Returning Rebel

New UNLV coach Dave Rice comes home to heal fresh wounds

After living a successful and, by all accounts, honorable life for 42 years, Dave Rice suddenly found everything about himself being questioned in the days after he was named a candidate to become UNLV’s next men’s basketball coach.

The critics questioned Rice’s coaching acumen, his ability to recruit, his commitment to UNLV. Even his race and religious beliefs became points of contention for those who thought the job should go to former Rebel great Reggie Theus.

Yet when Rice was introduced as UNLV’s coach on April 11 in a Thomas & Mack Center board room filled with media, past and current players, alumni, boosters and university officials, it was a single, stupefyingly on-the-nose question from a fan that addressed the only issue Rebel fans really care about: “Whaddya gotta do to go and win a championship—like a national championship?”

The query drew laughs, but Rice answered it in all seriousness, talking about “being the hardest practicing team in America” and focusing on simply winning the next game on the schedule. He talked about returning to Runnin’ Rebel basketball—playing hard-nosed pressure defense and pushing the ball up the court. He stressed the importance of style of play, and how he would recruit to fit that style.

Rice announced the hiring of his first assistant, Justin Hutson, a highly respected coach and recruiter from San Diego State University, and expressed his desire to add former Rebel star and current Denver Nuggets assistant Stacey Augmon to his staff, moves that should quiet some of the naysayers.

“There’s a lot of reasons to select Dave, and this is about selecting Dave,” Athletic Director Jim Livengood said during his introduction of Rice, as if trying to prevent the day from turning into a discussion of the relative merits of Theus, who had won the unsubtle support of legendary Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian.

The rift among Rebel fans unjustly cast Rice as an outsider. Many Theus backers chose to look at Rice’s six years as an assistant at BYU (often erroneously portraying Rice as a Mormon) rather than his standing as a member of two UNLV Final Four teams, including the 1990 national championship squad. Rice also served for 11 years as an assistant coach for the Rebels, working under four head coaches—including Tarkanian, who gave Rice his first coaching position in 1991.

With Tark sitting in the front row, Rice spoke glowingly about his former coach. But he saved his highest praise and showed his deepest emotion while paying homage to former UNLV President and Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a man known for his vision and invaluable ability to unite squabbling parties.

Some Rebel fans may not be convinced that Rice is the right man to head the UNLV basketball program, but they should no longer question his pedigree or his commitment.

“I think in time Rice will bring all Rebel fans back together,” says Robert Smith, a former UNLV guard and now the team’s radio analyst. “You always have people taking sides. But right now we’ve got a Rebel back here, and that’s the most important thing.”

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