Dave Rice Will Not Be Stopped

Yes, he’s a nice guy. But make no mistake about it: UNLV’s new head coach is a Rebel.

Pace. This is the lesson for today and the foundation for all the days that will follow.

The good things that may come in the months and years ahead will be traced back to pace. The first victory of the era, the first climb from a 10-point second-half hole, the first overtime win in a half-empty arena in Laramie, the first blowout of a “traditional power,” the first Dave Rice conference title won on Tarkanian Court, the first NCAA bid, the first banner in the rafters. It will all have begun with pace, on this mid-September day in the North Gym at old McDermott Hall, where giants once roamed and Dave Rice walked among them.

It will have begun with motion that begins at 1:45 p.m. and does not stop, not for lectures, not for pep talks, not for chew-outs or tantrums or posturing. UNLV’s new head basketball coach does not preen, does not strut, does not scream, does not stop. “You have nine seconds to make the extra pass, share the ball and score,” he tells his players. “I understand nine seconds might mean a bad shot. You will make mistakes today. We’ll live with that right now. We’ll get better.” Through every word, 12 young men never stop moving. Two-on-one, four-on-three, five-on-four, full-court fast breaks. The ninth tick never arrives. An eye-of-the-needle bounce pass from Anthony Marshall. A reverse slam by Mike Moser. A coach’s invitation to do it again. Now.

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Afterward, Rice, 43, returns to his office in the bowels of the Thomas & Mack Center, sits down in front of a curio shelf still empty save some family photos, a copy of Lon Kruger’s The Xs & Os of Success and a basketball signed by the 1990 UNLV national championship team, the team he played for as a 21-year-old kid. He speaks of kinship and civic tradition and the high hopes of a city where he and his mates once embodied the highest. He speaks of his 14-year-old son, Travis, who just spent the summer in the gym, shooting baskets and trading laughs with 6-foot-10 college kids. “We tried to interest him in something besides this game,” Rice says. “We failed. He takes the losses hardest of all. Two weeks later. Four weeks later.” He says it would have been easier if the kid took up piano, but he’s smiling when he says it. Dave Rice is the son of one basketball coach and the brother of another. Basketball and family are practically synonymous.

The talk of family, of the roundball-induced togetherness that begins in the coach’s heart and radiates outward to embrace a team, a university, a city, is Rice’s way of mapping the universe. If pace is his tactical priority in building a system, family is his strategy for shaping a program. He says it with quiet intensity: This team is our extended family. You lean forward to hear it.

Rice’s predecessor, Kruger, who left for Oklahoma on April Fools’ Day, also spoke softly, but his manner of speech—those bursts of amiable nothingness followed by tight smiles—seemed like a mask for his inner intensity, a protective shell of politesse. Kruger’s verbal approach, like his coaching style, controlled and contained passion. Rice’s soft-spokenness, on the other hand, is the direct result of his passion. It’s the sound of a coach who for two decades as an assistant has been thinking about how most rapidly to maneuver a ball down 94 feet of hardwood and into a basket, a guy who knows that every breath counts: Over time, we have determined that nine seconds is enough time to get a good shot, but a small enough number to force efficiency. There are no random numbers in Rice’s game. His style as a coach and a communicator isn’t about the containment of energy, but its ruthlessly efficient liberation; he’s learned to measure the effective dosage of meaning in each word he speaks. He’s no fast-talker, but there’s constant forward motion in his stream of thought.

In the year ahead—especially if the Rebels come out sloppy or miss on some blue-chip recruits—you may hear criticism that Rice, a former UNLV Scholar-Athlete of the Year, is simply too thoughtful: a nice, clean-cut scholar unsuited for the switchblade hallways of the head-coaching frat house. This will be a misunderstanding of who Rice really is. Yes, he’s smart. Nice fellow, too. But, like his son, he hates to lose. And in a city defined by winners, he just might be the most competitive guy in town.

• • •

“I think they’ll be able to run real well,” says Jerry Tarkanian—the man who originally put the run in the Rebels—of the squad Rice will lead this year. “They’re very deep. They have so many players, it’s amazing.” A statement like this is both a benediction and a trap. On one hand, the high priest of pace is saying that this team has the tools to win, and to win in classic Vegas style. On the other hand, it gives Rice a lot to live up to, right away. We’re a long way from Kruger’s first season at UNLV in 2004-05, when the overachieving Rebels finished 17-14 and fans decided things were headed in the right direction. Thanks in part to Kruger’s successful Rebel run—four NCAA tournament appearances in the past five years—and in part to the nostalgic expectations raised by the hiring of Rice and his assistant and old teammate Stacey Augmon, the new administration’s honeymoon will last until just after tip-off against Grand Canyon University on Nov. 11. After that, the words “benefit of the doubt” and “moral victory” will be banished from the Rebel vocabulary, and love will be earned rather than granted.

