Rebels Basketball:

UNLV makes change at basketball coach amid Rice’s struggles

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV head coach Dave Rice is dismayed by another foul call versus Arizona State on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Updated Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016 | 10:41 p.m.

Dave Rice Out as UNLV Coach

UNLV head coach Dave Rice makes a call versus Fresno State during the Mountain West opener at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, December 30, 2015. Launch slideshow »

Dave Rice’s photo is on the ticket for Tuesday’s home game against New Mexico but that’s the only appearance he will make. Midway through his fifth season as UNLV’s head basketball coach, Rice is out. The decision was announced Sunday evening with third-year assistant Todd Simon pegged as the interim coach.

UNLV’s three-game losing streak to open Mountain West play was too much for the programs’ decision-makers to take. So while Disney on Ice entertained the Thomas & Mack Center crowd above, UNLV Athletics Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy sat in her office Sunday evening and tried to explain the need for change as a mutual decision between the program and a guy who wanted nothing more than to be here.

“Dave’s not a quitter,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “Like I said, we mutually agreed for him to step aside.”

Mid-season coaching firings are rare in college basketball, and there’s no doubt that Rice, who has been affiliated with the program for more than 25 years, would have liked the opportunity to finish out the season. A bench player on UNLV’s national championship team, Rice came in 2011 and vowed to put the runnin’ back in Runnin’ Rebels, but as the program became more and more his own things just seemed to run away from him.

The Rebels entered this season with a mantra of #noexcuses after UNLV officials nearly pulled the plug following last year’s seventh-place finish, and this 9-7 start was apparently too much to bear with what appears to be one of the best rosters in the league. UNLV owns two victories against teams that were ranked inside the top 15 but it has also lost five of the last six, including three straight to start Mountain West play.

“I think any of you who have watched our games lately, you look at it and it’s been tough to watch,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “I think with all the talent that we have this year, everybody’s wondering how can we get this ship turned around? That’s when you make decisions to try to get it turned around.”

Rice will receive his full buyout, which is the base salary ($300,000) for the remaining years on his contract, plus whatever he’s owed for the remainder of this season. It will come out to about $1 million, but that doesn’t mean much right now for Rice, a guy who once turned down better money at South Florida in order to try to win where it mattered to him more.

“It’s unique when you can be a player, an assistant coach and a head coach at your alma mater,” Rice said. “I’ll always appreciate that opportunity I had.”

In a very down year for the league, anything less than a top two or three finish might not have been enough in decision-makers’ eyes, and the Rebels already needed to win the conference tournament to have any shot at the NCAA Tournament. Now it will be up to Simon, who three years ago was leading Findlay Prep, a top national high school program, to see he if can pull of that run and win the tournament in the Thomas & Mack Center for the first time since 2008.

“You never really want to take it over in these circumstances, so from that standpoint it’s mixed emotions,” Simon said. “But certainly excited for the opportunity to continue on with these guys because I love this team.”

Like Rice, Simon worked on UNLV’s staff before getting the top job (for now). Simon was a graduate assistant under Lon Kruger and then joined the inaugural staff at Findlay Prep, the Henderson-based basketball program founded by UNLV booster and former basketball player Cliff Findlay, before replacing Rebel assistant Justin Hutson.

Findlay was one of the boosters who pushed for a coaching change last March. Considering the Rebels could have conceivably gone with any of the four remaining assistants for the interim job, Kunzer-Murphy had to shoot down speculation that it was Findlay picking his guy over Stacey Augmon, Ryan Miller or special assistant Max Good.

“I haven’t talked to Cliff Findlay in a week,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “He didn’t make those decisions.”

Although Simon said the staff has a good relationship, the choice could potentially cause ripples through the staff, let alone how the players will react. Good has head-coaching experience and was in a similar situation during the 2000-01 season, when he became UNLV’s interim coach after Bill Bayno was fired, and Augmon has been on Rice’s staff the entire time.

In a tweet she later deleted, Augmon’s wife, Leslye, sent this out as the news was breaking: “Stacey is getting f’’’”d just like the last time he was here. Todd Simon really? ?????? I am done #RebelFamily NOT”

Simon, Augmon and Miller were all changed to the same title this offseason — associate head coach — but the previous season Simon was tabbed as the top assistant, and according to UNLV’s online salary database Simon is also the highest paid of that trio.

