21st Century Rebels

One-and-dones, social media follies, South Florida, and the benefits and burdens of the Tarkanian legacy: A wide-ranging, round-table conversation with UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice and his predecessor Lon Kruger

Kruger/Rice Photo by Jon Estrada; Background collage by Elek Miller

Kruger/Rice Photo by Jon Estrada; Background collage by Elek Miller

UNLV basketball has always been important to this town’s identity, and a big part of that has been the fans’ ability to get to know the players. But in today’s college basketball scene, players are rarely with the same program for four years, or even three. Has it become more difficult for the community to get a feel for the program?

Rice: College basketball in general has changed: We’re already up to more than 350 transfers nationwide since the season ended. But this program is still extremely important to the community. Runnin’ Rebel basketball has the ability to galvanize the community. I remember the so-called glory years: winning the national championship, coming back from Denver in April 1990, the parade that we had and all the fans who lined the streets. Not everyone was a Runnin’ Rebel die-hard, but it was something that everyone could take great community pride in. That’s still something that has the potential to be very special.

Still, you start to appreciate a player, and then he’s gone. It’s almost like the NBA now—as if guys are being traded back and forth. What effect do you think that has?

Kruger: Well, Kentucky is probably the extreme, because it is perceived to be a one-and-done type situation. Yet those Kentucky fans, they have stayed right there. Last year, when they didn’t get to the [NCAA] tournament, there was grumbling about this not being the way to do it. A year later, though, they’re back in the national championship game, so fans are happy again. Everything is based on results.

When you watch ESPN, the pundits are so coach-centric—there’s almost a cult of the coach. But how important is it to have that unique player—former Rebel Anthony Marshall comes to mind—with whom the community bonds?

Rice: I think it’s potentially special, especially when you have a local player who can be the face of the program. Certainly Anthony Marshall was that for us. He played for Coach Kruger for two years, and then he had a good junior year, and I thought he had a breakout senior year for us. He helped us get to the NCAA tournament. It’s just something unique to get to play for your hometown. It takes a special person to be able to handle that pressure, especially in Las Vegas. That’s one of the issues again with guys coming and going. You think about those national championship teams and the Final Fours. I mean, those guys were old. In 1991, we had two fifth-year seniors, Greg Anthony and George Ackles. Anderson Hunt was a fourth-year junior; Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon were fourth-year seniors. There’s 22 years of college experience if you include redshirt years. It just doesn’t happen these days.

Kruger: The culture just continues to change. There’s summer basketball, there are so many great programs, but there are also kids not getting to play the role they want to in a certain program, and it’s very easy for them to change. They change high schools so much today, they change summertime teams, they get to college and it’s kind of their culture. It’s accepted, it really is.

When you recruit, do you try to strike a balance between guys you know will be gone pretty quickly and players you think you can nurture for four years to develop continuity in the program?

Rice: That’s the goal. But sometimes expectations have a role in recruiting as well. Social media is a big factor in expectations, in transferring, in a lot of things. The goal is to have continuity in a program, stability and support from administration and support from the fan base as you build. Sometimes that becomes difficult because of expectations. So you take a transfer, take a fifth-year guy, take a one-and-done, just because you feel the pressure to win right away, when maybe the best thing would be to build a foundation and have a little more continuity. Times have changed. A lot of young people come to college trying to help the team win championships, but also with the goal to play at the next level. I just read a statistic that either 16 percent or 26 percent of Division III players polled thought they still had a chance to play in the NBA. That starts early on in high school, through the AAU process. [Former Rebel] Anthony Bennett, as great as he was, only makes it through his freshman year. It’d be interesting to see what our team would look like if Anthony Bennett had played as a junior or senior. But we’re trying to build a championship program, not an all-star team. Championship teams do have all-stars on them, but you don’t necessarily have eight or nine all-stars on a championship team.

Kruger: Kids are different today in terms of what they’re talking and dreaming about. Playing in the NBA is in every one of their conversations, it’s what they’re about. Yet, it’s not realistic.

How much do you have to talk your players off the NBA ledge at times?

Kruger: We tell them, “It’s healthy to have that as a goal, but our function with you is to create an atmosphere each day that you want to be around: You want to come in early, you want to stay late, you want to work hard to be as good as you can be in the context of the team. If that goal is realized after one year, then we’re happy for you. If it’s two, three, four, we’re happy for you. But realize that everyone that you play against has got that same goal.” It can be a healthy motivating thing if they perceive it the right way. Just wanting to be there is not enough.

