David Bailiff is fired up. No, make that FIRED. UP. That's closer to how he says it. And David Bailiff is FIRED. UP. because he is the Rice football coach, and it is almost time for Rice football season.
"I am fired up," Bailiff said on Saturday, the first day of fall practice. "I really am. About two days ago you get, as a coach, where you really don't sleep, because you're excited about what's coming, and you set your alarm this morning for 5:30 but you wake up at 4 and you pull in here and you absolutely get goosebumps."
Saturday's practice marked the beginning of the 101st season of Rice football. The Owls went 436-564-32 in their first 100 years. In the program's 50th year, President John F. Kennedy famously noted the challenge of winning at Rice, when in a speech in Rice's football stadium, he asked, "But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Fifty years later, it has not gotten any less hard, but it is Bailiff's charge to reverse that trend. He is 23-38 in five seasons and his contract is up after the 2013 season, so there is a sense that the direction of the program, and Bailiff's career, could depend on the outcome of this season.
We don't do these things because they are easy.
Ironically enough, Rice does not play Texas this year and that is part of the reason to be fired up about Rice football in 2012. The Owls rarely have a schedule that could be described as "favorable," but this one is less the gauntlet of 2011, when Rice's nonconference games were at Texas, at Baylor and at home against Purdue. This year the Owls host UCLA, which made a coaching change after a 6-8 2011 season, play at Kansas, which also has a new staff and is on a 10-game losing streak, and play at Louisiana Tech.
The Owls also had an especially damaging rash of injuries last year, maybe most significantly to running back Sam McGuffie, the onetime Michigan Wolverine who got just 38 carries as a junior in 2011. McGuffie is healthy again and the Owls have plans to use him in every kind of way. He's been spending a lot of time at receiver, but the big idea is really to just make sure he gets the ball one way or another.
The schedule is easier, the team is healthier and the big takeaway is that Rice is fired up.
"This is a team that absolutely can compete for this conference championship," quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "A bowl game is the minimum expectation."
Yes, Rice would like to win the Conference USA championship like anybody else, but the season won't be a bust if they don't.
This season is about becoming a winning team again.
"We want to go to a bowl game," McGuffie said. "I think that's the same goal as a lot of other teams. I think a bowl game is definitely possible."
Rice hasn't played in a bowl game since 2008, when it won 10 games and Bailiff got a five-year contract extension. In the four years since, its crosstown rival, Houston, became a national storyline while the Owls have suffered three losing seasons in a row.
We do these things because they are hard.
Bailiff is a man of enthusiasm, a man of humor, a man of situational insomnia. He said he was happy to be at media day on Saturday, because media day meant practice was beginning, and practice beginning means he gets to coach the Rice football team again, and he is fired up.
"You know, in the summer, you really can't work with them," he said. "So it's just fabulous to hear them back in the halls, to hear the laughter and the stories, to hear them talking to each other out there. We have a very optimistic feeling about this season."