I remember the rain.
Buckets and buckets of it.
The rain started that Friday in Houston, but by Sunday, it was a full deluge.
The Houston area was struck with torrential flooding in October 1994, weather so severe that it cost 17 people their lives and more than $800 million in damages. And Rice Stadium wasn’t immune to the strongest storm since Hurricane Alicia, which cast a deadly pall around one of the biggest football games in Rice history.
That backdrop added to an almost surreal feel to a strange and historic night on Oct. 16, 1994, a Sunday night when an inspired but undersized Rice made its own history against a 12th-ranked Texas team that was without seven suspended starters, including a star receiver over a missed curfew.
This year’s Longhorns — coincidentally also ranked 12th and without a suspended wide receiver — takes on another supposedly out-manned Rice team, one that has yet to win in two games of the young season under coach Mike Bloomgren.
It’s been 25 years since that night when Rice upset Texas 19-17 to snap an iron-fisted, 28-year losing streak to the Longhorns. The Owls hadn’t celebrated a win over the Longhorns since 1965 and haven’t beaten them since that 1994 season. One win in 42 tries.
Of those 41 losses, all but 13 were by three touchdowns or more. Seven times the margin topped 40 points.
But not in 1994.
The Owls will honor that team Saturday night at NRG Stadium, planning to recognize the lettermen during a break in the first quarter.
Back in 1994, I remember the punishing rains came so hard that the press box windows fogged up from the humidity, and reporters were reduced to constantly rubbing the glass to get any visibility at all and peek at what was happening on the field.
Some rules of civility were broken that night, but with good reason.
“I remember there was an inordinate amount of cheering in the press box by Rice folk,” recalled Mark Wangrin, then the Longhorns beat reporter for the American-Statesman. “After 28 years of getting abused by big brother, you couldn’t really blame them.”
The rain let up eventually, and we got a clearer view of one of the biggest upsets in Southwest Conference history.
We saw something many had never witnessed before. We saw Rice beat Texas.
Actually the whole nation watched as well. It was prime-time viewing on ESPN and on a Sunday night. There was no baseball game that night because a late-season player strike had canceled the playoffs and the World Series. Texas-Rice was called in to substitute for women’s body-building and drag racing.
It was Rice that got to the finish line first and for one night make it all right for a whole generation of long-suffering Owls fans.
The world saw a lot of ground-breaking history that year in 1994. While Michael Jordan was riding buses to minor-league baseball games, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake was wearing out the NBA for the first of consecutive NBA championships. Tonya Harding’s cronies took a police baton to the most famous knee in ice skating, sidelining America’s beloved Nancy Kerrigan.
Nelson Mandela would become the first black president in South African history. The IRA and Northern Ireland finally agreed to put down their weapons. We had made some new “Friends” on television just a few weeks earlier. Forrest Gump just ran and ran off the movie screen and into our hearts that summer. Gas was $1.10 a gallon.
And one night in June during Game 5 of the Rockets-Knicks Finals, the most famous white Bronco ever took the LA police on a slow, 60-mile chase through the freeway, carrying O.J. Simpson as a passenger with $9,000 in cash, a fake goutee, his passport and a gun. He would later proclaim his innocence in the grisly murders of his ex-wife and her friend. No updates on his search for the real killer.
The nation may not have been as riveted to the Texas-Rice game in 1994, but it made for compelling television as Rice posted one of the biggest shockers in college football that year by snapping that losing streak, the second-longest domination in a rivalry after Notre Dame’s rule over Navy.
Those 60 minutes at Rice Stadium would reverberate for decades.
Austin’s Randy Christal, a SWC and Big 12 referee for 22 years, officiated two national championships and 18 bowl games, but he also was in charge of that Texas-Rice game in his first year as a referee.
“That game always stands out. We had water up to our ankles,” Christal recalled. “It rained the whole game. Texas got the stuff beat out of them.”
But there was nothing fluky about the Owls’ victory that ended with Rice students dismantling the goalposts in less than a minute and parading them around the rain-drenched stadium in front of 34,700 waterlogged spectators on wooden bleachers.
The game started as if by script.
The Owls scored 10 points before UT quarterback Shea Morenz ever took a snap. So dominant was Rice on the ground that Josh LaRocca threw just seven passes and completed only three. One went for a 33-yard touchdown to Byron Coston on a one-play drive.
The Owls rarely relinquished the ball. They’d hold the ball for almost 23 of the 30 minutes in the first half and, all told, just under 39 minutes in the game.
“I felt like we won the national championship,” Owls cornerback Bobby Dixon said.
Ken Hatfield, one of the all-time great SWC coaches with 168 career victories if but conservative to a fault at Arkansas, Clemson and finally Rice, relied heavily on his clock-eating option attack in his very first season at Rice. He was allergic to the pass.
Morenz played despite an injured knee, and his backup James Brown, the hero of the win over Oklahoma the previous week, never got off the bench. Morenz was under duress, often from Owls defensive end Ndukwe Kalu, who sacked him on critical, back-to-back plays.
“We heard there was a sign in Austin that said Rice Who?” said Kalu, who would play 12 seasons in the NFL. “We let them know who. We’re not a sorry team. And this wasn’t an upset. The better team won.”
Phil Dawson, hobbled by an ankle injury that kept him out of practice that week, made a 44-yard field goal but also missed a 47-yarder to the right. He has just retired from the NFL after kicking 441 field goals in a brilliant 21-year career.
Anthony Holmes had the Longhorns’ longest run. It went for 10 yards. Texas managed a lowly 16 yards rushing, second-lowest ever.
“They shut us down,” said UT center Dan Neil, who started 49 consecutive games and played for two Super Bowl champions in Denver.
This just seemed meant to be. Rice would hold on to win 19-17 and even shared in a SWC title that everyone seemed to share, thanks to unbeaten, once-tied Texas A&M’s run-in with the NCAA law. You don’t see a five-way tie for the championship every year.
“Afterward, a lot of Rice fans wanted my white cap,” Christal said. “No, I didn’t give it away. That was a $10 cap.”
Somewhere there may be a more appropriate souvenir likes pieces of aluminum that were once goal posts.
The Houston Chronicle ran the game story on its front page the next morning. And Longhorns coach John Mackovic, who could beat a Nebraska but lose to a Rice, endeared himself to Longhorn Nation just a little bit more. Was he shocked?
“No,” he said. “I’ve been coaching 30 years.”
But just three more years at Texas.
On Saturday, lettermen from that Rice team in 1994 will assemble and be honored on the field during the first quarter. ESPN sent Rice a clean copy of the broadcast of that game, and it will be shown on the big screen.
These two teams will play again not on Rice’s campus but further down South Main a bit at the Houston Texans’ NRG Stadium. Rice, once a college power itself under the iron grip of Jess Neely, has returned to being the Rice of old.
But for one rainy night 25 years ago, Rice was on top of the world.
It had beaten Texas.