One gets the sense that Tarkanian, 81, will be watching with the most jaundiced eye of all. In the 10 days between Kruger’s resignation and Rice’s hiring, Tarkanian unequivocally recommended Reggie Theus over Rice for the job. This was no surprise. Theus was part of the treasured group that brought the Rebel program—and Tarkanian—to national prominence, culminating with the 1977 Final Four. And he was cut from classic Tark-era cloth: a guy constitutionally unable to fade into the woodwork, a leader with formidable but unconventional smarts, the most interesting man in the room. A Rebel.

The strange side-effect of Theus’ candidacy is that it put Rice—a member of the two greatest squads in UNLV history—in the position of having to demonstrate that he was a Rebel, too. The hiring process divided fans into vociferous factions, and after the school chose Rice, Tarkanian was the one man in a position to instantly heal the rift with a clear vote of confidence for the new coach. He graciously came to Rice’s introductory press conference, but the same day he published a column in the Las Vegas Sun restating his preference for Theus—“it would have been a slam-dunk hire”—and answering the one question in everyone’s mind with the following words: “Nobody has seen [Rice] before as a head coach, so I don’t think it would be fair to say how he’ll be as UNLV’s basketball coach.”

Tarkanian has now warmed somewhat to the new Rebel regime. He flatly dismisses the notion that Rice is too nice for the lion’s den—“He’s a competitor, he’s a worker; he’ll get after it”—and he expects Rice to be a strong recruiter. But the praise is cautious and couched in an appreciation of the staff Rice has put together, led by associate head coach Justin Hutson—who recruited NBA first-round pick Kawhi Leonard to San Diego State—and Augmon, who has both played and coached in the League.

“Dave is really dedicated to the game,” Tarkanian says. “And he’s got a real good staff. Stacey is going to give him a lot of credibility, because he did it all.”

Tarkanian clearly admires Rice, but he seems to look upon him as somehow other, an able-minded interloper in the hardwood world. He was recently asked what he saw in Rice 20 years ago that made him think the kid could be a coach. “I never thought he’d go into coaching,” he answered. “He was so smart, I thought he’d be in the business world.” But it was none other than Tark who in 1991 changed Rice’s life by inviting him to become a graduate assistant and forever consigning law school to the road not traveled. Rice spoke glowingly of this very moment at his press conference, with Tarkanian sitting in the front row.

What’s notable here is not that the two narratives don’t mesh—Tarkanian’s stash of hoop memories is rich enough to accommodate multiple perspectives on any given moment. Nor is it that Tarkanian is somehow lapsing in his civic duty to give Rice instant high marks—one of the old coach’s most endearing traits has always been his guileless frankness.

What’s notable is that the desert sage who instructed Rice in the marvels of pace is looking at his former player the same way he’d look at any unproven talent: OK, kid, let’s see what you’ve got.

• • •

Brigham Young University coach Dave Rose, alongside whom Rice spent the past six basketball seasons, thinks he knows what the kid’s got. In 2009, Rose was fighting pancreatic cancer and had to leave the team for more than two months. In his absence, the program belonged to Rice. “When I came back in September,” Rose says, “our players were as ready mentally and physically as I’d ever seen. That’s says so much about his leadership style.” Rice’s years as a player gave him perspective that has served him well as a coach, Rose says. “He relates really well with all the players, no matter what role they have. He has a great deal of respect for guys who are out of the limelight. He also knows that you’re expected to bring in really quality players and get them to perform at a really high level. And he’s ready to have that mantle be placed on him as a head coach.”

Stars thrive when they play with a spirit of shared sacrifice. As a player, Rice saw that kind of spirit in his All-American teammate Larry Johnson, whom Tarkanian always lauded as the one guy who never looked at a stat sheet. But as a definitive non-star, Rice also lived the spirit of self-sacrifice. He was a high-school standout in Claremont, Calif., and an excellent student who had his pick of universities, if not of basketball powerhouses. He wanted to play, though, so he spent two years at Mt. San Antonio College, where he averaged 16 points per game his second year as a smooth-shooting guard. But Mt. SAC went 8-20 both years, and when it came time for Rice to choose his next destination, he was ready to experience victory, whatever the cost in personal glory.

Rice averaged 4 minutes and 1.5 points per game in his two years as a Rebel. In the 1990 NCAA Championship game, when UNLV routed Duke by 30 points, he was a quietly supportive presence two seats away from Tarkanian, wedged between assistant coach Ron Ganulin and wispy sharpshooter Travis Bice. In the famous snapshot of Tarkanian being embraced by Moses Scurry as the Rebel lead grows, Rice is a bystander, his eyes focused sharply on the court, refusing to miss a moment of this, the moment of his life. He didn’t get onto the floor until there were just over two minutes remaining. Rice promptly grabbed a rebound, but the television announcers didn’t note his presence until he lofted the first of his two errant 3-pointers. The second was the Rebels’ last shot of the game; this is one of two fun bits of Rice trivia. The other: On a team wracked with injuries and suspensions, only two Rebels were available to play in all 31 regular-season games that championship year. One was Larry Johnson. The other was Dave Rice. The difference is that Johnson actually played in them all.