What do you think about the one-and-done? Some believe it should be like college baseball: If someone wants to go pro out of high school, go for it, but if you commit to college, you should have to stay for at least three years.

Rice: I agree 100 percent. I’ve always thought that there were the exceptions with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett—those are special exceptions. Once you go to college, you have to go for two or three years.I would strongly advocate for that.

Kruger: It’s a fine line there between individual rights. The baseball rule kind of accomplishes both: You have the right to make a choice coming out of high school, so we’re not damaging that. But if you do go to college, you’re choosing to do this. I think everyone would agree the longer you’re in college, the better you are.

Dave Rice at the center of the celebration after UNLV’s 90-80 win over top-ranked North Carolina on November 26, 2011. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Dave Rice at the center of the celebration after UNLV’s 90-80 win over top-ranked North Carolina on November 26, 2011. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

How did each of you deal with expectations at UNLV? You came in at different levels of development of the program. There was a time when a 20-13 season would seem like a step in the right direction. Coach Kruger, in your first season the team was 17-14, but at the end of the year fans felt relatively positive about the team’s progress.

Kruger: Everything is related to expectations. Our 17-14 year was perceived to be pretty good, while a few years later that would have been seen as a big failure. Controlling the message, whatever you want it to be, is so critical relative to what your kids are doing academically, what they’re doing in the community, what they’re doing as a group for the city. You have to be consistent in that message day after day after day. People know what you’re about, know what you expect, know what they’re getting.

Rice: We know that we’re hired to compete for championships and try to win as many games as we can, but at the same time we try to raise awareness in the community. And we can’t be the ones always putting the message out. For instance, every senior who has come through our program since I’ve been here—and Coach Kruger deserves a lot of credit, because he recruited the majority of those players—has gone through graduation. We’ve won 71 games, beaten seven ranked teams, been to two NCAA tournaments. We try to get that message out that, yes, it’s about winning games, but it’s also about building a program that’s built to last. We’re going to have our share of adversity. We recruit so well that a kid like Anthony Bennett comes in and goes from not being on the draft board to being the No. 1 pick of the draft. So you lose a guy who certainly would have been a foundation of a special program this year. But it’s an honor to be at a program where a 20-win season is not automatically embraced as a success.

Kruger: People across the country don’t have any idea how tough it is to get in the NCAA tournament, let alone the Final Four. You look at how many good teams are left out of the tournament each year—quality, traditional programs. You get to the end of February and there is a very small group of people who are guaranteed to be in the tournament. You have to do really well those last two weeks to cover your tail to get there. The pressure to finish years is really difficult.

So, how do you get the right kind of message out to the community?

Kruger: You just talk about making progress each day. Our goal is to be playing our best basketball come March, but we also have to encourage fans to enjoy the process. Help us win games by impacting the outcome. People worry so much about March. If we just dwelled on March all the time it would be worthless. What’s really satisfying is watching kids come in at one stage in development and leave two, three, four years later a different person. Fans everywhere lose perspective about what’s happening there. They’re quick to say, “Well, what happened in March?”

Rice: We are trying to compete as hard as we can in practice and to win our next game. We feel that if we do that enough over the course of the season, over the course of a number of seasons, we’re going to have a successful program. I know it’s a simple little goal, but it really is true. Focusing too far into the future becomes almost debilitating. Just try to play as hard as you can, stay together and win the next game. If you get ahead of yourself, it can really limit your ability to build a program. There’s nothing like March Madness; we all understand that. It’s certainly the goal of every program to get to the NCAA tournament, but I think it’s devalued the importance of regular-season success. I think a regular-season conference title is harder to achieve than getting into the NCAA tournament; there has been one regular-season conference title at UNLV since 1992.

Las Vegas, perhaps, got a little spoiled by the aesthetics of Jerry Tarkanian’s teams—the flow of the game on the court during those years. How do you deal with the fan expectations about style of play, and are those expectations unique to UNLV?

Kruger: You need to play a pace in Vegas probably a little more so than other places. They want to see that competitiveness, the togetherness, they want to see guys competing hard and battling. But I think all fans would rather win a 65-64 game than lose a 91-90 game.

Rice: Style of play is pretty important in Las Vegas. There is no substitute for winning, but because of the legacy, style of play matters. For all the glitz and glamour that is allegedly associated with UNLV, I still think it’s a blue-collar town. Fans want to see a team that is together, that dives on the floor, takes charges, huddles at free throws and does all the things good quality championship-type programs do.

