The Rice History Corner & the 1912 AC-Rice game

There are a good number of elite academic institutions in the state of Texas. Austin College is one. However, there’s only one “Harvard of the South” in Texas. That honor goes to Rice University.

Rice dates its founding back to 1912. At 106 years old, the Houston school has seen a lot of history. Melissa Kean, the official Rice University historian since 2005, has been combing through archives and documenting it all. The Houston Chronicle featured her efforts in 2012, the 100th anniversary of Rice’s founding.

Melissa writes about her discoveries as well, at her excellent Rice History Corner blog (see comments). It’s just the kind of place a guy like me will visit and struggle to leave. There are posts about all types of Owl topics, athletics included. Recently, one particular post sparked my interest.

The 1912 Austin College football team was one of the finest squads in the state of Texas. AC beat Baylor, lost to UT on a controversial call, and finished the season in Houston with a decisive victory against the first football team ever at Rice. It’s the 1912 AC team that was first given the nickname “Kangaroos.” A recap of the AC-Rice game in the Houston Post said the following:

“Houston has seen the Farmers, champions of the Southwest; their defeated rivals, the famous Sooners; the dashing Longhorns and the stricken adherents of “Ole Miss” follow each other across the trampled sod at West End. But there has been no more brilliant exposition of team play than that Chester Johnston’s Austin collegians displayed here yesterday.”

100 year old pictures are hard to come by. Most college yearbooks and newspapers from that era only published photos of home contests, as travel was costly. Because the Rice yearbook (The Campanile) and student newspaper (The Thresher) were not created until a few years later, I’ve always assumed that any photos of that AC-Rice football game in 1912 were gone forever.

Uh, maybe not.

Back in 2011, Melissa wrote about finding some old scrapbooks in the Rice archives. They contained two interesting photos: action shots of a football game, most likely from 1912. She identified the stadium as the historic “West End Park” in downtown Houston. The Rice team is clearly visible in grey uniforms; in fact, Rice was known as the “Greys” before later adopting the “Owls.” Melissa, however, was unsure of the identity of the opposition:

“I had the old scrapbooks out so I could retrieve the picture of the 1912 football team and I started looking closely at what else was in the vicinity. I found these. They all seem to be from the same game, but I can’t be sure which one it was. It is VERY early, possibly 1912, and possibly with one of the local high schools.”

You probably know what I was thinking after reading that post now, don’t you? Those are Roos y’all. Roos!

After painstakingly going through the entire 1912 Rice season in newspaper archives, I was able to determine that Rice played two and only two games at West End Park that year. One was against Houston High School. The other was against Austin College. So, which of those two teams are we looking at?

One hint might be found in the AC-Rice game itself. It was a big deal. The contest was held on Thanksgiving Day, with a lot of Houston press leading up to kickoff. It was also Rice’s first ever home game against a collegiate opponent. At that time, Rice was new. AC, with nearly two decades of football experience and fielding one of its best teams ever, was greeted by sports fans in Houston with enthusiasm. It might be somewhat more likely that photographers would be interested in the AC game.

A more important hint, however, is found in a December 1912 edition of the Houston Post. Austin College’s star running back Cecil Grigg is featured in an article; his picture also shows him in full uniform. And wouldn’t you know it? His uniform looks exactly like the opposition in the two photos. Black top. Tan pants.

Those photos Melissa found in the scrapbook? They just gotta be AC-Rice from 106 years ago, don’t you think? We may never know for sure. But it is fun to speculate.

Even more fascinating? Roo Cecil Grigg might just be in one of those photos. Why is that relevant? Because Grigg is a Rice legend. After playing in the NFL with Jim Thorpe and returning to coach at AC, Grigg left for Rice in 1934. There, he assisted Coach Jess Neely through the Rice glory years. From the time of Grigg’s arrival at Rice until his retirement in the late 1960s, the Owls went amazing 16-16 (.500) against the Longhorns of Texas and captured 6 SWC titles in the process.

I enjoy writing stories that tie AC to time and place. Often, those places are the much larger universities in the state. AC has ties to them all. The university with the most historic connections to AC is arguably Texas A&M. But do you know who is a close second? It’s Rice. There are a significant number of ties between the Owls and Roos, more than you might expect. You better believe there will be at least one “Rice Roo Tale” at some point.

Of the two photos, the one I’ve shared today is my favorite. Football was a horrifically violent game in the early 20th century, so much so that Teddy Roosevelt himself famously stepped in to make it safer and by extension better and more appealing. Many of those efforts led to significant rule changes in 1912 which opened up the game. 1912 was the year the forward pass was born.

The photo Melissa found is a beautiful image of a forward pass. Rice (in grey) is on the offensive side. Their QB appears to be down on the ground, having gotten the throw off. A Rice receiver is streaking towards the end zone, covered by two (maybe) Kangaroo defenders. The ball is high in the air and making its way to the end zone, a completely novel concept in 1912. Given that the Roos pitched a shutout that day, I’m guessing that the pass was not completed. That assumes we are looking at the Roos at all.

In her blog post, Melissa writes:

“I’m very grateful to Mr. Parrish for his interest and for the time he took to think this all through and write me. I’m also enjoying his blog and looking forward to some collaborations. Many thanks!”

To you as well, Melissa. The Rice History Corner blog is a great read; Roo fans are encouraged to spend some time there. Also, I too am looking forward to some collaborations. I’ll be interested in any future Roo finds you discover, and I won’t hesitate to send any Rice items I dig up your way. When a Rice Roo tale is finally written, I’d love your input.

Thanks Melissa, and Go Owls!

H/T to Paul Parrish, an early 1970s Rice Ph.D. graduate & Marching Owl Band (MOB) fan who still recalls the 2003 Rice CWS championship with joy.