‘Play Hard Exceed Expectations, Never Quit’

The first year as UNLV's head coach has been a long, strange journey for Dave Rice. But his childhood—and his father—prepared him well for just this moment.

A 15-point halftime lead at Fort Collins, Colo., had just unraveled into a seven-point loss. The Colorado State faithful—like the faithful at Wyoming, TCU and New Mexico before them—had stormed the floor. A reveling fan had been hurt on the hardwood. Beating the UNLV basketball team had once again become cause for wild celebration.

In the wake of the bedlam, first-year UNLV head coach Dave Rice emerged from the locker room for the most difficult radio interview of his career. His brows were lowered in thought; surely he was perplexed by the mystery of what had just taken place. But then again, his brows are always lowered in thought. And somehow in that pressed white shirt—one imagines a closet full of them—he seemed freshly dressed and primed for the next game.

As he spoke, there was no ranting, no shifting of blame, no railing at referees; no Rebel players were thrown under the bus as it pulled off into the Colorado night. There was just a cool, almost clinical urgency about identifying what doesn’t work and fixing it.

With a 25-7 record, the inaugural edition of Rice’s Rebels had made themselves not only a Goliath worth felling but a team worth believing in. And at this darkest point of a bright season, Rice would be the last man to stop believing. He may have picked up some of that confidence from his old mentor, Jerry Tarkanian, but long before he played for Tark’s 1990 national title team, Rice had learned the art of calm and perspective from another coach—his father, Lowell Rice.

The elder Rice coached both Dave and his younger brother, Grant, at Claremont (Calif.) High School, and his influence has paid off handsomely for Las Vegas, both on the court and in the community (Grant also played for the Rebels, from 1995-98, and today coaches prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman). At 69, the former American government teacher still serves as a volunteer officer with the Claremont Police Department, participates in his Baptist church and leads photographic safaris in Africa. His wife, Linda, a former elementary school principal, is an education consultant for San Bernardino County. Together, they co-founded and direct Pathways/Africa, an organization that assists schools in Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Vegas Seven recently turned to Lowell—who travels here regularly for Rebel games—for insights into Dave’s approach to the game and to life. What we received was a fascinating tour of Dave’s life, from his early childhood in Africa to the tense moments of his first year running the Rebels.

In 1970, the Rices traveled to Kenya to teach high school and took 2-year-old Dave with them. After returning to the U.S. in 1972, they made a second Kenyan journey in 1976 and stayed until 1980.

Because of our work there, David learned at an early age about service to others and that wealth is not always measured in money or possessions. I took the side of one of our shipping crates and nailed it to a tree with a hoop attached. David spent hours each day shooting and dribbling. We had no electricity or television, so he had to be creative for entertainment. His last two years there were in a boarding school near Nairobi, so he had to learn self-discipline and independence and to think for himself as he was away from us. He also learned what it means to be a minority in a different culture. We returned to California when he was ready to begin the seventh grade.

Back in the U.S., Dave continued to apply the lessons of his Kenya years.

At age 12, David worked washing trucks at a lumberyard. Then he worked at Sierra La Verne Golf Club through high school. He’s always been focused and driven to excel. After his sophomore year in high school, he announced he was giving up basketball to devote his time to golf. We told him he was not old enough to make that decision and that he would continue with basketball and golf. He’s always been given latitude, but always with reasonable limits. Through the golf-basketball issue, he learned patience and the need to be ready when you get your chance.

Dave went on to play for the team his father coached at Claremont High School. For Lowell, it was an opportunity to pass on not only the fundamentals of the game, but a philosophy—one grounded in the work of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

Coming originally from Indiana, I’ve always had respect for John Wooden and his philosophy of coaching and life. I’ve tried to pattern my coaching after his examples. David went to one of Coach Wooden’s camps, read all of his books and also became an advocate of the Wooden way: Play hard; exceed expectations; never quit; explore all options; out-prepare and outwork your opponent; be aware of your surroundings and evaluate them; practice perseverance. I think it was also an advantage for him to grow up in a coach’s home. Our dinner-table discussions would usually be about the game.

An excellent student, Dave had his pick of colleges academically. But he wanted to play basketball—and despite a good prep career, he was not heavily recruited by Division I programs.

David turned down scholarships to Division II schools because his goal was to play at the D-1 level. He played at Mt. San Antonio College, in Walnut, Calif., for two years, and we were literally on our way out the door to drive to Santa Barbara to see Jerry Pimm about playing at UCSB when the telephone rang, informing us there was a scholarship available at UNLV. There were no discussions. David knew this was a reward for his years of preparation.

