looked like I was dead-ended. And I did have the credentials to be anything in public education. I had gone on and gotten administrative certification also. But when I got to junior college and we started winning the National Championships, I thought that I would get a Division 1 job. To be honest with you, I think Rice was my last chance. I was 55 years old when I got this job.
DG: That seems odd in retrospect, to have your record and to have been passed over. Any theories?
WG: Well, sometimes the success began to work against me because it was like after I had won 3 National Championships and I applied for a job, the athletic director would ask, "Why hasn't this guy gotten a job before? Is there something wrong?" In fact, Bobby May asked that question. "How come you hadn't gotten a job before? You had 5 National Championships." It is almost like the success began to work against getting the next job. But I had a lot of . . . Bobby said the reason he gave me the job was because of a lot of unsolicited letters in support of me. Nowadays, they will hire a lot of the coaches of that age. When I got this job at 55, I was running out of time.
DG: Well, their loss is Rice's gain. Let's talk about how you came to Rice. Was it a call out of the blue? Did you solicit?
WG: No, I really actively sought the job. I mean, I worked hard to get the job. I would have taken it for virtually nothing. I got a $500 raise to come to Rice over San Jac and Bobby May didn't know but if he would have offered me a $15,000 cut, I would have taken it.
DG: So, you get the job at Rice. What was the state of Rice baseball when you took the job?
WG: Well, the facility was poor. Way behind other folks. So, I knew that we had to capitalize on two things: 1) the education and prestige of the education; and 2) the great recruiting area that was developing in the Houston area that I knew as well as anyone. I would come to the high schools, I would come to the junior colleges. So, I knew this recruiting area and I knew there were a lot of players under the radar that could play well. In fact, Lance Berkman was a player that was under the radar that we got. So, I felt like it was going to have to be step by step; that we were going to have to . . . I trusted 2 things: I trusted that those 2 things would help us win and that if we won, Rice respects excellence and they would devote more resources towards the program, and they did once we started winning.
DG: Well, winning was certainly a goal you expect but did you think National Championships when you took the job?
WG: I had that hope, yes. I thought if we did it step-by-step, that that could happen. You know, I hoped to get to Regional. Actually, I hoped for more than National Championship, more than one, but we had done a little better than I expected and I had big dreams. But in terms of getting to ______, actually the appearances, we had done a little better than I suspected because we had been there 7 of the last 12 years.
DG: Well, take us through the chronology. You started in 1992. That was your first year. And you say it was step-by-step. Do you want to just kind of take us through what were your goals that first season, what did you do different, did you get any good players in, and sort of take us through year by year to how you achieved the level of excellence that you have.
WG: Well, the year before, they had won less than 40% of the games the year before, I know that. And so, the first year, you know, I was concerned about finishing very well. We were 29 and 26, I think, something like that. Well, we felt like we could build a little on that. The next year, we were at 36 and 18. We had wins over Arizona State. We had a win over Miami. But we finished I think 5th in the Conference. Yes, 5th. So, we didn't get in the Regional because you had to qualify for the tournament at that time to get in the Regional. 36 and 18, but didn't get in the Regional. The next year, we were, I think, 34 and 21. I am not sure of that but I think that is correct. And in the second Southwest Conference. And we were very disappointed that we did not get in the Regional. So, we thought what are we going to do? But we kept working and the next year, we got Regional in 1995 and had a great team, great players. I had Cruz, Berkman and Mark Quinn. And others. Pat Hallmark (sp?). We went to LSU . . . beat LSU twice at the Regional and Cal State Fullerton beat us and won the National Championship. That is the first that I guess Rice was on anybody's radar. I think what put us on the radar was not so much getting to Regional but actually beating LSU twice at LSU. And, of course, the next year, we were able to win the last Southwest Conference tournament which was significant in a down year for Rice athletics, and were put in our second Regional.
DG: And that was 1996, you won that Southwest tournament and you beat Texas in the final.
WG: Yes, we kind of went crazy with the bats. In fact, a player named Jacques Landry hit 2 homeruns in 1 inning in the final game at Lubbock. And we had had an off year in the Conference. Even though our record was good, our record in the Conference was bad that year. But everybody went to the last Southwest Conference tournament because that is what it was, the last one. We got hot and won it. In fact, we did well at the Regional, got to finals at Regional and Wichita State beat us.
