If you follow Rice football - year round or even just for a week as your team preps to play the Owls - there's no better place than The Rice Webletter. I had a chance to talk with site founder Paul Hlavinka and football writer Mark Anderson this week. What follows are their answers to my questions.
1) First, tell our readers a bit about who you are. Long before the rest of us were launching all these blogs, the Rice Webletter was pumping out dedicated online content to Owls fans. Since 1998 in fact, right? How have these 10 years been for you? How have things changed?
: I started Ricefootball.net/The Rice Football Webletter in the summer of 1998 for a couple of reasons: primarily to scratch an itch I had and secondailry to pre-empt the subject matter before someone else did, who might have been deemed less acceptable to the then-present Rice sports administration.
I have a little of the ‘old newspaperman’ in me, having worked for the now-defunct Houston Post for several years as I was finishing up at Rice and for a couple years thereafter before moving to Austin to go to UT Law (also was a TA in the journalism department and earned a UT MA in journalism while in Austin going to law school from ’73 to ’77.)
I had been news editor of the Rice campus radio station KTRU in ’68-‘70, and a guy named Jim Criswell, who was then Bill Hobby’s executive assistant (Bill was the editor in chief) hired me as a part time on-campus stringer.
My first city room job was in the fall of ’70, sitting at the sports desk from 6 to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, giving out the sports scores to callers. ("Scoreboard. May I help you please?")
I inveigled a full time position the following year; and although my position was assistant sports copy editor, I kind of did a soup to nuts job, helping out with the photo lab sometimes (wherein I developed a bit of pre-Photoshop photo editing skills), doing some sports reporting, some sports desk work, getting out Agate (the fine print scoreboard page), and even doing a bit of non sports feature reporting. (One of the reasons I was able to get the position was because they had a Newspaper Guild election, and the union lost, and a bunch of the more vocal reporters favoring the guild got run off.) For the last year or so – it was after Bill Hobby had been elected Lt. Governer and moved to Austin, I basically took over Jim Criswell’s job as Assistant to the Managing Editor, Ed Hunter.
Criswell, in the meantime, had moved to Rice to be head of their Institute for Computer Services and Applications. Criswell had set up all these moves behind closed doors. Jim was a great guy, a fantastic, old-time newspaperman; he died in 1978 at age 44 of cancer.
When I first came to work at the Post, we still had manual typewriters and used newsprint copy paper and carbon paper. Later they got IBM selectrics and tried to implement a very early OCR system, but it was a disaster and the project was abandoned. I remember when we got our first portable fax machine for the reporters to take on road games. The thing was as big as a sewing machine. With luck, it transmitted one page every four to six minutes via a rotating drum mechanism. The reporter would type up the story on his portable, manual typewriter, and then load it, one page at the time on the fax. The "modem" was a set of two, big rubber suction cups that one loaded into the old timey Bakelite phone head set.
Jack Gallagher was the Post’s beat writer for Longhorn sports at the time. I remember when I delivered to Jack the fax machine he was supposed to schlep with him to Austin. Jack’s cussing was legendary, and he threw one of his finest tirades at me.
Those were the declining days of an almost legendary Post sports staff. Lloyd Gregory had already retired as sports editor and then had a PR agency. Clark Nealon was sports editor emeritus, he worked a couple days a week and looked as gaunt as a grasshopper in drought.
Mickey Herskowitz by then had been pulled off the beat in favor of doing a column. He was and is still a great guy, very friendly. Joe Whittington had the Rice beat. John Hollis took over as sports editor after Dan Shults was caught up in the guild fight and had to leave (this was in spring of ’72).
I remember my first full time day, or actually evening, at work. My editor, John Hollis, said, "son, first thing we’re going to is I’m going to take you out to the parking lot and show you something." We went out, and he pointed to a beat-up, rusted-out old ’61 Ford Falcon. "Son, if you’re going to be a sportswriter that’s the kind of car you’re going to be able to afford." (Of course it was John’s car.)
