College baseball: Rice's 80-year-old coach not planning to slow down
To understand how long Rice coach Wayne Graham has been around baseball, consider this: He recently told one of his players that he was there the day the slider was invented. The freshman believed him.
The common breaking-ball pitch actually dates to the early 1900s, well before Graham's time. Don't judge young Dominic DiCaprio for being gullible.
"Who else would a guy 19, 20, 21 years old want to learn from?" junior left fielder Dayne Wunderlich said. "You want to be a sponge around him and soak up as much as you can."
Graham played more than 1,200 games in the minor leagues before his five-decade run of coaching success began. The Owls consistently have ranked among the nation's top programs in Graham's 25 seasons despite the challenge of finding players who can cut it academically at the private school in Houston.
Rice has made 21 straight NCAA Tournaments and won or shared conference championships every year since 1997. The Owls (21-11, 9-3) went into the weekend ranked as high as No. 19 in the national polls and two games behind first-place Southern Mississippi in Conference USA.
Retirement isn't in Graham's plans. He is under contract through 2018, and he said he might go longer.
"Clint Eastwood still loves to direct movies at 85, and he's directing good ones," Graham said. "Robert Duvall is (acting) at 85. If you're doing something you really like, unless you've got something in retirement you'd like better, why would you change? It takes a long time to get this kind of experience, you know."
Graham was born in Yoakum, Texas, in 1936, the year after Babe Ruth's career ended and the same year Joe DiMaggio broke into the majors. A third baseman and left fielder, Graham was a minor-leaguer in the 1950s and '60s, except for the 30 games he played with the Phillies and Mets in 1963-64.
He graduated from the University of Texas in 1970 and coached high school baseball in Houston for 10 years. He won five national junior-college championships in 11 years at San Jacinto (Texas) College, where Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were among his stars. Rice hired Graham in 1992, when he was 56, and he took over a moribund program that had losing Southwest Conference records six of the previous seven seasons.
In 1997, the Owls made the first of their seven College World Series appearances over 12 years. They won the national championship in 2003, and Graham will soon go past 1,100 wins with the Owls.
Graham leaves much of the hands-on work at practice to his assistants because of arthritis in his knees and back, though he's still able to put in 10 miles a day on the stationery bike in the weight room. He has a reputation for being demanding and brutally honest but also quick to give a pat on the back, and he's in total control on game days. "I make all the decisions around here," he said, his voice rising.
He's conversant when it comes to current big-league stars like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. But he would rather talk about his contemporaries. So his players are likely to hear about Ted Williams or Hank Aaron when it comes to hitting and Brooks Robinson or Graham's old winter league teammate, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, when it comes to fielding.
The players know the all-time greats, of course, but some of the names Graham comes up with draw blank stares.
"We don't know who they are," said DiCaprio, a catcher and designated hitter, "but we get the point. Everything he says and teaches us really doesn't have anything to do with the age difference between us and him. Baseball is kind of a universal sport through the years."
Graham, who's started calling himself "Octo-Graham" since his April 6 birthday, has kept up with the times off the field. He's a voracious reader of books, especially history and science fiction, and he and his wife, Tanya, binge-watch "House of Cards" and "Game of Thrones."
He doesn't tweet, let alone use email very much. He does, however, admit to scanning fan message boards. "You've got to know who your enemies are, don't you?" he said, laughing.
Graham told this year's freshmen that he expects to see them through at least three seasons, after which they'll be eligible for the draft. On this, like the old coach's tale about the slider, DiCaprio absolutely believes him.
"He's not a normal 80-year-old man," DiCaprio said. "He's still got a lot of life left in him."