Tarkanian’s remarks on Rice’s playing career are predictably laconic: “Dave didn’t play that much for us, so it’s hard to reflect back on what he did as a player. But he was a great guy to have on your team.”

• • •

Somewhere in all the watching he did, Rice learned to watch himself. Rice takes responsibility the way Bob Knight takes umbrage. When a backdoor pass goes awry at practice, he doesn’t lob a volley of asterisks and ampersands at his players. Instead, he says this: That’s my fault. “When things aren’t going well, the first person Dave looks at is himself,” Rose says. “He doesn’t look to blame. He tries to figure out what he can do to make it better.”

Rice has been a master of self-effacement, of putting himself second, of serving rather than grandstanding. But in the head-coaching world, the brightest peacock often has the most pull. This explains the phenomenon known as John Calipari. During the hiring period, Theus backers wondered if Rice could “get into the homes” of inner-city prospects. He didn’t have Reggie’s smooth stride or Calipari’s slicked hair and playground patois. He was a pale white man with a little-boy haircut, piercing eyes, careful diction and a scholarly mien. He didn’t look the part.

The discourse surrounding Rice’s acumen as a recruiter—sure, he could recruit at BYU, but this is no BYU—conveniently neglected not only his time as a well-liked member of a Rebel squad that didn’t lack for kids from tough neighborhoods, but also the 11 years he spent as a UNLV assistant to Tarkanian, Tim Grgurich, Bill Bayno and Charlie Spoonhour. During those years, the Rebel staff brought in such big-time talents as Keon Clark, Dalron Johnson and Shawn Marion. “He’s learned that program from the inside as well as anyone,” Rose says.

So, Rice has learned how to make connections—his brother, Grant, who has built Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman into a national prep powerhouse, isn’t a bad one—and he understands the demands of recruiting to Rebeltown. “I’ve said it many times: We need to get really good players,” he says. “We have good players; we need to get really good players. [But] we’re trying to get together a championship team, not necessarily an all-star team. Sometimes those two are synonymous, sometimes not.”

“Dave’s big thing is that he wants to bring the ‘running’ back to the Rebels,” says Grant Rice, whose current Gorman squad features the nation’s hottest recruit, 6-foot-5 guard Shabazz Muhammad. “That means he’s going to have to recruit the kind of players who are going to run. But I don’t think it will be a problem. Dave’s great asset is his honesty. He cares about these kids, and he’s not going to go and sell them something that’s not true; he’ll tell them what they need to work on. These kids don’t want to just hear how great they are. Shabazz doesn’t want to hear how great he is.”

Sometimes a coach makes a splash the old-fashioned way—by diving in and teaching. “Ever since Coach Rice has been here, there’s been crazy buzz,” says Rebel guard Anthony Marshall. “Everyone is asking about UNLV basketball. He’s a great addition to the family. He bleeds scarlet and gray. He was part of a national championship here; he knows what it takes to be a winner. He’s helping me on and off the court as a basketball player and as a person. He understands you need to build a life outside of basketball, that you’re not going to play for the rest of your life.”

That’s the kind of endorsement that matters on the recruiting trail.

“People gravitate to a family atmosphere,” Rice says. “And it’s really your players who do the best job of selling your program, because they’re the guys who are candid; they’re the guys who understand what it’s like to be a part of it. As a coaching staff, we’re going to spend a lot of time recruiting. But when a young man gets very serious about making a decision to come to UNLV, we want to sell our program through our players and their experience.”

• • •

The speed of these preseason workouts is a sort of shock therapy. Players learn that stopping is not an option, that fatigue is not an occasion to slow down but just another feeling to overcome. While the Rebels grow accustomed to living at Rice Speed, their coach is patient with the missed shots and errant passes. He raises his voice rarely, and when he does, these are his words: Faster! Challenge! Score! After two hours of torment, his players walk to the water fountain, dripping, laughing, bellowing—Re-bellls! Then they return for sprint drills. These are not Rice’s recruits; these men came to Las Vegas to play for Lon Kruger. But Rice is surely recruiting them this fall, taking measure of their will and willingness to attend his school of pace. He is inviting them to be Rebels, as he once was, and never ceased to be.

“We’re really concerned about team and team chemistry,” Rice says. “We recruit guys who are committed to that, who will represent the university well. But the biggest thing is winning games. It’s not quite as idealistic as it seems. I recruit guys from winning programs. UNLV wants players who have had to make sacrifices. And it’s not just that we’re looking for guys that love to win. We want guys who hate to lose, who give everything to the team to keep from the awful feeling of losing.”

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