DG: I am going to stop you at this point, then we will continue with the chronology, but Texas is thought of as football country. This little academic school over here by the Medical Center is starting to do well and at a national stage. Are you getting much attention from the city? Are you starting to generate some momentum outside the Rice campus?
WG: We were starting to draw. The year I think before I came here, they drew something like 18,000 for the year. And we started to draw a lot of people, you know, as more people. And, of course, when we really started to draw was when we built Reckling in the year 2000. But I think baseball in this state, everything changed with the advent of professional baseball. I think the proximity, even though TV brings baseball all over the country, the proximity of Major League baseball in Dallas and in Houston helped popularize baseball in the Houston area because the Houston area has got the greatest youth league baseball now anywhere I think. The talent base . . . we have become very comparable to anywhere in the country as far as the talent pool here. And I think it has to do with Major League baseball being in the state in 2 places and with college baseball other than Texas, other programs have grown. University of Houston. The facilities at Baylor and at Rice.
DG: Well now, your 6th year in 1997, that was your first appearance at the college world series?
WG: Yes, 1997. LSU beat us in the first game 6 to 5, I think, or 5 to 4 it may have been. And went on to win the National Championship. We needed to win that first game. A little aside on this: the second game, we went out and I really complained to our guys, even though I congratulated them on a great year, that during the game, I complained that we weren't hitting Auburn's pitcher. I said, "This guy's got nothing. Why aren't we hitting him?" Auburn did beat us that game. But I was complaining and Berkman said, "This guy's got a lot on the ball." I said, "Why aren't we hitting him?" Tim Hudson. He had something on the ball.
DG: That year, you had Matt Anderson and Lance Berkman who were called one of the greatest power packages in college baseball history. It is a nice superlative. Your record was 47 and 16. So, you had to have had a sense that you sort of arrived as one of the premier programs in the country.
WG: Oddly enough, I can still remember particularly the Auburn coach congratulated me and he did not mean to be derogatory in a way but he congratulated me in a way that indicated, God, you got here one time anyway. The idea that you will never be back. And I thought at Omaha, that was the general consensus of people, not being unkind at all but just congratulations, at least you got here once. So, I don't think in peoples' minds, we had yet truly arrived. But when we went back again in 1999, I think that attitude began to change. [end of side 1]
DG: In 1999, you had some pretty good pitching and you never left the top 10 in any of the national polls. 1999, your 8th year. It was your first #1 ranking and the school's first #1 ranking in anything, I guess.
WG: It may have been.
DG: So, that national recognition is coming now. I mean, the national ranking and all.
WG: In 1999, on top of 1997. We were good in 1998, too. Did not get to Omaha.
DG: Was it that much better of a team or had they been good and you are just now starting to get the credit you deserved?
WG: We were getting more talent. In 1997, I am sure because of the first round draft choice, getting Omaha, we started to get more talent. It became easier to recruit. So, we were getting deeper each year. We still could not afford many injuries at all because we don't have the numbers but the sense was there that, you know, we were going, particularly with the building of Reckling, that we were going to be able to sustain the program, that we were going to be able to sustain at a high level.
DG: I mean, the chronology of the game says, you know, you cannot blaze your way through the Regional and then you get to the college World Series and you lose the opening game. Was the level of talent that much greater at Omaha than at the Regional?
WG: Everybody at Omaha is good. When you get to Omaha, it is kind of who is hot and who is not because this last year, for instance, nobody had as much talent as Miami. They won 1 game. So, everybody is good and then, it is about who is hot. To a certain extent, it is that way in the Regional and the Super Regional but I think playing at home is a great advantage in a Regional and Super Regional.
DG: Let's talk about the National Championship year. Did you have a sense that that could be your year?
WG: Yes, because we were very solid of a position. Yanish at short. He has already played some in the big leagues. Stansbury at third. He has already played some in the big leagues. Synesi (sp?) at first. Would have played in the big leagues if it weren't for several injuries he has had in the Minor Leagues. And we knew we had those pitchers. We had those 4 good arms, 5 good arms actually. The 4 first rounders because Aardsma was a first rounder that year and the other 3 were first rounders the next year. Plus, we had Josh Baker who was also a good pitcher. We had 5 good arms and others to help. But when you have got the pitching, and we were very solid defensively . . . the catcher was very good, Justin Rutke (sp?) . . . so we thought like we had a chance because we did not have any real holes in our game that year.
