Before Paul Johnson, there was Homer Rice, and guess what?

I’ve chatted with Homer Rice off and on for more than 30 years. He’s always been riveting. In fact, just when I think I’ve heard it all involving this caretaker of sports wisdom, I discover something else.

Did you know Rice has a Jackie Robinson connection?

We’ll discuss that in a moment, but let’s start with this: Rice is the former Georgia Tech athletics director. So this is interesting with the Yellow Jackets holding their spring football game Saturday: Coach Paul Johnson has spent the past dozen years, spanning from Georgia Southern to Navy to the Flats, perfecting the triple-option offense, but guess who invented the thing about six decades ago?

Yep.

Take a bow, Mr. Rice.

I’m guessing Johnson and Rice huddle often about the inner workings of B-backs, A-backs and the such. “I’ve been down there to meet with Paul a couple of times, and I went to practice [this week] to talk about the needs and that sort of thing, but we don’t talk football too much,” said Rice, 83, threatening to make the earth spin backward before adding, “Well, we kind of go back over a little bit of history.”

That history eventually moves to the present, where Rice says of Johnson, “He has done the best job with this [triple-option] play and what he has added to it than anybody I’ve known in the history of the play. He has a great feel for it. There’s a lot of teaching involved, and it doesn’t come easy, but he has stayed with it.

“Once Paul gets the type of players you really need for that offense, he’ll be unstoppable.”

He’ll be like Rice during much of his coaching career. But listen to this: Here I was this week enjoying my latest conversation with Rice, and the subject switched from football to baseball, especially since Wednesday marked Jackie Robinson’s 62nd anniversary breaking the color barrier in baseball.

It turns out Rice interacted with Robinson back then, along with all of those other famous Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s because Rice was a rising catcher in the organization. “There’s a guy named Campanella who came along, and I thought, well, I better go into coaching,” said Rice, chuckling, referring to future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella.

No, I didn’t know any of that. I did know Rice fought in the Philippines during World War II. I knew he was a storied high school football coach in Tennessee and Kentucky (a combined 102-9-7). I knew about his slick offenses as a coordinator at Kentucky and Oklahoma in the 1960s and as a coach at Cincinnati and Rice.

He also was the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1970s, when we first met. Plus, he was an athletics director at Rice and North Carolina before spending 17 years, through 1997, turning a pitiful athletics department at Tech into a prolific one. The trophy given to the top AD every year is named after Rice, too, and did I mention he just authored his seventh book?

He’s the man.

He’s the renaissance man.

52 comments Add your comment

Doc 54

April 22nd, 2009
9:58 am

Mr. Moore:
I have read your columns for many years and would like to let you know you will be missed. In the days before e-mail, my wife would save up all of the AJC editions we received while I was at sea (24 year Navy vet) and I would read them when I returned. Thanks for a great column about Dr. Rice and thanks for a ton of memories. Don’t let a few sorry individuals get you down.

Ralph G.

April 21st, 2009
2:04 pm

I just wanted to chime in as well and say that I too have followed your work here for about 20 years. And like Sonny said “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”.