It was a great time and I missed the routine. Fifteen years later, starting the online newsmagazine for Rice football was a way to get back and dabble in it. Neal Farmer was the Rice sports beat reporter for the Chronicle and he wanted us to partner to produce a full-scale Rivals site for all Rice sports (Rivals had just gotten going, then.) But twelve weeks of my life per year was all I was in a position to give. And I didn’t like the strictures that Rivals and later Scout imposed upon their site editors.
Fortunately both Bobby May, the AD, and Bill Cousins, the SID, were old friends of mine. Bobby was very nervous about having an independent site – this was all new stuff then – but he cautiously gave it the ok when he found out that I had gone out, several months before, and bought and reserved from INTERNIC a whole handful of Rice sports URL monikers. That – so they could be controlled and given out to the ‘good guys’ as and when needed. Well, I had "RiceOwls.com" and immediately signed it over to the Rice athletic department without charge – they’d never thought to grab it, and that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
At first, we took photos from the stands at road games – athletics staffs are notoriously stingy about handing out credentials to online-only publications -- but after a couple of years Bill Cousins began handing me whatever extra sideline pass that SID had for a particular game. One week I was "Athletic Director" and the next road trip I was, like, "Cheerleader Sponsor." I remember a November trip to Boise where the rawboned old sideline security guy took one look at my paunchy middle and said, "Yew ain’t no cheerleader sponsor." Cops escorted me out of the stadium.
Eventually, I got my on "staff position" as SID photographer, as is also held by my main assistant, Mark Anderson. During the course of the season, we take maybe 15-20 thousand pix and download them on to DVDs and give one copy to the SID and one to the head of the player parents’ association.
Besides Mark, I have Joyce Hardy doing a weekly column for me during the season (and during coach hiring and firing season). Bob Reinhold will do the lead game report on any game that I can’t attend. Ramsay Elder does video of home games and we put up video highlights. And I have a couple of ‘non staff’ regular contributors. Right now, a friend of mine who’s president of the Texas Medical Center is doing a twice-monthly content analysis of the Houston Chronicle Sports section, with interesting results, relevant to Texas and A&M as well as Rice and UH.
But that’s about it for staff.
The largest number of "unique page views" we ever got in one day was the day of David Bailiff’s announcement last January, when we got , like, 34,175 unique page views in one day. On Mondays after game Saturday’s we typically get about 13,000 unique page views. We tend to get at least 7,000 unique page views per day during the season – more if we’re winning. I think we have about 3,000 unique readers, total, of which about 500 to 600 are extremely loyal and who access the site several times a day during the season. Doesn’t sound like much, but for Rice, it’s a lot....
Within two or three years I am expecting, hoping to be doing much less direct reporting and to serve as more of a clearing house and link site for breaking and feature news on Rice football, under the assumption that do it yourselfer bloggers and you tubers will be putting up more and more relevant content. That would be a good deal for me. I prefer the editing part to the reporting and photo – Mark does probably 60 per cent of the photo and I do 40.
2) And now tell us a bit about the 2007 Rice football team. Start with the big picture stuff; I'll pepper you for details in a minute.
: The 2007 team had big expectations coming off of The New Orleans Bowl season of 2006. Obviously, Clement and Jarett are a big part, but there are many talented players on both sides of the ball. Torren Dixon is emerging as a go-to receiver as well. Taylor Wardlow is a very good tight end who can catch and hit. We've missed Joel Armstrong, who has great moves and hands, as well as Corbin Smiter, both of whom are injured. But Patrick Randolph recently made the switch to wide reciever and had a decent game against Tech.
On defense, Brian Raines is a great linebacker. Anderw Sendejo stepped up as a freshman last year. Brandon King and Ja'Cory Shepherd are very good corners. We had hoped to build on last year's successes, but just have not been able to capatilize when opportunity knocked to date.