DG: So, what is it like winning a National Championship? Even at a small school like Rice where sports isn't the number one thing, what was it . . . can you relate some of the stories, some of the anecdotes from that year?
WG: Well, it is remarkable but there is another feeling in there when you do it - it is a feeling of relief because, you know, you go, like we went 3 times prior to that and people are congratulating you but it is almost like but can you win the big one? Can you ever win the big one? And so, there is a feeling of answering that question. Yes, we can win the big one. We did. But then again, it changes everything. You could finish second 8 times in a row and winning the 1 is more important than finishing second 8 times in a row because it is the top deal. I think that National Championship has made more difference in everything than if you went multiple times. The 3 things that are most significant that have made the difference here are winning the National Championship, the number of times we have been to Omaha, and the number of consecutive Conference championships. That is what helps us recruit along with Reckling. Reckling had to happen or we wouldn't be competitive because everybody has gone crazy on facilities. South Carolina, 35 million. North Carolina, 35 million on a facility. Texas just spent. LSU, 35 million. You have to have a facility now.
DG: I would imagine you would be entitled to a certain sense of redemption personally as well to have been passed over those years at San Jac to come to Rice, maybe not getting the support in some of the other programs. To achieve that kind of success had to be a little sweeter given your personal history.
WG: I have had 2 or 3 athletic ______ come up to me and congratulate me and very friendly and say, "You were one of my mistakes." That is a little bit gratifying.
DG: Yes, well, you would be entitled.
WG: You know, we like to think that we worked hard to get where we are. It came a little late in life. I would have preferred to not have to work until I am 75 to get 20 years in Division 1. I think that is what drives me to coach at this time other than the love of the game, is the fact that I didn't get here until very late.
DG: We had talked about how Rice is becoming a more popular draw in the city. Surely the National Championship expanded your popularity beyond the boundaries of the university.
WG: Oh, yes. I mean, many, many people . . . President Gilles, when he was here, said he was shocked at how he would go through airports and they would see his bag that had Rice on it and talk about baseball. All over the country. I have heard that people vacationing in the White Mountains in New Hampshire have seen people with Rice caps which is unheard of. You know, not many but a Rice cap in New Hampshire in the White Mountains? I think that is the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
DG: So, when you recruit young talent, you mentioned the stadium, the facilities, certainly your legacy of winning. What is your secret weapon? I mean, how do you get the young talent to come through Rice? Do you have a particular approach that you think works well and does the city play a role in any of that?
WG: Well, I think, obviously, there are people that want to go to school in a major city and Houston has a reputation of having everything a major city needs now. Great restaurants. Great sports venues. We are sitting right here right between Reliant, the Rockets facility and Minute Maid. All the excitement and the energy that a great city generates, we have that to offer. You know, it is amazing, Gary Gaetti came in here and talked to me, I think it was last year. Do you know Gary Gaetti? Minnesota, great player, coach of the Astros. He said, when he came here to coach for Houston, his wife did not want to leave. I think they live in West U now. It is surprising that a lot of . . . that is what has helped youth league baseball in Houston a lot, too. A lot of ex-professional ballplayers have retired in the Houston area. That contributes to the body of knowledge about baseball in this city. The sheer body of baseball knowledge in this city has grown exponentially because it is a great city. And we have had success at the pro level. Our success. The National Championship has brought college baseball to the floor. One year, I think our total attendance was 150,000 which is pretty significant for a college team. And I think we had to have this facility for that. But we recruit with is the city of Houston, obviously, and the idea that we have the combination, as good a combination of athletics and academics, the opportunity to achieve in athletics and academics as anybody can offer in this country. If you are going to try to cover your bases, academically, get the best chance to be a great ball player and get a great education, there is nobody can offer more than we can. The only one I can think of that can offer as much in my mind is Stanford.
DG: With all your accomplishments, you would certainly be entitled to want to call it a career but what does the future hold in store?
