Rice baseball has ended their first coaching search of the 21st century, hiring former Tennessee Tech head coach Matt Bragga to take over for legendary coach Wayne Graham.
The handoff is complete. Much like when the head coach takes his leisurely stroll out of the dugout to take the ball from his pitcher, a new man has been called in to take charge of Rice baseball. Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard has Wayne Graham’s successor: former Tennessee Tech head coach Matt Bragga.
— Rice Athletics (@RiceAthletics) June 15, 2018
Replacing a legend is an arduous task. Former Rice baseball coach Wayne Graham turned the program into a perennial Omaha contender. Taking over the program in 1992, Graham took the Owls to the College World Series seven times, winning the title in 2003. That’s a high bar, but Rice has found the man they deem worthy enough to uphold that standard.
Matt Bragga thrust himself into the national spotlight this season when he took Tennessee Tech to their first Super Regional in program history. The Golden Eagles took Game 1 of the three-game series against the Texas Longhorns, moving within one game of a CWS berth before the Longhorns were able to close out the series.
On his quest for Omaha he rallied through the losers bracket in the Oxford Regional, taking down national seed Ole Miss twice to reach the Super Regionals. The SEC is the best conference in college baseball and Tennessee Tech stood toe-to-toe with the Rebels and punched them in the mouth.
Tennessee Tech outscored Ole Miss 26-16 in three games, including a 15-5 drubbing to force a winner-take-all championship game. If Bragga can take over a team with no postseason experience and take them to the brink, what could he do with an established contender?
In 15 seasons at Tenn. Tech Bragga went 445-383-2 (.538). The winning percentage isn’t stunning, but it doesn’t tell the Bragga’s full story. Tenn. Tech had three 30+ win seasons prior to his arrival in 2004. After a slow start, Bragga’s club eclipsed the 30-win mark in eight of his final 11 seasons. They won 40 or more games four times.
Bragga’s hiring comes on the heels of an extensive interview process. Potential candidates included TCU pitching coach Kirk Saarloos and former Owl and MLB standout Lance Berkman. TCU has become a staple at the College World Series over the last decade much like Rice had been in the early 2000’s. Sarloos was assumed to be the best candidate for the job, but when he turned down the Owls they were forced to look elsewhere.
Then there’s the Berkman situation. A fan favorite, Berkman is beloved by Houstonians and Owls everywhere. The slugger blasted 67 home runs over three seasons with the Owls but was passed over for the head coaching job. Rice had every opportunity to hire Berkman, but opted to lean towards the coaching experience rather than the sticking with the brand name.
Berkman would have been the safe hire. He would have drawn crowds and provided an instant jolt of excitement for a program coming off a disappointing season. If Bragga doesn’t work out fans will juxtapose his quiet beginnings against “what could have been”. Credit the administration with this: they took a risk and if it pays off, they could be rewarded handsomely.
Small school, big impact
Rice baseball finds itself in an interesting position in the collegiate baseball landscape. Conference USA isn’t overflowing with the same big-name programs that share its geographic footprint. However, Rice has already proven that a so-called “small school” can hang tight with the some of the most iconic brands in college baseball. The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, the 2016 CWS Champions, came out of the Big South.
Some will be tempted to write off Rice, but fans should be hopeful for what the Bragga era will bring. Success in college athletics flows from commitment and opportunity. Rice has reinforced their commitment to this program by willing to make the tough decision and look to the future. Bragga has already proven he can build an under-the-radar Omaha contender and will be expected to do the same at his new home in Houston.
Like Graham, Bragga built a program from the ground up. Now he leaves it one game from a trip to the College World Series. The Owls hope that Bragga will continue his upward trajectory in Houston. He’ll be tasked with building on a tradition of excellence which has been a part of the Rice culture for decades under Graham. Bragga will reportedly receiver a 5-year contract. Rice hopes he’ll be around for many years to come.