Dave Rice ready to run again at UNLV
The way Dave Rice envisions it, Jerry Tarkanian's old-school influence will be making a comeback at UNLV.
Rice already has promised that the Runnin' Rebels will indeed run on every possession, and playing a fast-paced brand of basketball isn't the only tradition from the Tark the Shark era that he hopes to revive. Rice, who won a national championship playing for Tarkanian, also said the program is considering bringing back the theme music from "Jaws," which used to fire up the Thomas & Mack Arena as the team came onto the court.
Besides the stylistic changes, Rice, 42, returns to Las Vegas carrying with him the memory of a decades-old lesson he learned from Tarkanian that should serve him well as he begins his first year as a head coach.
UNLV's loss to Duke in the 1991 Final Four snapped a 45-game winning streak and ended Rice's playing career, but he joined the coaching staff the next season and watched how Tarkanian responded. Tarkanian, known for his suffocating man-to-man pressure defenses, re-evaluated his roster and decided to make a switch. The Rebels played in a 1-2-2 zone instead and finished the year with a 26-2 record, setting an example for Rice to follow.
"He put his ego aside," said Rice, a graduate assistant on that team in 1992. "It sent a message to me. Don't ever let yourself or your ego get in the way of your team."
Rice has spent his entire career setting up others for success. He was a reserve on the 1990 national championship team, arriving as a junior college transfer and happy to play a complementary role alongside stars Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. To Rice, a Rhodes Scholar candidate, contributing to a championship-caliber program was the main reason he went to UNLV.
"Everyone wants to play more minutes, and everyone wants to start, but it was really important for me to be part of a really successful program," Rice said. "It helps me as a coach. Coach Tark and his staff really valued the job our role players did, whether it was two minutes a game, 12 minutes a game or coming in to take charge or make a 3. Everyone really felt their value.
"You don't win championships without all your guys. You also need the role players. I can point back to my own experience."
Tarkanian was so impressed with Rice that he told the backup guard that coaching was in his future and offered him the graduate assistant position. Rice had never considered coaching before but had so much respect for Tarkanian that he took the job instead of going to law school.
Rice was still unsure enough about the coaching profession that he got his MBA in 1993, but he ultimately came back to UNLV again and again. He coached 10 more years as an assistant under Tim Grgurich, Bill Bayno and Charlie Spoonhour before having to leave after Lon Kruger was hired in 2004 and didn't retain him. "It's always hard to leave your alma mater," Rice said. "I left feeling there was unfinished business. At the time, it was really tough."
As it turned out, leaving UNLV was good for Rice's career, and he kept helping teams win wherever he went. He served as an assistant under Stew Morrill at Utah State for a year before going to BYU, where he was eventually promoted to associate head coach. For Dave Rose, Rice coordinated the team's offense and recruiting efforts during a time when the staff landed Jimmer Fredette from Glens Falls, N.Y., and saw him rise to prominence in the Rice's up-tempo system. The Cougars went to the Sweet 16 this season, with Fredette winning national player of the year honors.
Rice also was asked to run the program while Rose underwent cancer treatments in 2009.
"What it did was it changed all of us," Rice said. "We were still just as competitive. We worked just as hard. But we always talked about waking up every morning for family, for health, for those things we take for granted. We were more patient, maybe."
Kruger, who departed for the Oklahoma job, left the program in excellent shape having taken the Rebels to the NCAA tournament in four of the past five seasons. Tarkanian publicly stated his preference that another former Rebel, Reggie Theus, succeed Kruger. Tarkanian was nevertheless supportive of Rice, who couldn't help but reminisce at the sight of the old coach at his introductory news conference. Twenty years earlier, Tarkanian had identified the coaching potential in Rice.
"Nobody has seen him 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 blogged in the Las Vegas Sun. "I can tell you he's a smart guy and a hard worker. He'll put in the time for that program to be successful."
UNLV, one of the favorites in the Mountain West Conference next season, returns four of its top five scorers, and Rice was especially pleased that not one player has left the program since his arrival. He's familiar with the players from having coached against them while with BYU and has spent recent weeks preparing the Rebels for the offensive transition game that will be installed. Being a Runnin' Rebel under Rice will require physical and mental conditioning.
"It's really a commitment to discipline, running consistently," Rice said. "We want to sprint into that set play. There's a method to it."
So when the Rebels run onto Jerry Tarkanian Court next season, the style in which they play will be a blast from the past. Joining Rice on the bench will be Augmon, who was hired as an assistant coach. The team has expectations of winning as well.
"I believe that we're very capable of having a great year," Rice said.
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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