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Family and friends: Historic Rice Stadium just doesn't pack 'em in

OK, go easy on the jokes about friends, family and students being the only fans at a Rice University home game.

Odds are Marshall's game Saturday afternoon at historic Rice Stadium won't be the lightest attended on the Thundering Herd's schedule. That "honor" will probably go to Alabama-Birmingham, which hosts the Herd in an early-evening November game at Legion Field.

Just the same, don't expect a large, rabid crowd to descend on the 62-year-old stadium when Marshall and Rice clash at 3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday. The game will air on WCHS, Channel 8 in Charleston-Huntington.

"It's a very family atmosphere," said Paul Porras, who plays the hybrid "Kat" position on the Owls' defense. "Family and friends get to come down on the field before the game and make a tunnel for the whole team while we run out. That's pretty cool."

The first thing to remember about Rice: It is a small private school with a $4.5 billion endowment and matching expectations in the classroom. Undergraduate enrollment is 3,708 (fall 2011 figures), one of the smallest among schools playing major-college football. (But it's the happiest school in America, says the Princeton Review.)

So Rice will never boast of having 450,000 living alumni, like the University of Texas does.

And once upon a time - OK, for 81 years - those two schools played in the same league, the old Southwest Conference, which fell into ruins in 1996. (History note: Rice lost to Houston 18-17 in the final SWC football game in 1995.)

As Rice was enjoying a golden era after World War II, winning the league outright in 1949, the city of Houston subsidized the 70,000-seat stadium. Attendance never averaged to capacity, but foes such as Texas and Texas A&M guaranteed good gates.

When the SWC collapsed, Rice found refuge in the Western Athletic Conference, which did nothing to help an average that has already slid to the mid-10,000s to lower-20,000s. Since Rice joined C-USA, the listed yearly average has swung from 10,072 in 2005 to 20,172 in 2008 - a year the Owls went 6-0 at home.

In talent-rich Texas, Rice can still hook a big-name foe, including a season opener against UCLA. That crowd was listed at 23,105, something similar to a big gate at Tulsa or slightly sub-average crowd at Marshall. But those fans enjoyed a perk not found in many major-college venues: free, close-by parking.

In 2006, the school covered end-zone seats with tarps, reducing official capacity to 47,000. But like Legion Field with UAB, the size of the stadium can overwhelm the audience.

But Saturday afternoons still are special, receiver Vance McDonald says.

"You'll see a lot of player family members," he said. "You'll probably enjoy the MOB, they put on a great show. We actually have a good turnout in terms of student fan base. Hopefully, they'll come out and support us again like they did the first week.

"It'll be a lot more laid-back than the traditional Division I atmosphere."

The MOB is the irreverent Marching Owl Band, and it's a shame Herd fans won't see its halftime show on TV. Maybe it's for the best - who knows what shtick they would come up with for an opponent from West Virginia.

One example: At halftime of a game at Texas last year, the MOB took to the field to roast Texas A&M's just-announced departure to the Southeastern Conference.

The band's announcer: "As of 8 o'clock Central Daylight Time, A&M announced its intent to join Satan's Evil Conference. We congratulate the SEC and the Big 12, as both conferences improve their average IQ."

You have been warned.

Rice players love their home, where the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl and President John F. Kennedy made his famous challenge to America to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Some Owls do wish it felt a little different on game day, though.

"It's a cool venue when you just get to see it," said quarterback Taylor McHargue. "I wish either we'd put more people in it, or build something like [Marshall has], or Tulsa or Houston, more appropriate for the crowd we draw."

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com.


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