FORT WORTH – They traveled to the other side of the globe, where the International Dateline changes time. They departed on Aug. 20 and arrived on Aug. 22. They lost a day and then their season opener by 55 points.
While Stanford was running over, around and through Rice in Australia, the Owls were wondering what was happening back home in Houston.
Hurricane Harvey, rated a Category Four storm, made landfall along the Texas coast Friday night. The damage from the 130-mph winds was severe. The rainfall that has turned a city into a lake has been unprecedented. When the Rice travel party arrived in Los Angeles Monday after a 13-hour flight, it was obvious that their road trip was being extended instead of close to ending.
And nearly 30 hours after departing Sydney, the Owls’ travel party of about 150 players, coaches and support personnel wound up in Fort Worth. Back in Texas and four hours from home but with a world of uncertainty about what’s ahead.
“It was important for us to get these kids back to Texas, get close to Houston,” Rice coach David Bailiff said Wednesday. “Our drama won’t start until we get home. The people in Houston are living it. We’re anxious to get home but we’ll probably stay here to Friday. When we get back, none of it’s gonna be about football. It will be taking care of their needs as human beings.
“When the questions change from football to the players asking me about apartment rental insurance. Questions that I right now can’t answer.”
The plight of a college football team that is safe and over 200 miles from Harvey’s devastation is a trivial issue. The Owls understand that they’re fortunate.
“Texas football is a big family,” said Trey Martin, a senior offensive lineman from El Campo, which is just over an hour southwest of Houston and suffered minimal damage. “Most of the guys playing at Texas schools, we know each other from high school or camps. It’s cool to see how people here at TCU have opened their arms. We can work out, have access to the weight room, we’ve got snacks after practice.
“It’s good to know people are looking out for us.”
In 2008, Rice played at Vanderbilt when Hurricane Ike hit Houston. The damage, especially in terms of flooding, wasn’t severe and Bailiff’s team was able to quickly return home.
However, the city was without power for days and being at home was worse than being stuck on the road where traffic lights worked and fast food restaurants served.
“The (Rice) campus is closed until probably next Tuesday,” said Bailiff, whose wife is safe but staying on their house’s second floor just in case nearby flood water rises. “The school is trying to take care and help feed the students there. If we went there, we’d be more of a burden. I also want the players to be safe when they get home.”
TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte and coach Gary Patterson called Bailiff just before the Rice flight departed Sydney.
“We had already reached out to Houston in case they needed a place to stay so we had figured out how our schedule here could accommodate them,” said Del Conte, whose team opens the season Saturday by hosting Jackson State. “These kids aren’t prepared for any of this. They’re thinking about their families in Houston, what’s happening on campus.
“We’re trying to mitigate what we can.”
Scheduling the new normal
Rice’s schedule was already unique. The game against Stanford in Australia involved a week-long trip similar to a bowl game. The Owls traveled 8,600 miles to Sydney. That longest road trip of the FBS season would be countered by one of the shortest with Rice scheduled to play at cross-town rival Houston on Sept. 16. The schools’ campuses are six miles apart.
The Owls’ next game is scheduled for Sept. 9 at UTEP. Both Houston airports opened Wednesday, but as he was speaking to reporters Bailiff was wondering about his team flying out of Hobby; he had seen pictures of the runways underwater.
“It looked like you could water ski there,” he said.
Food is a great normalizer when it comes to battling jet lag. Two hours after arriving in Fort Worth, the players chowed down on all-they-could-eat brisket; good ol’ Texas BBQ. They also are happy to have crisp bacon for breakfast. In Australia, the bacon doesn’t spend enough time on the barbie.
After packing enough clothes for a week-long trip, the players were running out of clean clothes. The parents of some Owls from the Dallas-Fort Worth area came over to help wash clothes. Two Fort Worth cleaners chipped in with laundry service.
TCU football coach Gary Patterson’s wife Kelsey organized a “dopp kit drive” and delivered a baggie for each Rice player containing toiletry supplies. “A mama knows what a boy needs,” Del Conte said. “She’s being a mother to all these Rice players.”
Tuesday, the team went to see “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson. Thumbs up.