3) Because a healthy chunk of Longhorn fans fully expect Major Applewhite to coach at Texas some day, can you tell us about his stay in Houston? What's your evaluation of him as an offensive coordinator? As a coach in general?
: Major Applewhite was one of the biggest reasons our offense clicked last year. The guy is what Chase referred to as a "mad scientist" when it comes to offense, But he also understood the pressures that our players, particularly Chase, faced, and helped him through those times. He is a genius in the making. I expect that Alabama's offense will flourish under his tutelage. Any team that gets him - Texas or any other one - will be a very competitive team because he understands X's and O's better than anyone I've ever met.
4) Jarrett Dillard is a superstar of a receiver, but Chase Clement isn't exactly setting the world on fire as a passer so far this year. Where does Clement need to improve as a quarterback to get this offense performing at a higher level?
: Chase has had some difficulties this year - there's no question about that. Having seen him since 2005 as a redshirt freshman, however, I don't believe there are any mechanical issues - at least that I can see.
I believe the biggest thing that has hindered Chase this year is losing Armstrong and Smiter. Armstrong was really coming into his own as a receiver when he got hurt. Smiter's talent is big-time talent. Not having those receivers to go to might have been causing some indecision, or worse yet, forcing the ball into an area, believing he has to make that play. Chase is a very good quarterback who simply is going through a very rough stretch. Every athlete goes through it. One thing I know about Chase is that he is a leader, and the leader of the offense. He will get it turned around and have a big game soon, and when he does, the last three games will be forgotten.
One other thing about Chase - he is a fierce competitor. I don't think he would even stand to lose in tiddly winks, much less a football game. He has a competitive fire in him that makes QBs great. He has not enjoyed losing the last three weeks and has a will to win that is very uncommon. Don't underestimate him. If you do, you will be in trouble.
5) Are there any other specific players you want to mention? Guys for Texas fans to keep an eye on?
: There are a few who Texas fans should watch this Saturday. The first would be Tommy Henderson, a WR. Tommy is a very good WR, and what I would call a good possession receiver. He can help the offense keep a drive alive with his hands. I mentioned Torren Dixon earlier, but he has really begun to come on this year, and will make defenses eventually play Dillard honest. Marcus Knox is a small RB, but he has surprising speed and strength, and can make a difference both on the ground and in the air because he has breakaway speed.
Our offensive line deserves some recognition here as well. Lute Barber, David Wilkinson, and Robby Heos all are doing good jobs on the offensive line. These guys often go unnoticed and unspoken about. They're all nice guys off the field--but they are all business on it and are not easily intimidated.
On defense, Brian Raines is always a guy to watch. He has a nose for the ball. Dietrich Davis is playing well at DE. Cameron Thompson had the redshirt tag taken off him against Tech, and he did a little hell-raising of his own. Scott Solomon has been playing extremely well starting at the other DE across from Davis.
Robert Calhoun could become a player of interest to watch. He's big, fast, and hits hard. Chris Jones has stepped in since the second play of the season and done a pretty good job. Ray Agnew also is playing well at this point. Luke Juist has been doing a great job on kickoffs and punting very well for us, and I bet there isn't a punter or kicker in the nation with more tackles than him.
6) And last - your expectations for the game? Will you be joining us in Austin for a fall football weekend?
: I have high expectations for this team and this game. Call me a fool, but if our defensive secondary comes together, and our special teams plays a good game, there's no reason Rice cannot give Texas a very competitive game - much more so than last year. Our offense started to "right the ship" against Tech, and if they can continue to do so, you might have a real surprise on your hands. They have developed strengthwise under Yancy McKnight and Adam Beauchamp's conditioning and strength program. We're in a much better poisitiopn to give you a good game this year than last, because we had so many starters banged up and hurt from the game at UCLA.
No predictions here though, other than what ought to be a much closer game on the scoreboard.
Am I coming to Austin? Wouldn't miss it if I could possibly help it. Look for me under the goalposts in the direction Rice is driving.
Many thanks, guys. Keep up the great work at the Rice Webletter.