When news broke today that the University of South Florida had offered its basketball head coaching job to UNLV’s Dave Rice, the response from some Rebel fans—frustrated with the team’s just-concluded 20-13 season—was swift, with a hint of “good riddance” and immediate nostalgic calls to bring in Cal State Northridge coach Reggie Theus.
The question here, though, isn’t whether Theus, who was the star of the legendary 1976-77 Rebels and Rice’s chief competitor for the job in 2011, would be a good fit for the Rebels. All indicators—his deep roots here, his affection for a running style, his work at Northridge and previously at New Mexico State—are that Theus would be a reasonable enough post-Rice solution. But what matters now, before Rice has signed on a dotted line in Tampa, is whether UNLV should do what it takes to keep him with the Rebels.
It may take money: South Florida certainly gave Rice something to think about, with a reported offer of $1.2 million per year for five years, a big jump from the $700,000 he makes annually at UNLV. But Rice has always said that his dream job is right here at UNLV, and his decision to stay may hinge as much on assurances of university stability and athletic department support as it does on dollars.
Amid the giddy Theus-talk, not to mention the regular social-media storm calling for Rice’s head in recent months, it’s easy to forget that the Rebel coach still has a solid core of support in the Valley. As he weighed the South Florida job today, two new hashtags suddenly started appearing on Twitter: “#InRiceWeTrust” and “#PayThatMan.” Indeed, notwithstanding the disappointments of the 2013-14 campaign, it’s in UNLV’s interest to see that Rice stays put—and the program stays the course. Here’s why:
1. Reality trumps grandiosity. While there’s a reasonable sense in the Valley that the most recent edition of the Rebels didn’t play up to their potential, the fact remains that Rice is a very respectable 71-32 in three years at UNLV, including 25- and 26-win efforts in his first two seasons.
2. The learning curve. When UNLV hired Rice, it knew it was getting a first-time head coach, albeit one who had been very highly regarded as a top assistant at a successful BYU program. Rice is still fine-tuning his dealings with players, his approach to roster construction and—with top assistant Heath Schroyer gone—his own staff. Rice is a smart guy, and he knows how to learn from mistakes.
3. Perspective. While comparing statistics across eras is always risky, here are some numbers to think about: John Wooden went 84-36 in his first four seasons at UCLA, with the records getting progressively worse in seasons three and four. In his 12th year at the university, his team went 14-12. The moral of the story is that Jerry Tarkanian’s 102-16 four-year start at UNLV was beyond the stuff of legends. Even the best bottles rarely capture such lightning.
4. Rick Pitino is never coming back. There are two great soap operas in Rebel history: The first is the long-running battle between Jerry Tarkanian and Robert Maxson for the soul of the city. The second, which is much closer to farce, is the fumbled courtship of Rick Pitino in 2001, when UNLV personnel dropped off the erstwhile Kentucky and Boston Celtics coach’s wife at McCarran International Airport and then drove away. Mrs. Pitino’s flight was delayed, she waited without any Rebel hospitality and Mr. Pitino decided to continue his Hall of Fame career at Louisville. Pitino was the closest Rebel fans ever got to finding a quick fix. What followed, instead, was a long period of post-Massimino-Bayno-era healing, with the program nursed back to health by Charlie Spoonhour and then Lon Kruger. It’s true that the Rebels seem to have stagnated since Kruger’s 2007 Sweet 16 run, but the program is still strong, a perennial contender in the Mountain West Conference and—this part is new under Rice—an emerging recruiting powerhouse.
5. Rashad Vaughan, however, is coming—for now. Anthony Bennett and Khem Birch were major additions to the Rebel program, giving it immediate and perhaps lasting credibility in the national recruiting game. But Rice’s incoming group is the most balanced so far, with 6-foot-5 guard Vaughan—ranked seventh nationally in his class—joined by blue-chip forwards Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh. Perhaps the most important new ingredient, though, will be Cody Doolin, a senior point guard who transferred from the University of San Francisco and should be eligible to play right away. The lack of a floor general left a talented UNLV squad often looking rudderless this season, and the Rebels haven’t had a true point guard since Oscar Bellfield graduated in 2012. And there’s always this: The last time the Rebels got a senior point-guard transfer, it was a guy named Kevin Kruger. Before his arrival, the Rebel faithful were getting a little antsy with his dad, who, after all, was no Rick Pitino. Finally, there’s this: If Rice leaves, Vaughan, Morgan, Okonoboh and Doolin may rethink their Vegas plans. Rice’s recruiting may have prepared the soil for something special to grow here; it’s far too soon to pull it up at the roots.