“It was fun to watch it with your teammates, made it even funnier,” said Peter Godber, a senior offensive lineman from Toronto. “Helped get your mind off things, kept us off our phones.”
Before playing Stanford in a game that started at 9 p.m. Houston time, the Owls were aware that Harvey had made landfall about 24 hours earlier but the extent of the catastrophe wasn’t evident.
“It didn’t really hit us until after the game when we got on our phones and started seeing the news feeds,” said senior fullback Paine Matiscik, who is from Dallas. “What really hit me was this picture of Braeswood Boulevard. I was like ‘crap, that’s 50 yards from where we live.’
“We’ll probably have to move out but we don’t know where we’ll go.”
Matiscik, Godber and Martin share an apartment and they’ve been told there’s three inches of water on the floor. Other Houstonians have 10 feet of water in homes that are likely to be uninhabitable.
“We’re more fortunate than the people we’re seeing on TV,” Martin said. “We just hope they’re gonna get the help they need.”
Senior offensive lineman Kenneth Thompson, who is from Houston, was fortunate that his family moved his car to the safety of a parking garage. Thompson said his apartment also has a few inches of water and his family texted him that their house is now “beach front property.”
Martin, Godber and Martin have heard reports that their cars were in parking lots where the water reached the door handles. Likely translation: the car is trashed; if it still runs, driving it will smell like wet, moldy clothes.
Before the Owls wound left their workout in TCU’s indoor practice facility Wednesday, they were told to pick up their trash, not be greedy when grabbing the provided snacks and to thank anyone they see from TCU.
“Be very appreciative,” Ryan Tedford, Rice’s head strength coach told the team. “This doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Rice and TCU shared the same conference affiliation (Southwest, Western Athletic, Conference USA) from 1923 through 2004. While SMU, Baylor, UTEP were among the Texas schools to offer Rice assistance, it makes perfect sense that the Owls wound up in Fort Worth.
Del Conte was Rice’s athletic director from 2006 through 2009. While he was there, he hired Bailiff – who had been on Patterson’s staff from 2001-03. Bailiff played at Southwest Texas State for former TCU coach Jim Wacker.
To seek advice on how to handle the road trip and game in Australia, Bailiff contacted Sonny Dykes, who was Cal’s coach last season when the Bears opened in Sydney. Dykes is now an offensive analyst at…TCU.
Like the old saying goes, you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who knows someone else in the world of college athletics.
“There are only 130 FBS football programs, a lot of people know each other,” Del Conte said. “We want to win on Saturdays, the rest of the time, if we can help each other in situations like this, we do.
“Athletics has a way of bonding people and this is another example of that.”
A familiar story
The Dallas-Fort Worth area is threatened more by its proximity to Tornado Alley than by hurricanes. But the Metroplex has experience with housing a team made homeless team by a hurricane.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina chased Tulane from New Orleans. The Green Wave football team first encamped in Jackson State in Mississippi but Katrina’s path stalked Tulane there.
The team eventually ended up in Dallas where SMU provided shelter. The Mustangs proved to be gracious hosts; one of the Green Wave’s two victories that season came against SMU.
Tulane wound up headquartering at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La., and finished an all-road game season at 2-9. The coach that season was Chris Scelfo. He’s in his first year as an offensive line coach at…Houston.
What’s the chances of coaching teams in two cities assaulted by once-in-a-lifetime hurricane disasters?
The Cougars and first-year coach Major Applewhite on Saturday escaped Houston for Austin. But Applewhite’s coaching debut and the Houston season opener at UTSA, originally scheduled for Saturday,has been postponed with the makeup date up in the air.
Which, as Bailiff alluded to, is what his team and millions of fellow Texans are facing. The minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day uncertainty of what’s next.
“It’s good that Major has Chris as a resource to go through something like this,” Bailiff said. “Everything is day to day. There’s no playbook. Coaches want schedules, we want to know that each hour of the day is accounted for. We like a routine but you don’t have one right now.
“We just have anxiety because we don’t know what we don’t know about what’s waiting for us. All of those people all over the Texas coast, they’re living it.”