Dec. 2, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
– Class begins and ends with the blow of a whistle, the same shiny tooter with a little wooden ball inside that Dr. Homer Rice used as a high school football coach back at the dawn of his post-playing career in coaching and administration.
His record at Wartburg Central (Tenn.), Spring City (Tenn.) and Ft. Thomas Highlands (Ky.) from 1951-’61 was 101-9-7. So Rice went to cooking from the start.
At 86, he’s still at it as he teaches “Leadership Fitness” at Georgia Tech, where he achieved the greatest success of his career as athletics director from 1980-97.
Tech fans ought to forever give thanks that Homer Rice came along. You might say he saved athletics on The Flats.
His is a small class, with 17 students, and available only in the fall – one day a week. The list of guest speakers is austere, and on a recent day the speaker was a special blessing: former Tech player and head coach Bill Curry.
He did not enjoy great success as a head coach, but he’s widely considered both a gifted speaker and motivator. One of his tales this day was not uplifting. It was alarming.
Curry spoke of his early days as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach (1980-86). He arrived shortly before Rice, and in fact was involved in recruiting his eventual boss from a front office position with the NFL’s Bengals. Rice had previously coached at the high school, college and professional levels, and been athletic director at North Carolina and Rice.
Times were tough across the board at Tech. The football team was suffering as were most athletic squads on campus. Facilities were generally in sad shape. Attendance was poor. Money was tight, tight, tight. Interest was miserable.
“Then, Dr. [Joseph] Pettit [the Tech president at the time] and [former] coach [Bobby] Dodd and I begged on our knees for a couple months to get Dr. Rice to come here. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to the Georgia Institute of Technology,” Curry told the class.
“Homer’s style of leadership involves so many facets that it would be a lesson in itself.”
At Tech, Rice really got to cooking. Curry knows from experience that there are many different ways to lead.
“We were basically winning no football games at that time. The program was considered dead and gone. There were meetings being held before Homer got here by the athletic board to discuss how to dissolve an athletic department,” Curry recalled. “I’m serious. You can’t make this stuff up.
“Homer showed up and began to shape a plan to create things that were considered impossible.”
A remarkable legacy was born. On Rice’s watch, Tech raised approximately $100 million for facilities, and he and others helped increase athletic fund raising from about $700,000 per year to some $5 million.
Tech’s women’s athletics programs took off on Rice’s watch, he created the Total Person Program that became a model for all the NCAA and beyond, and the Jackets over his tenure enjoyed great success on the fields and courts of play.
The basketball team made it to the Final Four in 1990, and that was just part of the greatest run in school history in that story as coach Bobby Cremins brought unmatched passion to The Flats.
The Jackets also were co-national football champions in 1990, the baseball team was national runner-up in 1994 and, on Rice’s watch, Tech won 14 ACC championships in football (one), basketball (three), baseball (four), golf (five) and volleyball (1).
Rice, who recently lost his wife of 62 years to a long illness, is not coaching or administrating yet he remains in his element. He is best shepherding others. And that is what he is doing. His class began the year after his retirement from Tech, in 1998, although it was interrupted for a while as he tended to the early stages of Phyllis’ illness.
“Way back, I thought there’s got to be something more than the X’s and O’s of football [about] the type of leaders that they can be,” Rice said. “The attitude technique philosophy . . . kind of grew into a total person, total success program where you’re not only successful in career but in your life … what you are, your health, your financial part.
“When I started the Total Person Program here in 1980, immediately it caught on and I was asked by the NCAA to develop a a program. I chaired that committee. We called it CHAMPS – challenging athletes’ minds for professional success. I kept ours named Total Person. The idea is to be successful in all areas. You have to be successful or nobody will listen to you. I built it on that. It just kept mushrooming.”
Rice teaches the course out of a book he authored – one of seven that he’s written, and he is still writing. Leadership Fitness is about methods and attitudes.
“I call chapters lessons, and we have nine. I have speakers come in to fit certain categories,” he said. “There are more women than men who are interested in leadership. I had a meeting with President Peterson. He said that’s true across campus.”
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