Speaking of the legacy, how much does Tark’s shadow still loom over the program? You both obviously embrace his legacy, but would it help if the community were to turn the page and live less in the past?

Kruger: When we came here in 2004, it was important to choose your words carefully relative to Tark’s involvement in the legacy. One, because his success commanded that respect; and, two, because we were at a point where we really wanted to embrace and energize those folks who had played here. It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Tark, Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and those guys coming back. And they probably wouldn’t have come back if it weren’t for Tark saying, “Hey, let’s do this.” I think Tark saying, in effect, “OK, let’s get this stuff behind us, let’s move forward and reunite” was really key to our having a chance to take some steps forward. And I don’t know if we want to put that behind us.

Rice: I can speak from experience. I graduated from UNLV in 1991 and had the opportunity to stay on as a graduate assistant. Coach Tarkanian came to me—I had planned to go on to medical school or law school—and said, “I have a spot as a graduate assistant; I see something in you and think you can be a great coach.” I still didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do, so I started my master’s in business, but I was on Coach Tark’s last staff. Then almost 20 years after Coach Tark and I had that first discussion, he was sitting in the press conference at the Thomas & Mack Center when I was named head coach of UNLV. So that’s obviously something very special to me. Coach Tark and the success of those programs still resonate with parents of recruits, high school coaches and AAU coaches. The players we recruit don’t remember those times, but the people around them who influence their decision of where to go do, and that’s important.

You have a unique position, Coach Rice, because you were here as both a player and assistant with Coach Tarkanian, and then you were on the staffs of both Bill Bayno and Charlie Spoonhour. What did you learn from those years?

Rice: I added it up one day when I was on a plane: The coaches that I’ve worked for have won more than 2,000 Division I games over the course of their careers. The one thing I give myself credit for is that I’ve learned and I’ve watched and I’ve seen what has been successful. And I took over a program from a fantastic coach who ran his program with integrity and did things the right way. Coach Spoonhour and Coach Kruger did a fantastic job of that. They left us in a situation where we could build something very special on that foundation.

What were your feelings when Coach Kruger arrived in 2004 and built his staff, and you had to move on from UNLV after so many years?

Rice: It was a great opportunity for me. My family was here, this was my school, but I can remember having a conversation with Coach Kruger. I don’t know if Coach remembers this or not, but he said, “I think this is a great opportunity for you to go coach somewhere else besides UNLV, then come back someday and become head coach at UNLV.” He actually said that. I don’t know if he was trying to be prophetic that day or not. I didn’t know if that would really ever happen or not. I went to Utah State for a year, then six years at BYU but continued to cheer for the UNLV program. Coach Kruger always was very friendly and shared advice, and UNLV competed against BYU and we had a great rivalry that developed. I just had great respect for what he was doing with our program—and I still considered UNLV to be our program, because I had played here and coached here.

Lon Kruger with UNLV players Justin Hawkins and Chace Stanback in March 2011. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Lon Kruger with UNLV players Justin Hawkins and Chace Stanback in March 2011. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

You’ve both spoken about wanting players who play for one another and sacrifice for the team. Is there one particular player who represents that approach?

Kruger: Steve Henson, who played for me at Kansas State and was my assistant at UNLV and now at Oklahoma, represented all of that. He competed hard. We’d have to hold him out of practices late in the year just to conserve and protect some of the other guys at times, because he was going to dive into them. Mitch Richmond was also like that in terms of setting the tone for his team. People at Kansas State loved both of those players, because they represented that work ethic, togetherness and team-first attitude.

Rice: For me, the guy who epitomizes what I want our program to be about is a guy on our staff, Stacey Augmon. You can talk about the things he did as a player: He was a three-time national—not just conference—Defensive Player of the Year, he was an All-American, a four-year starter, a 2,000-point scorer, 15 years in the NBA and so forth. But the thing that will resonate for me is that when we were on the Rebels in 1989, Larry Johnson came in as the No. 1 player in the country, and Stacey Augmon—who had been the conference player of the year in the Big West his sophomore year—deferred to Larry. A lot of guys at that level wouldn’t have done that. When I was putting a staff together here, I wanted to bring in someone who represented the legacy of Runnin’ Rebel basketball. Stacey was the perfect person, not so much because he had been such a great player, but because of the type of teammate he had been and his commitment to winning.