The next part of the Dave Rice story is well known: two years as a member of the best squads in UNLV history, a supporting role on a national title team, and 11 years as an assistant working for—including interims—eight UNLV coaches. When Lon Kruger came to UNLV in 2004, Rice moved on, first to Utah State and then to BYU.

Although he never verbalized his desire to someday coach the Rebels, we knew it was his ultimate goal. One often wants to return “home,” and I believe David was no exception. He knew what he wanted, he set his goal in his mind and heart, and he prepared to ultimately realize the goal. Twenty years as an assistant may seem like a long time, but the perseverance has again paid off for him. He loves UNLV and Las Vegas, and even though the expression is trite, I believe he wants to repay to university and the city for what they have given him.

Dave’s first season as a head coach has had its joys for Lowell and Linda—but the excitement comes at a cost.

I’m always extremely nervous just before each game. When I was coaching David and Grant in high school, the two minutes before the start of each game was excruciating. But when the game began I was fine because I felt that I had at least a little control over what happened. But now there’s no control—and the nerves are out of control. His mother, on the other hand, begins the day nervous and it continues until the final buzzer. The anxiety level increases with any loss, but we know that’s part of the profession. Coaching any sport is a cruel profession. When you’re at the top, everyone loves you, and you may get some of the credit. When you lose, you get all of the blame. That’s just the way it is, and I think David understands that.

For many fans, the Rebels’ early-season victory over then-top-ranked North Carolina signaled that the team had come of age. But Lowell understood that there would inevitably be tough times ahead, too.

Obviously, we were proud of David, his staff, the team, the fans and the community. But we also realized that this might have raised expectations too high and too soon. I think David has come to realize that managing success may be equally as challenging as striving to approach the top. The win was great, but it needs to be put into perspective. It showed we have the potential to be a great team, but early in the season there was a long way to go.

When the Rebels stumbled on the road late in the season, Lowell knew Dave would greet adversity with a sense of calm urgency.

Everyone knows that the game is 100 percent physical and also 100 percent mental, if that’s possible. And sometimes the mental part takes over. If the coaching staff could figure it out, they could market it and make a lot of money from coaches all over the country. Part of becoming a great basketball team is learning how to finish teams off. The Rebels are working on it, but it will take time, patience and a lot of hard work. … It has always been my philosophy that support and compliments always go further than being unnecessarily negative. If we are fair and consistent and have high expectations of our students and athletes, they will usually meet our expectations. David has proven he is a teacher and knows how to motivate his players. His work ethic is contagious. And he never gives up.

In the midst of an often thrilling, sometimes maddening season, one of the most meaningful developments came off the court.

As a school principal, David’s mom had worked with many special children and their parents, and she understands the struggles they endure, so I think we were most proud when David and [wife] Mindy announced the formation of the Dave Rice Foundation. We were extremely gratified that they were willing to share with everyone that they have a special-needs child—their 9-year-old son, Dylan—and that they wanted to do something to help children with autism. We often hear sports figures talk about giving back, and it can become a cliché, but David and Mindy really were happy to be back in Las Vegas, and they truly want to help in any way they can.

The Rebels’ success brought renewed national attention to the team. While much of the talk has been about the presumptive return of Tarkanian-era swagger, Lowell sees another dimension.

The recognition also points to the fact that many are looking for people with good moral values who are successful. Look at Brad Stevens of Butler or Tim Tebow or the emergence of Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks. I’m certainly not comparing David to these men, but he does take excellence very personally, placing very high demands on himself. And it’s good to see people with high moral principles do well.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has embraced Dave’s Rebels with old-school passion.

We were surprised and gratified to see how quickly the community has become involved. It’s a lot like it was 20 years ago, which we remember so well because we drove from Southern California to every home game. But it was never more exhilarating than at the San Diego State game a few weeks ago. If they had brought out the old “noise meter” that used to be on display at the Thomas & Mack, the decibel record would easily have matched the Coach Tark glory years.

But perhaps the biggest fan of all was one of the youngest.

We wish we could enjoy the games the way Dylan does. He loves the noise of the arena, the national anthem, the fireworks show, singing the UNLV fight song, watching Tiny dance, listening to members of the Rebellion cheer and display their creative signs, pretending he is one of the Rebels radio announcers, and getting snacks. When the Rebels win, he’s happy. If the Rebels lose, he’s still happy. I think we all appreciate the innocence of youth and the fact that, for Dylan, UNLV basketball is 100 percent fun. Life would be easier if we could all look at it through Dylan’s eyes.

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