Simon’s primary job has been to bring in players — he said the four incoming class of 2016 players have all backed up their commitments — and that recruiting success has sort of led to this day. Increased recruiting rankings helped to lead to greater on-court expectations, and keeping recruits was a big part of both keeping Rice away from South Florida in 2014 and keeping him at all last spring.

When those results didn’t materialize, and in fact went backwards, there eventually was only going to be one person to blame, though Rice said he doesn’t view his tenure as a failure.

“I think you only fail when you stop trying,” Rice said. “… If we can lie our head on a pillow at night and we can say that every decision that I made was made with the right heart, and I gave it everything I had every day, you can’t have any second thoughts. You learn from the past and you try to do better moving forward, and that’s how I look at it.”

Rice’s legacy will go down as an excellent recruiter who was never able to get that talent to consistently cohere together on the court. UNLV finished third in the conference each of Rice’s first three seasons before falling to seventh last year, the program’s worst finish in Mountain West play and the lowest it’s been in the league standings since 1998 in the Western Athletic Conference.

UNLV’s 0-3 start has them one spot from the bottom in the current standings for the league, which might get only one bid into this year’s NCAA Tournament. Overall, Rice went 98-54 and 37-32 in Mountain West play, although he was only 27-22 and 8-13 since agreeing to a new contract through the 2018-19 season.

Rice took over for Lon Kruger, who currently has Oklahoma ranked in the top 10, in 2011 and his win total has dropped each year, going 26, 25, 20 and then 18 last year, his first with a roster built entirely of players he and his staff recruited.

Kunzer-Murphy, who is in the final year of her own contract, missed the team’s recent road trip because of athletics director meetings in Phoenix. Kunzer-Murphy became UNLV’s AD about three years ago, and in that time, among other things, she gave a new contract to football coach Bobby Hauck, a new contract to baseball coach Tim Chambers and an extension to Rice before showing all three the door for various reasons.

Neither Kunzer-Murphy or UNLV President Len Jessup were at the university when Rice was hired. Combined with outside pressure from boosters and that could have made the decision easier to cut bait during the season.

“I want to thank Coach Dave Rice for all of his efforts,” UNLV President Len Jessup said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the results on the court did not reflect the passion and dedication he has for the program. Dave is a role model as a person who has demonstrated professionalism throughout his tenure. This was not an easy decision, but sometimes change is necessary to move forward."

With media appearance and apparel deals, Rice was making about $700,000 annually, plus possible performance bonuses. The Rebels’ options for their 12th full-time coach will be determined largely by how much they are willing to pay, but one name rumored around for next season is former Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. Brown’s son, Elijah, is a sophomore at New Mexico and Brown has been out of coaching since the Cavaliers fired him in 2014.

Kunzer-Murphy mentioned several times that there’s a lot to play for this season, so if a drastic turn around does happen Simon could be in the mix. However, a national search seems more likely, particularly after UNLV just went with a first-time coach, and Simon said he’s not approaching the position as a long-term plan.

“I live a motto of do the next thing right, and that’s about as perfect as you can be,” Simon said. “… I’m more concerned about this next practice here in 10 minutes.”

While Simon left the Mack for the short walk over to a late-night practice at the Mendenhall Center, Rice remained for his last official meeting as UNLV’s coach. He could sense this coming, and it was made worse by the fact that Rice could see in games like the Indiana and Oregon victories how good his team could be.

They were right there, he believed, a few mistakes away from being great. Now it’s up to Rice’s former staff to get them there while he surveys the remnants of a dream job from which me must awake.

“I think the program is now nationally relevant,” Rice said. “Every senior scholarship player went through graduation, we had no NCAA issues and we made a big difference in the community with our autism foundation. I think from that standpoint, overall it was a success. As a coach you always want to win more games and get to more NCAA tournaments and so there’s some unfinished business, no doubt, but I think we left the program in better shape than we took it over, just like Lon Kruger did.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or taylor.bern@lasvegassun.com. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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