- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Stop if you've heard this before: Rutgers is a sleeping giant; New Jersey is fertile recruiting ground; it's only a matter of time before the Scarlet Knights are a Big East contender; and the RAC is one of the best home courts in the league.
"Until it happens, it's just words," said Mike Rice, the latest Rutgers coach hired with the task of waking this Sleeping Beauty. "A lot of people have heard the same words the last two decades."
We don't have the transcripts from the previous news conferences, but no one would be shocked if the opening words of this article were uttered by previous coaches like Bob Wenzel, Kevin Bannon, Gary Waters or Fred Hill.
As much as the talk might seem hollow, though, it is actually true. The New York-New Jersey area should be a recruiting hotbed for Rutgers. The RAC does have the potential to be one of the best home courts in the Big East because it's on campus, much like the Pavilion at Nova, Gampel at UConn and the Petersen Events Center at Pitt.
But no one in ages has been able to seriously tap into the potential at Rutgers. There has been no reason to be intimidated about anything related to RU. The Scarlet Knight haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, when they were in the Atlantic 10 and not in the rugged, 16-team Big East. They haven't won a NCAA tourney game since 1983 and have earned only four bids to the Big Dance since advancing to the 1976 Final Four.
When Rice was an assistant at Pitt and Saint Joseph's, he didn't exactly worry about going against Rutgers in recruiting or on the court.
And why would he?
"We weren't fearful of the RAC or fearful of the 34,000 [students] in attendance," Rice said. "There wasn't much teeth here. There was no fear in recruiting or playing against them."
There was some jealousy of the lost potential, however.
"The location, the players that you could see without driving six hours to see or flying to see," Rice said. "For one reason or another, they couldn't put it together. There would be good recruiting classes, but they never seemed to put it together. There's no question that it hasn't happened, but once it does it won't end any time soon."
Rice, who shall we say is a kinder, gentler hyperactive coach than someone like former Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez, wanted to be the coach to change the perception. He wanted to be the coach to finally get the Knights over the hump.
"I would have walked to Rutgers for the opportunity to take over the program," Rice said.
This spring, Rice, 41, was a candidate at Fordham and Seton Hall after turning Robert Morris into the team to beat in the Northeast Conference. The Colonials won 26 games and made the NIT in his first season. They won 24 and made the NCAA tournament in his second season. And then 23 more last season, including a NEC tournament title on Quinnipiac's home court and a near miss against second-seeded Villanova in the first round of the Big Dance.
As for Rutgers, athletic director Tim Pernetti initially gave Hill one more year to turn the Scarlet Knights around. But then, after a heated argument at an RU baseball game in which Hill's father was the head coach, Hill and Rutgers headed toward a protracted separation and eventual divorce.
A Big East job in the New York market was certainly of interest to a number of coaches with longer and more impressive résumés than Rice. However, Rice said Rutgers wasn't going to "pay a higher-profile guy what he wanted. But at the end, I'm not sure that was the best fit for the program anyway. They needed a guy who was going to roll up his sleeves and improve the program."
Pernetti said he had to be cognizant of the dicey financial situation in New Jersey, but he wasn't going to limit the search.
"I wanted the best candidate and then pay later," Pernetti said. "I wanted to find the right person, the right fit. It wasn't about the money, it was about the fit.
"I wanted someone who was going to grind in every sense of the word. I wanted a no-ego guy. [Rice and I] had a meeting planned for a few hours, but we met for five."
Rutgers, as a state university, released Rice's salary upon hiring him. He has a base salary of $250,000 and a guaranteed compensation of $300,000 in the first year. There are grade point average, Academic Progress Rate and performance-based bonuses that can push the salary higher. But the two highest combined chunks of money -- the annual base salary and additional guaranteed compensation -- will max out at a combined $750,000 in the final year of the deal in 2014-15.
"I think Tim understood that he couldn't get this wrong," Rice said. "This program can't afford any more setbacks. He was doing his due diligence. He felt he had to get it right."
Rice, whose father, Mike, was a college basketball head coach at Duquesne and Youngstown State and is currently a color commentator for the Portland Trail Blazers, certainly doesn't lack for confidence or energy. Pernetti claims Rice has been a worker bee running around the Rutgers campus, meeting various people affiliated with the school.
He's also been recruiting tirelessly from New York to Washington, D.C., and all points in between. Rice said he didn't need to reintroduce himself to the various high school, AAU and summer-league coaches because he was already working the same coaches for Saint Joe's, Pitt and as a head coach at Robert Morris.
"A lot of the reason I got the job was those AAU and high school coaches [in the metro area]," Rice said. "They're the ones that talked about Mike Rice."
Still, Rutgers basketball has to become more palatable to the actual recruits. The Scarlet Knights do have one commitment for 2011 in Derrick Randall, ESPNU's 35th-ranked power forward out of South Kent (Conn.).
"The first step is making them aware of what direction this program is going," Rice said. "We're excited about it, and hopefully we'll be signing some of these guys."
The Scarlet Knights just added Robert Lumpkins, a senior from New Mexico State who graduated and will be allowed to play immediately under an NCAA waiver. The 6-foot-7 Lumpkins is originally from Washington, D.C., another player from the footprint Rice wants to step all over in recruiting. But Lumpkins becomes just the 10th scholarship player for a Rutgers team that likely will struggle to score without Mike Rosario, who transferred to Florida. It'll also be without defensive big man Hamady Ndiaye, who graduated.
In other words, simply reaching five Big East wins like last season might be a stretch.
"It will be an interesting year," Rice said. "We have no center on the roster. We're going to play a lot of guards and annoy some of the bigger, more talented programs. But we've got to get a rebound to stay close."
So he's tempering expectations for this season. But he's not about to temper expectations for the program as a whole. Like so many Rutgers coaches before him, Rice has high hopes for the eternally sleeping giant.
"There's no question I'm getting this done," he said. "If you're in the top eight or 10 in the Big East, you have a chance to be in the NCAA tournament. I'm not saying we will win the national championship or the Big East. But we will be in the mix and make this a relevant basketball program for people to be excited about in the state of New Jersey."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The potential for basketball success at Rutgers is there. It always has been. So why has it been so many years since the Scarlet Knights have been relevant? Mike Rice thinks he's just the man to figure that out.