Coach Kruger, you’re still engaged with the city—at the moment, you’re in town to prepare for the Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic. But your interest in this place, and in the Rebel program, has been ongoing since you left to coach Oklahoma. Why?

Kruger: My wife, Barb, and I loved living in Vegas. We loved our time here, we still have tons of friends here. Knowing how good a guy Dave is and the job he’s doing makes it easy for us to stay involved—he’s invited us to stay involved, and we appreciate that. There’s nothing more gratifying than turning on the TV and catching a packed Thomas & Mack and a Rebel team playing hard, playing well.

Coach Rice, did you seek Coach Kruger’s advice when you were considering the South Florida job earlier this spring?

Rice: We shared some texts. There was some communication there, sure.

Kruger: People don’t realize how Coach Rice is perceived in other parts of the country. South Florida reaching out is an indication that he’s done a good job—people don’t reach out for people that they don’t want. My main message to him was that it’s great to have choices: You don’t have choices unless you’ve done a really good job.

Dave Rice as a Rebel player in 1990 and presiding over practice in 2013. Opposite:  Lon Kruger in 2010. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Dave Rice presiding over practice in 2013. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

So what kept you in Las Vegas?

Rice: I learned a long time ago not to talk about other opportunities, but to concentrate on the fact that I’m very excited to be the coach at UNLV. Our staff has done a good job, we’ve recruited well and we just wanted to see this thing through. Some great things have happened—you don’t win 71 games otherwise—but there’s also been some adversity, and there’s been a learning curve. There are things that I would do different, but I think that’s true of life. I’m just grateful that the administration sees the progress that we’ve made; they know how hard we are working to get better and fix the things that need to be fixed. I think they see the future of the program as bright. And [the contract extension through 2019] sends a strong message to the community, to the returning players and to our recruits that there’s a lot of confidence in what our staff is doing moving forward.

You’ve had your share of critics here the last three years, particularly on social media, but when the South Florida opportunity came up, the noise on social media seemed to turn on a dime: “We have to extend him! We’ve got to keep him!” What was going through your head as you caught wind of that support?

Rice: There are no harsher critics than we are on ourselves in terms of the expectations we have. At the same time, if you spend much time worrying about the things that are being said, then you lose focus on what’s important. And what’s important is spending time with your players every day, trying to make your players better academically, socially and certainly on the basketball court. Trying to articulate your vision to your program and community is what’s most important. That’s just the nature of where we are—not just in Las Vegas, but society as a whole. Social media has changed things.

What challenges does social media present as you work with your players?

Kruger: There are so many different things that you have to think about today in coaching, in relation to social media, that you didn’t have on the radar 10 years ago. One of the unfortunate things about social media is that the folks who are negative are the ones people give attention to. Everything is kind of blown out of perspective, and the perception is that it must be that way because those people who are negative on social media say so. And of course that’s not the way it is. As coaches, I don’t think we can worry too much about it because, like Dave said, we are going to prepare every day exactly the same regardless of what is said on social media. But you do have to address the players, because they are on social media. And they are going on there to see what is said about them. Depending on the players’ confidence level, security, self-esteem, you spend considerable time thinking about it now. If someone is coming off a tough game, or missed a last-second free throw, you get with them right away and kind of reinforce that confidence.

Rice: One of the things I learned after the first two years was the importance of limiting social media to some degree. I know a lot of coaches across the country don’t let their players get involved with it at all. I’ve decided that as part of the education process, I want our guys to use social media to build up teammates. Maybe that doesn’t always happen, but it’s the ideal. Having said that, I put a rule in this year where guys are not permitted to tweet until 8 the next morning. The trouble really happens the day of the game, and if we wait until the next morning, maybe there’s a little bit of a cooling-off period. Because it is venomous, and that’s the most difficult thing I think for me in terms of dealing with players and social media.

But as much as you try to tune out that venom, it must sometimes get to you.

Rice: Coach Kruger and I signed up for this, and we understand the criticism that comes with the positions we are in. It is what it is. It’s uncomfortable for our families at times sitting in the stands and hearing the things that are said. It’s uncomfortable for us who have school-age kids. When we lost a tough game at TCU my first year my son— who was in eighth grade—called on the phone with tears in his eyes and tears in his voice and said “Dad, do I have to go to school tomorrow? I don’t think I can go to school and listen to the things the kids are saying.” That’ll tear at your heartstrings. I signed up for this, I can take it. I know there are times when I’d call myself an idiot. I get it. I understand that. When it affects your kids, though, that’s something that’s real.

