The Biggest Game in Town

The old Rice Stadium.  © Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

The old Rice Stadium.
© Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

A LITTLE PIECE OF HISTORY | By The Heritage Society –

 The Houston Oilers of the American Football League started play in the fall of 1960, winning the league’s first two championships, but the Bayou City had been football crazy long before Bud Adams brought in George Blanda, Billy Cannon and company. Prior to the arrival of the professionals, it was the Rice Owls that provided the hottest ticket in town.

The first football team at the Rice Institute suited up in 1912 when the treeless campus with its four buildings was less than a month old. With nothing but freshmen on the team, Coach Phillip Arbuckle booked any opponents he could find. His squad, known briefly as the Greys, defeated Houston High School in the first ever contest by a score of 7 to 6 in front of spectators who stood along the sidelines. In time for the following season, simple wooden bleachers were added. Two years later, Rice was among the schools that formed the Southwest Conference (SWC), and teams including the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Arkansas began trekking to Houston. With interest in their athletic program growing rapidly among the city’s sports fans, the Owls got a stadium and fieldhouse at the corner of Main and University in 1921.

Bill Wallace playing for Rice in 1934. Image from Woodson Research Center,  Fondren Library, Rice University.

Bill Wallace playing for Rice in 1934.
Image from Woodson Research Center,
Fondren Library, Rice University.

John Heisman of Trophy fame led Rice football for several years in the mid-1920s but did not manage an overall winning record. It was Coach Jimmy Kitts who brought the first SWC football championship to South Main. In 1932, a pair of backs named Bill Wallace and John McCauley arrived on campus. Dubbed the Touchdown Twins, they showed great promise. Wallace, a sprinter and hurdler from Eagle Lake, Texas, emerged as a potential star. He later finished third in the 220 yard low hurdles at the national college track championships behind Jesse Owens and Slats Hardin, both of whom went on to medal at the Berlin Olympics.

In 1934, Wallace, named All-America by the Associated Press, led the Owls to a 9-1-1 record, and the team outscored opponents 204 to 44 on the year. Bill Wallace reached the College Football Hall of Fame in 1978.

By 1938, with Owls games drawing thousands of Houstonians with no connection to the campus outside of a love for football, the small collection of bleachers was greatly expanded to hold roughly 30,000. It served fans well until the new Rice Stadium rose in 1950. Counting the 1934 banner, the Owls won a total of four SWC football titles at the old stadium including a fifth place national ranking in 1949, and many thousands of local football fans packed the joint to cheer them on.

Modern-day football fans can bask in the history of not only the Owls but all things pro, college, high school and more at the Heritage Society’s Bayou City Blitz exhibit, a stellar presentation at the Heritage Society Museum located at 1100 Bagby. Also included will be five panel discussions during the January 18th through April 29th run of the exhibit.