Conference USA

Rice's Hall of Fame coach is reluctantly retiring. Don't expect him to go quietly in Biloxi.

Rice head coach Wayne Graham argues a called strike with home plate umpire Linus Baker during the fifth inning of the C-USA tournament championship game at MGM Park in Biloxi on Sunday, May 28, 2017.
Rice head coach Wayne Graham argues a called strike with home plate umpire Linus Baker during the fifth inning of the C-USA tournament championship game at MGM Park in Biloxi on Sunday, May 28, 2017. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Wayne Graham sat with his legs crossed in a chair located next to the batting cage Tuesday morning at Gulfport High School's Joe Sam Owen Baseball Complex.

Tuesday's practice session served as a short warm-up as Graham's Rice Owls begin play in the Conference USA baseball tournament at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday against Louisiana Tech at Biloxi's MGM Park.

A revered figure in college baseball, Wayne Graham is 82 years old and in his 27th and final year as the Rice head coach.

Graham told KRIV-TV in Houston in April that Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard had informed him that his contract, which is set to expire after the season, won't be renewed.

He said that he was leaving “reluctantly.”

The discussion over whether Graham would call it a career gained steam in recent years, but the legendary coach stubbornly held onto the job by reaching the NCAA Tournament for 23 consecutive years.

He admits to the limitations that come with age, but the octogenarian is still enjoying the simple day-to-day task of coaching.

“Obviously, I'm not as young as I used to be. Physically, it's a little more taxing,” Graham said. “I've always enjoyed coaching, teaching and the game. I've always loved the teaching part of it. I've always loved the game.”

Even with the questions surrounding his job, Graham has gone about his work with the same approach he has for three decades.

“He's always been the same, coaches the same,” Rice junior shortstop Ford Proctor said. “He is who he is and he does a great job doing it.”

Graham, who won the 2003 national title at Rice and was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, isn't known for being overly sentimental and that's again the case as he coaches his final games.

He said Tuesday that he hasn't spent much time reminiscing in recent weeks.

“It's always been about living in the moment as far as coaching is concerned, only thinking about the next game,” Graham said. “We've got to win.”

Graham has always had a reputation as a forthright coach who is not afraid to critique his players when necessary. It's not unusual for one of his long walks to the mound to be followed by an intense discussion with his pitcher.

Unfortunately for Rice this season, there have been plenty of opportunities for Graham to yank his pitchers from games. The Owls have a team ERA of 4.48 — a figure well off what Rice fans grew accustomed to as the team competed for conference championships year in and year out.

Rice only used six pitchers last year during its undefeated run through the Conference USA tournament and it will again be a small staff for this week's event.

“We don't have (a Glenn Otto),” Graham said, mentioning the C-USA tournament MVP from a year ago. “Otto was a difference maker, but we've got a few guys that we are confident in.”

Not many give Rice, the No. 7 seed, a chance to win another C-USA tourney title, but there's always the Wayne Graham factor.

“I can't talk enough about how much I appreciate him,” Proctor said. “He's given me an opportunity to play here. It's been a lot of fun. He's helped me and everybody on this team, baseball wise and outside of baseball – growing as young men.

“We want to send Coach Graham out on a good note. He's done so much for this program. It would be a lot of fun to keep this going.”

C-USA honors

The Southern Miss baseball team swept the top individual honors for the 2018 season on Tuesday.

USM junior third baseman Luke Reynolds is the 2018 C-USA Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year. He is hitting .403 with 15 homers and 67 runs scored.

Junior right-hander Nick Sandlin is the Pitcher of the Year. He is 8-0 with a 1.25 ERA.

Southern Miss coach Scott Berry is the 2018 Conference USA Coach of the Year. The Eagles are back-to-back C-USA regular season champs with a 39-15 record.

USM sophomore outfielder Matt Wallner, Reynolds and Sandlin were all named First-Team All-Conference.

USM freshman outfielder Gabe Montenegro was named Conference USA All-Freshman.

Powers is back

Junior left-hander Stevie Powers will be the starting pitcher for Southern Miss in Wednesday's 4:30 p.m. tournament opener against UAB at MGM Park.

Powers missed a pair of starts as he battled forearm tendinitis. His return is a nice boost for the USM pitching staff.

Powers is 4-1 with a 3.36 ERA in 13 appearances this season. UAB will counter with its own left-hander, Ryan Ruggles (2-3, 4.98).

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