A Cheap Sucker Punch to a Classy Coach

During the entire 35 years that I’ve lived in Houston, the head basketball coaching position at Rice University has been a thankless job.

Attempting to recruit good basketball players to Rice is hard enough, given the academic requirements and the greater university support for both the football and baseball programs. But attempting to recruit good basketball players to play at Rice’s home of Autry Court — which is a dump and not nearly as good a facility as most suburban high school gyms in the Houston area — is nearly an impossible task.

Nevertheless, for the past 16 years, Willis Wilson has toiled gamely as Rice’s head basketball coach. Although rarely have his teams been blessed with much talent, they have always competed hard and played to the best of their ability. Against overwhelming odds, Wilson has produced five Rice teams that have won at least 18 wins in a season and three of his Rice teams earned postseason NIT appearances. And through it all, Wilson has represented his institution as an articulate and professional gentleman.

Accordingly, most folks in the Houston community who have followed local college athletics for awhile like me were particularly pleased for Wilson last year when Rice undertook a long-overdue $23 million renovation of Autry Court that supposedly will bring the facility up to reasonably modern standards.

During the renovation, which is not scheduled to be completed until January of next year, the Owls are being forced to play their home games in several locations around town, including one high school facility that is 35 miles from the Rice campus. But as usual, the classy Wilson hasn’t complained a lick and is probably simply thrilled with being able to show off the plans of the renovated Autry to his players and recruits.

So, imagine my surprise when I picked the paper yesterday and saw this article from the Chronicle’s Rice athletics beat writer:

Perhaps it is cruelly ironic that after spending more than a dozen years spearheading the effort to renovate Autry Court, Rice men’s basketball coach Willis Wilson is facing a groundswell of criticism that might influence whether he coaches in the new facility.

In the midst of his 16th season at the helm of the Rice program, Wilson is enduring vitriol that is difficult to dismiss. [. . .]

The current state of affairs combined with past failures, real and perceived, have legitimized the question of whether Wilson, the most accomplished coach in the program’s history, will occupy the bench next season when refurbished Autry Court will be unveiled. [. . .]

And what’s even more galling is that the comments in the article from Rice Athletic Director Chris Del Conte make it clear that he certainly didn’t want to dispel the rumors that Wilson’s tenure at Rice may be over after this season:

“Those are always looming concerns,” Rice athletic director Chris Del Conte said of the Owls’ recent lack of success. “They’re looming concerns because of the importance we’re placing on men’s basketball at Rice.

“We should be in a situation where we have a viably sustainable athletic program. A lot of private institutions understand the value that is placed on men’s basketball in terms of a key financial component of an overall athletic program. And I’ll take all those things into consideration as we move forward.”

If Rice allows Del Conte to can Willis Wilson after 16 faithful years and before he has had an opportunity to recruit players to — and have his teams compete in — a reasonably modern facility, then Rice will make the hypocrisy of Todd Graham look benign in comparison.

And with that kind of hyprocrisy wafting from South Main, just wait until the Marching Owl Band has an opportunity to comment.

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