THESE ARE TRY­ING TIMES

It’s not for a lack of ef­fort or poor coach­ing that Mike Bloom­gren sees Rice’s losses mount

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - JEROME SOLOMON jerome.solomon@chron.com twit­ter.com/jeromesolomon

Mike Bloom­gren left his team in thte locker room and stepped be­hind a podium for a postgame me­dia ses­sion that was not go­ing to be fun.

His team had just lost a home game to a team that hadn’t won in two years. A game be­tween teams that mat­ter to so few, one that to many was the least in­ter­est­ing con­test in col­lege foot­ball.

Af­ter Satur­day’s 34-26 loss to Texas-El Paso at Rice Sta­dium, it is un­of­fi­cially of­fi­cial: The 2018 Rice Owls are the coun­try’s worst foot­ball team. The ab­so­lute worst.

As you might imag­ine, Bloom­gren wasn’t in a chip­per mood when charged with dis­cussing what went wrong on a day his squad trailed a win­less team 34-3 en route to a ninth straight de­feat.

No blus­ter. No anger. No de­fen­sive­ness.

Just bru­tal hon­esty from a first-year head coach who is go­ing through a dif­fi­cult time.

“We got a locker room full of guys that are hurt, and to be quite hon­est with you, it’s no fun right now to do this,” Bloom­gren said. “And that’s a shame. Be­cause this is sup­posed to be a kid’s game that we all love.”

I later asked Bloom­gren for clar­i­fi­ca­tion on whether he meant it was no fun to take ques­tions about such a de­press­ing day or if coach­ing and not win­ning was the “no fun” part.

“I mean ev­ery­thing to do with it,” he said. “The fun is in the win­ning. I mean go­ing and talk­ing to your team in the locker room (af­ter a loss), I mean com­ing up here on Mon­day in front of the team and try­ing to act like a ray of sun­shine to get them to prac­tice the way they need to. It’s not what I’m used to.

“It’s not fun. Life is not fun for me right now, be­cause this is such a big part of my life. It’s not fun for our coaches. It’s not fun for our play­ers. It’s just not fun. The fun is in the win­ning. I wish I had a magic pill. I don’t. We’re go­ing to keep work­ing.”

Don’t let the dire tone of Bloom­gren’s re­ply lead you to be­lieve he is de­feated. The nerves were raw, the pain fresh.

The Owls, who had not won since a come-from-be­hind vic­tory in the sea­son opener against Prairie View A&M, had one of their best prac­tices of the sea­son this week. They were fac­ing a team that they knew they could beat, per­haps should beat.

But on the game’s first snap, UTEP quar­ter­back Kai Lock­sley con­nected with War­ren Redix on a 42-yard pass play that stunned the Owls.

Lock­sley, whose fa­ther is the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Alabama, which played in a Satur­day night game a few hours away in Ba­ton Rouge, La., but a col­lege foot­ball gal­axy away from Rice-UTEP, had not com­pleted even a 20-yard pass to Redix this sea­son. The Owls were dazed. “We were emo­tion­ally hi­jacked for about two quar­ters,” Bloom­gren said. “From that point on, all the wind came out of our sails.”

When Rice’s Haden Tobola booted a 43-yard field goal as time ex­pired on the first half, the Owls’ chances of win­ning the game, per the ESPN.com’s win prob­a­bil­ity cal­cu­la­tor, im­proved from 1 to 2.4 per­cent.

That was gen­er­ous, con­sid­er­ing the tid­bit that the Min­ers scored four touch­downs in the first half, the Owls scored four touch­downs in Oc­to­ber.

But the Owls ral­lied in the fourth quar­ter to make a game of it, and they had two late pos­ses­sions af­ter they pulled within eight points.

This 1-9 mark is a cul­ture shock for Bloom­gren.

Bloom­gren started his coach­ing ca­reer as a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant at Alabama when Mike Du­bose’s team won a measly three games. He was with the Jets when Eric Mangini’s squad went 4-12. But it has never been this bad.

Re­cently, his coach­ing life has been very good.

For the pre­vi­ous seven sea­sons, Bloom­gren was at Stan­ford, which has fig­ured out how to run a suc­cess­ful, big­time ath­letic depart­ment in a stren­u­ous aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment. The Car­di­nal won 10 or more games five times and were at some point ranked in the top 15 in all seven of his years there.

I sub­mit Bloom­gren is a bet­ter head coach than his record, and not just be­cause the record says that this year he is the worst.

Though the num­bers fac­tor into a per­cent­age that is the mea­sur­ing stick, there is so much more to good coach­ing than wins and losses.

“No­body han­dles it bet­ter than Coach Bloom,” Rice fresh­man quar­ter­back Wi­ley Green said. “He puts this team on his back.”

Hard when called for, nur­tur­ing when nec­es­sary, Green said.

Bloom­gren’s postgame hon­esty beats the blus­ter and blame we so of­ten see from coaches whose teams un­der­per­form be­cause the coach un­der­coached.

The Owls, while cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of play­ing bet­ter, haven’t un­der­per­formed due to a lack of ef­fort or pal­pa­bly poor coach­ing. They are start­ing at the bot­tom and have a long way to go.

As dis­heart­en­ing as Satur­day’s loss was for Bloom­gren, his be­lief that his process will work hasn’t changed.

He isn’t hav­ing fun right now, but he still sounds like a win­ner.

Karen War­ren / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Rice coach Mike Bloom­gren gives tight end Jor­dan My­ers a cel­e­bra­tory pat on the hel­met fol­low­ing a fourth-quar­ter touch­down Satur­day at Rice Sta­dium.

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