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#StingDaily: The Rice Way

June 15, 2012

Jon Cooper, Sting Daily –

Georgia Tech Athletics is living in a golden age.

The school prepares to break ground on a brand new tennis center. Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the brand-new McCamish Pavilion, which is right across the street from Mewborn Field, which is adjacent to the Volleyball training center, which is across the parking lot from Zelnak Basketball Center. In a matter of weeks, the John and Mary Brock Practice Facility will open for its second season for football practice. The Brock is next door to recently face-lifted Russ Chandler Stadium.

This golden age in Georgia Tech Athletics is a far cry from the time former Athletic Director Homer Rice remembers.

“It’s amazing what it is today to what it was then,” said Rice, who served as Georgia Tech’s AD from 1980 to 1997. “I almost can’t believe the difference. We finally got everything together. We were fortunate to raise $100 million for facilities, because we had the worst facilities in the country, in every sport.”

That Georgia Tech now ranks among the nation’s elite in athletics and athletic facilities is in no small part due to Rice’s work. He took over a fledgling program, answering a call for help from former Tech Football coaching legend Bobby Dodd, and, through an aggressive fundraising campaign, raised over $100 million dollars to upgrade facilities. He also created the women’s athletics program at Tech.

That’s the way Rice always worked. He’d answer a calling and, with his unique vision improve just about anything he touched.

He once agreed to coach a prison football team so as to acquire equipment for a high school football team in need. Both teams went undefeated. He created an innovative offensive set which is still used by teams today — including Georgia Tech — and helped engineered a National Championship game upset for a school with which he had no affiliation. As an administrator, he drew up a lifestyle blueprint of success for student-athletes that became the model for the NCAA.

That entire body of work, including 27 years as a coach at the high school, college and pro levels, and an athletic director at three institutions (North Carolina and Rice in addition to Tech), was recognized on June 8, when the Fort Thomas, Ky., native was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Sports Hall of Fame.

“It is [an honor],” Rice said. “Of course, that’s my home state. I was born there. I did all my education there except for my PhD, which was in California. I coached there, high school, college.

“Even when I coached in the pros I lived in Kentucky,” he added with a laugh. “I coached [the NFL’s] Cincinnati [Bengals] and I lived in my hometown of Fort Thomas, right across the river.”

Rice cut his teeth as a football player, and a high school and college coach in the Blue Grass State. His opportunity to play college ball was delayed, by World War II, as served with the Navy in the South Pacific.

When he returned in 1947, he got a look at pro baseball, getting signed by the  Brooklyn Dodgers. He was signed by Dodgers General Manager Rickey’s brother Frank. But then Rice, a catcher, got a look at another player in Dodgers camp and reconsidered his career.

“While I was there, Roy Campanella came into camp,” he recalled. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to be a football coach because he was a catcher.”

Rice chose local Centre College, over Kentucky, as well as Dodd and Georgia Tech and several other major schools. He was an All-America quarterback in 1950 then caught on as a high school football coach, in Tennessee. He later coached his alma mater, Highlands High School, leading it to five straight undefeated seasons.

A key part of Rice’s teams’ success was his Triple-Option Offense. He’d teach the offense to University of Texas Head Coach Darrell Royal, who tweaked it, used it to beat Notre Dame for a National Championship in 1969, then re-named it “The Wishbone.” Rice’s offense is still around, serving as the base of Georgia Tech Head Coach Paul Johnson’s Spread Option Offense.

“It’s interesting because I’d say I started the play,” he said. “There are several types of offenses. Paul has a lot of things he does, but his base play, of course, is the three-way option.”

After serving as an assistant at the University of Kentucky then Oklahoma, he was a head coach for two years at Cincinnati before taking over as AD at North Carolina. But coaching remained in his blood and he coached two years at Rice then with the Bengals for two seasons.

He was about to make the jump to General Manager of the Bengals, when one day he got a phone call from Dodd. The coach that couldn’t convince Rice to come play for him at Tech convinced him to do something even more important — save the program.

“It was the challenge of bettering the program, taking it from where it was,” Rice said. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until I got there. But just Bobby Dodd and that message he gave me, he said, ‘We need you. You have to come,’ that’s how I got here.”

Kentucky may be Rice’s home, but his adopted home is Atlanta, specifically Georgia Tech, where Rice’s name graces areas all over campus and which inducted him into its Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

In short order he hired quality head coaches of the caliber of Bill Curry, later Bobby Ross, Bobby Cremins, and Jim Morris and later Danny Hall.

“I had to convince people,” Rice said. “Of course, I’m not a hands-on person. I believe in getting people that are very good at their job and work with them on it until they get it then I turn them loose. I was never sure why a person would hire someone then do the job for them. So I hired good people and it all kind of fell into place because you hire good people. They had to come to believe in me to come because it was not a good situation until we got it going. Then it became a good situation.”

As important as his on-field work was Rice’s work with student-athletes. His legacy is the Student-Athlete Total Person Program, a program that required student-athletes to excel as much in the classroom and in life skills as they did in their particular sport. It’s a program that was used as a model by the NCAA, when it formed its own program, CHAMPS (Challenging Athletes’ Minds for Personal Success)/Life Skills program. Rice’s model has been received internationally, as well, in such far off places as Mexico and Japan.

“As a coach, there has to be more than X’s and O’s. I thought about how we can help young people and I started working on it,” Rice said. “It really dates back to when I was 12 years old. My father gave me a book, ‘I Dare You’ by William Danforth. It talks about being successful in all areas of your life.

“At Georgia Tech I just wrote out the points, earning a degree at Georgia Tech and being the best athlete you could be,” He added. “Of course, you have programs where you learn to give, outreach-type programs and then you had the self-reliance, where you work with yourself on personal growth, that type of thing, a lot of life skills. Also I work with the HTS, the History, Technology and Society, with their program. We have a chair for social sports studies. I keep busy with Georgia Tech and that program.”

The Homer Rice Center for Sports Performance carries on the work Rice started.

Rice had to step down as AD in 1997, to take care of his wife, Phyllis, when she became ill, but he has expressed interest in returning to teaching at Tech in the Fall.

There’s no sign of slowing down this trailblazer, who recently released his seventh book, “Leadership Fitness: Developing and Reinforcing Successful, Positive Leaders” (Kodiak Books).

“I’m 85 years old. I exercise most every day” he said. “So it keeps me going, it keeps me thinking and hopefully I can add something to all these programs.”


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