In retrospect, Coach Rice, do you wish you had the chance to kind of cut your teeth as a head coach running another college program, going through those growing pains somewhere else as opposed to here, and then come to UNLV?

Rice: In my three years at UNLV, we’ve won 71 games, and only Coach Tarkanian won more games in his first three years at UNLV. So that’s not to talk about myself, but since you asked the question, I think we’ve done a relatively good job when you think about the history of the program, the great coaches who have come through here. So while the pervading thought process out there has been maybe we didn’t live up to what people’s expectations are, people across the country recognize what’s been done. And it hasn’t been because of me; it’s been because Coach Kruger left us very good players, I’ve hired good staffs, and we’ve won. And I think the best is certainly yet to come.

Lon Kruger in 2010. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Lon Kruger in 2010. | Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Because the Las Vegas image is mass-marketed around the world, there’s sometimes a sense that we’ve outsourced the city’s identity—we wind up defining ourselves from the tourist perspective. But Rebel basketball has always been the one thing that is ours. Can you talk about the pressures and opportunities that creates?

Kruger: The basketball program here is as significant as in any college town in the country. Vegas is so unique, and the basketball program is special. And players want to go to a program where a lot is expected, where fan interest is high. Players are generally self-confident: They think they can do it—they want to do it—and that’s one of the reasons Dave has continued to be successful with recruiting. Good players want to be a part of the program he has going here.

Rice: It’s critically important that we understand that I was hired to come in here, win as many games as we can and compete for championships. But I’ve always said that if that’s the only thing we do, life is pretty shallow. My wife, Mindy, and I have two sons—Travis, a sophomore at Bishop Gorman High School, and fifth-grader, Dylan, who is on the autism spectrum. Autism is something that is very important and near and dear to our heart. [Former UNLV senior associate athletic director] D.J. Allen has a family that is affected by autism as well, and we were able to start the Dave Rice Foundation, which is about autism awareness and education. When you’re the basketball coach at UNLV, you have a platform to spur community awareness. The town has stepped up and really helped with our foundation, just as they’ve supported Coach Kruger with Coaches vs. Cancer.

You two genuinely like each other. How are you most alike, and how are you different?

Kruger: Well, we’re different in age! I think we share the passion for our jobs, the perspective beyond the basketball court as it relates to helping the community. And family is always at the center of anything we do, regardless of anything else.

Rice: I agree that it’s about family, community involvement and valuing the tradition of the program. Just trying to build the best program we can in all aspects—academically, socially and athletically. We’re both relatively even keel—and I think sometimes people mistake that demeanor for not caring enough. But trust me, I know from our teams competing at BYU with Coach Kruger’s UNLV teams how much he hates to lose and how passionate he is. We have that in common, too. I had one of our boosters—a very strong supporter of me—say, “Sometimes you ought to just throw a chair across the floor to show people how much you care.” Trust me: We both absolutely hate to lose, and we’re passionate about what we’re doing.

Rebel fans are going to want to know when UNLV will face Oklahoma. Is it going to have to be an NCAA tournament game?

Kruger: We’d love to do that in the Elite Eight. That’s probably the first time that would happen.

The Kruger-Rice Files

Lon Kruger

Head coach
Texas-Pan American, 1982-86
Kansas State, 1986-90
Florida, 1990-96
Illinois, 1996-2000
Atlanta Hawks (NBA), 2000-03
UNLV, 2004-11
Oklahoma, 2011-present

College head coaching record
537-342 overall
161-72 UNLV

Dave Rice

Assistant coach
UNLV, 1991-92
Chaffey College, 1993-94
UNLV, 1994-2004
Utah State, 2004-05
BYU, 2005-11

Head coach
UNLV, 2011-present

Head coaching record

Rice and Kruger in the Community

An Evening With Dave Rice
A benefit for the Dave Rice Foundation, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel; 6 p.m. May 17, MGM Grand; DaveRiceFoundation.org.

American Cancer Society Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic
Hosted by the MGM Grand and chaired by Lon Kruger, May 18-20; golf at Southern Highlands and Shadow Creek; Facebook.com/CoachesVsCancerLasVegas.

Dave Rice Basketball Camp
Ages 8-18; June 9-11 and June 16-18; $120; DaveRiceBasketballCamp.com.

MGM Grand showcase to benefit Coaches vs. Cancer
December 20, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Oklahoma vs. TBA; UNLV vs. TBA. (Single-day doubleheader, not a tournament.)