Nearly 34 years ago Homer Rice took a $60,000 pay cut for the privilege of moving to Atlanta to oversee a college athletic program gone to seed.
That Georgia Tech experienced a muscle-bound renaissance during his extended stay on The Flats is a matter of record: a football national title in the 1990 season; a Final Four visit earlier that year, five Sweet 16 appearances; No. 1 rankings in other sports such as baseball and golf; the launching of a competitive women’s program; three track and field Olympic medalists.
That Rice, nearly 87 and still living in Atlanta, is just now being inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame is something of a curiosity. He has honors aplenty — including his name on the sports-performance center at Tech and an annual award recognizing the nation’s most influential athletic director. But one never can be too old for one more.
“It was around 1998 or so that I was first contacted (about a place in the Georgia Hall). Something happened and they said, ‘We’ll get to you in the next year or so.’ I’m a bit surprised they called me on it now,” he said. A pleasant surprise nonetheless.
If nothing else, the much-delayed call to this Hall will be even more meaningful for Rice as he will be joined at Saturday’s induction ceremony in Macon by one of his signature hires, former Tech basketball coach Bobby Cremins.
It is a crowded class. Also in the induction mix are baseball’s Frank Thomas; former Georgia defensive back Scott Woerner, former Auburn and Cincinnati Bengals running back James Brooks; the LPGA’s Hollis Stacey; former Thomasville and Colquitt County football coach Jim Hughes; and Chester Webb, Georgia Southern basketball’s all-time leading scorer.
Before becoming Tech’s hiring authority — he also brought Bill Curry, Bobby Ross and George O’Leary into the football fold — Rice was a coach himself. He even wrote the book, literally, on the triple-option offense. The one he watches current Tech coach Paul Johnson employ is genetically related, but much evolved (although Rice said that out of his version, he threw rather freely). Do not count Rice among the harsher critics of the system. “When it works it’s a beautiful play,” he said.
The first time Rice got a phone call from Tech’s noted football coach Bobby Dodd, he was a Kentucky high school recruit looking for place to land. Instead of coming south, he joined the Navy and found himself shortly thereafter in the South Pacific, serving on a transport ship.
The next time he was wooed by Dodd was 1980. By this time, Dodd was retired as coach and athletic director, but still a Tech advocate. And Rice had been fired as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals but asked to stay on in an executive role. Despairing of the decline in Tech athletics, now Dodd was recruiting Rice to come as AD. Rice eventually agreed, at a reduced salary.
He was in his new office only a few days, Rice said, when Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry called to offer an assistant’s job. He declined and ended up staying for 17 years.
Having gone 4-23 in the 1980-81 season, the Yellow Jackets’ basketball program required the most immediate attention. Enter Cremins. Within four years, Tech won the ACC and made it to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.
Rice did not measure his career solely by capital improvements or a fancier winning percentage. In fact, asked to define his own legacy, Rice first mentioned the “Total Person Program” that he ushered from concept to reality. It is designed to help college athletes prepare for a life away from the playing field. To this day, during the fall semester, Rice still teaches a Leadership Fitness course at Tech.
What he hasn’t missed is the way the modern-day fan increasingly tends to treat collegiate sports like a subset of the pros, placing on the athletes all the same bottom-line pressures and expectations. “I’m glad I don’t have to face that,” he said.
The Georgia Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony is scheduled for Saturday night at the Macon City Auditorium, with a cocktail hour at 6 p.m. and the banquet beginning at 7.