WG: Well, I am going to coach as long as I can, as long as I am effective. There will be signs if I am not effective. I will know it. I realize most of us live in a delusional world to a certain extent but I think I know enough about baseball and am proud enough that if I am not effective, I will know it. I will coach as long as I am effective because I still enjoy . . . it is very exciting, each year, a new team comes in. I always got excited to look at my first history class at Scarborough High School every year. The new faces out there. The start of the school year is a unique event and it is not just baseball, it is the start of the whole process. But, for me mostly, it is baseball, that new team and the way it is going to evolve and the way you are going to try to do the same thing we did in 2003 - have a team out there that has no holes. Plug all the holes. And use the personnel to the maximum. It is a great . . . there are many challenging professions but it is a challenge every year and it is a very gratifying challenge because you feel like you are helping other people get the most out of their potential.
DG: What part of the job do you enjoy the most?
WG: That. Helping other people get the most out of their potential. Of course, game day - there is nothing like game day. The excitement. That is when my adrenaline really flows. Some people, adrenaline does not necessarily have a good effect on. With me, it has a tremendous effect. I function best on game day because my adrenaline really flows. My passion for the game and helping each player get the most out of his ability.
DG: Is there another ideal job out there for you or is this where you will want to be until you stop coaching?
WG: People have asked me that a lot, about, for instance, Major League baseball. The only jobs in baseball that would be better than this one, or equal, not even better - the only job that would be equal to this one would be a Major League managing job with a benevolent owner. I mean, how many of those are there? How many jobs are there in Major League . . . I could not stand not to have a job. And if you are going to manage in the Major Leagues, no matter how good you are, you face the fact that there is going to be a time when you are not managing anymore. Jerry Unsinger had a reputation of being the best general manager in baseball and he didn't have a job. I am talking managing, general managing. This is a place where I've got a job and I want a team in the spring. So, in that sense, the only thing I have missed about professional baseball, and I have said this many times, is at one point in time, I really enjoyed a game every day because I did manage one year for Pat Gillick at Medicine Head (sp?) in the pioneer league, rookie league. I went away one summer and managed for him and I loved it. I loved managing a game every day, writing a report every night on all the players. I loved it. That is the only thing I miss about pro ball. But this job probably is ideal for me.
DG: Well, I am sure every one in Houston associates you with Rice but you are as much a product of this neighborhood, of this region, as anybody could be. Despite your years on the road, you have been a Houston area boy your entire life pretty much.
WG: The only time I didn't live in Houston in the winter even in pro ball was if I went to winter ball and even in a part of the winter, I would still be in Houston when I wasn't in winter ball playing. This was always my home. So, yes, I was educated in the public schools and I coached in the public schools so I came to Rice all my 37 years of coaching were in the Houston area. So, I guess born in Yoakum, born in the country, raised in the city, I am a country boy . . . well, raised in the city.
DG: What is the best thing about Houston? What is the best thing about living in Houston and being able to do what you have done here in this town?
WG: Well, I think that doing it in your own city is unique and I am happy that people seem to appreciate me. I like it that I go to the grocery store and people just say, "Hey Coach, how are you doing? How is the team going to be this year?" That Major celebrity deal is not a good deal. But having people be friendly to you and like you . . . it does seem like me and my family are well-received in the Houston area and that is a good thing because this is where I have been my whole life.
DG: Anything else you want people to know about your experience here at Rice? Baseball is a game of stories. Do you have a favorite story you like to tell?
WG: Well, I think most of the people have told them on me and they get exaggerated but no, this whole thing has been a process that we keep trying to make better. My coaches here are Houston area people. David Pierce grew up in Houston, went to high school at St. Pius. Mike Taylor, I played baseball with his father. He went to Waltrip, went to San Jac, went into pro ball. So, we have got coaches that also know this area. I guess I am grateful that people, players particularly, have accepted the fact that I do care about them despite the fact that I have got a reputation for being very demanding. So, I guess I am kind of grateful that people put up with what is perceived to be my rough side. I don't know whether I am putting that right or not, but I am grateful for what has happened here. I have been very fortunate.
DG: Coach, thank you for your time and good luck in the spring.
WG: All right.