The first time Rice receiver Jarett Dillard heard Todd Graham speak, he thought the Owls' new football coach had been hired off a used car lot.
"The first impression with everybody was that he might just be one of those rah-rah guys," Dillard said.
When Graham, a former defensive coordinator at West Virginia and Tulsa, was hired Jan. 1 to replace Ken Hatfield, he immediately promised big changes at one of college football's worst programs.
Graham told his players, among other promises, that there would be a new Jumbotron scoreboard and Field Turf playing surface at Rice Stadium. He planned to renovate the locker room, meeting rooms and coaches offices. Graham said the Owls would have new uniforms and better equipment in the weight room.
More than anything, though, Graham promised the Owls he would change their fortunes on the field. Graham ditched the wishbone option offense the Owls ran under Hatfield, and installed a Texas Tech-like spread passing game. On defense, Graham switched to the aggressive 3-3-5 scheme he used to help turn around the Mountaineers and Golden Hurricane.
"After a couple of weeks, we started noticing changes," Dillard said. "Everything he said he was going to change physically got done. New scoreboard, he got that done. New Field Turf, he got that done. New uniforms, he got that done. Then it was just a matter of him changing our minds mentally. We had a contract with each other. He gave us the resources we needed, and we said whatever you want us to do, we're going to do it. He said he was going to teach us how to win."
Graham raised more than $7 million in seven months for improvements he believed were necessary to turn around Rice, which had gone 1-10 in Hatfield's final season in 2005 and had one winning season during the previous eight years.
Graham used part of the money he raised to pay tuition so his players could attend summer school at Rice and participate in voluntary team workouts.
"It was probably the only school in the country where kids just went home during the summer," Graham said. "We just didn't have the resources."
Graham replaced the equipment in the weight room and instituted 5:30 a.m. workouts during the offseason. More than a dozen players quit the team or decided to graduate early. Graham lobbied for more money to hire assistant coaches. Former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite was lured to Rice as offensive coordinator, and Paul Randolph left Alabama to become the Owls' defensive coordinator.
"We modernized everything we did," Graham said. "I thought that was big for our kids and the Rice community. They'd been doing things the same way for 20 or 30 years. I thought the program just needed a jolt of energy. We were completely changing the culture."
But better results on the field didn't come as quickly. The Owls led rival Houston by 16 points in the third quarter of the season opener, but the Cougars rallied for a 31-30 victory. Rice lost at UCLA 26-16 the following week, then lost consecutive games to Texas and Florida State by a combined 107-14 score.
Then things got worse. Freshman defensive back Dale Lloyd collapsed during a conditioning workout the day after the Owls lost to the Seminoles. Lloyd, 19, died the next morning. An autopsy revealed Lloyd died of an exercise-related disorder associated with sickle-cell trait.
"It was an unbelievable thing to go through," Graham said. "It's a great story of perseverance by our kids."
The Owls played at Army six days after Lloyd's death and beat the Black Knights 48-14. Rice lost at Tulane 38-24 the following week, but then won its last six games, including five by six points or fewer. The Owls trailed at some point in each of the seven games they won this season.
After beating SMU 31-27 in the Nov. 25 regular-season finale, Rice accepted an invitation to play Sun Belt Conference champion Troy in Friday night's R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Superdome. It marks Rice's first appearance in a bowl game since 1961. The Owls haven't won a bowl game since beating Alabama 28-6 in the 1954 Cotton Bowl.
"We had a bad start, but I knew things were going to turn around," Dillard said. "I thought once we got into conference play, things would start to click and we'd start winning games."
Dillard, a sophomore from San Antonio, is a big reason the Owls won so many games this season. He ranks in the top seven in Division I-A in receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,176) and leads the country in touchdown catches with 20, five more than Notre Dame's Rhema McKnight and six more than any other player in the country.
A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the country's top receiver, Dillard has caught a touchdown pass in 14 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in Division I-A history. Former Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald holds the record of 18 consecutive games during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, and according to Graham, the comparisons don't end there.
"He reminds me so much of Larry Fitzgerald because of his ability to go up and get the football," said Graham, who was West Virginia's co-defensive coordinator when the Mountaineers played the Panthers and Fitzgerald. "Fitzgerald was fast, but there were other guys who were faster. But he had an unbelievable ability to go up and contort his body and get the football. Jarett is the same way. We throw into double coverage all the time. When the game is on the line, we throw it into double coverage and he goes up and gets it."
Dillard, at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, was offered only one scholarship after playing football for three seasons at Sam Houston High in San Antonio, and Hatfield offered him a scholarship only after a receiver left school. Graham believes Dillard went largely unnoticed because he spent much of his summers playing AAU basketball and didn't attend many football camps. His older sister, Tai Dillard, was a point guard at the University of Texas and played in the WNBA.
"I learned composure from her," Dillard said. "I never saw her go into a hole. She's had bad games, just like I've had bad games. She's had bad weeks, just like I've had bad weeks. But she never let it get her down. She always had the same persona and always stayed composed."
Dillard redshirted at Rice in 2004 and then caught 35 passes as a freshman last season. He spent most of his time blocking in the wishbone offense.
"We were going to throw the ball a little bit more, even before Coach Graham got here," Dillard said. "But I don't think I would have caught 80 passes in the old offense."
Because Dillard is somewhat small and doesn't have blazing speed, he said he relies on crisp pass routes to get open so much.
"I guess it's just running routes the way I'm coached," Dillard said. "I've been coached really well. I have to run crisp routes and lie to the defensive backs. You've always got to make them believe you're going deep for the long ball, then you break it off the other way."
Dillard's close relationship with Owls quarterback Chase Clement also helps. Clement, a graduate of Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,707 yards and threw only five interceptions in 265 pass attempts.
Shortly after Clement and Dillard signed with the Owls in February 2004, they began throwing the football together. When they go home to San Antonio, Dillard said, chances are they're hanging out or running pass routes at a practice field.
"We just have a connection with each other," Dillard said.
And Dillard has an uncanny connection with the football. He said that comes from always having something in his hands.
"When I'm in the house cleaning up or watching TV, I'll toss around golf balls," Dillard said. "I'll lay in the bed and throw the football up in the air. I feel like if I don't have a football in my hands for two or three days, I'll forget how to catch. If I keep something in my hands, I'll go out to practice and feel like I can catch everything."
And that's often the case in games, too.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.