Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 | 2 a.m.
If you know Dave Rice, the answer is self-evident. But you ask anyway, because the response flips open his character:
Have you ever gambled?
The 43-year-old head coach of UNLV’s men’s basketball team, a man who has spent much of his adult life in Las Vegas, grins slightly. He blinks, as if waiting one extra count to deliver the obvious:
“It just never interested me,” he says, pivoting slightly in the maroon, leather-upholstered chair in his clutter-less Thomas & Mack Center office. “It’s kind of strange, but I’ve just never had an interest in it.”
Would it be accurate to say this is because he is only interested in sure things?
“That would be very accurate,” he says.
And is that why he wound up as the head coach at UNLV, because for Dave Rice it was the surest thing out there?
“Probably, probably,” he says. “I like to know what the score is. I like to know what my chances are. I like to control my environment, if that’s what you’re talking about, absolutely. That’s my personality.”
Rice’s thin grin widens.
“You know, I don’t even know how to play poker,” he says. “Obviously I know how to play blackjack. I get the 21 thing. I can figure that out. But if you put me in a poker game, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
But somehow, you feel if the coy and crafty Dave Rice were to enter that culture, he would be a lethal poker opponent. You would never want to play cards against this man.
UNLV opens the Dave Rice Era on Friday night, on the aces-wild date of 11/11/11, against visiting Grand Canyon University (tip-off is 7 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center). The Rebels are depleted, missing star senior forward Chace Stanback, suspended by Rice for the opener because of a DUI-marijuana charge in May. Sophomore forward Carlos Lopez has been ruled out indefinitely following an ankle injury suffered in practice. It’s good that Rice’s first official game is against the Antelopes, a spirited but low-risk opponent.
For Runnin’ Rebel devotees, Rice’s path to the head coaching position at UNLV is a familiar and oft-told tale. He was a two-year letterman under legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian, a member of the 1990 national championship team and the 1991 squad that was nipped by Duke in the national semifinals. A Rhodes Scholar at UNLV and seemingly destined to attend law school, he instead snapped up an offer from Tarkanian to serve as an assistant for the 1991-1992 season.
And he stayed on for another 10 seasons, a support role in which he prospered through equal measures triumph and turmoil inside the Rebel program. Rice was often a beacon of familiarity amid a series of coaching changes: Bill Bayno, Max Good and Charlie Spoonhour all came and went in the years Rice served as an assistant.
“I’ve been fortunate to have learned a lot from all my stops,” Rice says, and then stops himself. “And, some of those stops were not really me leaving, but a new coaching staff coming in.”
Spoonhour, playing the final hand of his widely respected college coaching career, was brought in largely to restore order (and even sanity) to the Rebel hoops program. The unassuming, silver-haired hoops guru helmed the Runnin’ Rebels from 2001-04, a period of needed calm in the annals of UNLV hoops.
That UNLV never reached the NCAA Tournament in Spoonhour’s tenure matters less to Rice than the manner in which the avuncular coach conducted himself. Asked who, aside from Tarkanian and BYU coach Dave Rose (under whom Rice served as an assistant for six years ending in 2011) he particularly admired as a head coach, Rice first mentions Spoonhour.
“He was someone I had great respect for as a basketball coach, but I’ve always said that he’s as good a person as I’ve ever been around,” Rice says, and that opinion is hardly a surprise. As Rice talks of the old coach, you notice a bobblehead of Spoonhour placed on a shelf behind the coach’s desk. “I don’t have to qualify that by saying in basketball, but in life. He’s just a terrific person, good-hearted, and someone who proved you can be a good person and be really successful in our business.”
When Spoonhour retired, Rice went on to what he terms “bluer pastures,” first to Utah State and then BYU, serving as a top assistant in both programs. As he relocated to Logan and, later, Provo, Lon Kruger took over at UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels’ return to the NCAA Tournament — especially their 2007 Sweet Sixteen appearance — thrilled the team’s hard-core fans in Vegas. Kruger left the program in good order, vacating the position only as Oklahoma offered a healthier contract.
“One of the biggest things for us is, we know we’re taking over a program that’s been really good,” Rice says. “Coach Kruger has done a really good job, just like coach Spoonhour, and he did it with integrity. He did it in a way that people can be really proud of the results.”
As Kruger made it known, on April Fool’s Day, that he was leaving the UNLV program for Oklahoma, Rice’s name leapt to the fore as one of the position’s top contenders. He was a devoted Runnin’ Rebel disciple, but says he never laid his cards out as a likely UNLV head coach during his 18 years as an assistant.
“I never spent any time on a day-to-day basis thinking about when I was going to be a head coach,” Rice says. “But at the same time, if you had asked me, ‘Do you think you will be a head coach someday?’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, I think it’ll happen.’ ”
He wasn’t alone. Former Rebel great Reggie Theus was also hot after the job. The contest for the coveted Runnin’ Rebel position left Rice and Theus as the last players at the table. Rice was selected. Theus, who also sought the job in 2004 when it went to Kruger, was passed over once more.
How’s the relationship between the two loyal, if dissimilarly styled, Runnin’ Rebels today?
“We’ve talked several times since I was selected as the coach, and Reggie has been really supportive,” Rice says. “He’s one of the great Rebels of all time, no question … Of course, I wanted to be the coach just like Reggie wanted to be the coach, and I would have been extremely supportive if Reggie had been selected. He would have done a terrific job. He’s got a great track record. He’s a good coach, he’s a good person, all those things. So I think that’s been a real positive.”
Rice pauses, knowing that in any high-stakes contest, there can be hard feelings among the competitor who falls short.
“Anything that would have been talked about out there,” he says, gesturing toward the window that shows a healthy chunk of the Strip, “that’s just not the case between Reggie and me. We have a good relationship, and we talk and will continue to talk.”
Given what, for him, is uncharted authority, Rice has stacked his deck with one former Runnin’ Rebel teammate he says gives the program “instant credibility when he walks on the court.” Making his return to the Thomas & Mack Center is Stacey Augmon, and he’s easy to find at the start of Rebel practices: He’s the coach who runs drills with the team.
“Everyone knows Stacey was a great college player and played 15 years in the NBA,” Rice says. “But what really struck me in the years we’ve played together was what a great teammate he was. He’s still a very humble and loyal person, and he’s 100 percent committed to try to figure out the best way to win.”
Augmon’s mere presence reminds longtime fans of the haughty days when NCAA Tournament appearances were a given, and the Final Four was an accepted goal. But with every passing year, the memory of those teams and the national championship ebbs.
What are the realistic expectations of this year’s team? Again, shrewdly, Rice plays it close to the vest.
“I believe that our expectation, as a staff, is to be making progress toward having a roster that has the opportunity to compete to get to a Final Four at some point in time,” he says.
At some point in time? Are there specifics, a time frame?
Realizing he has strayed far from a catchphrase that would fit on any billboard or game program, Rice adds, “I know I’m stating that a little ambiguously, to some degree, but I don’t really know, for sure. I can’t really judge how the expectations are in 2011 vs. 1995, whatever year you want to judge … I do think we have a high expectation for our program. What that is, exactly, or how that’s going to shake out, I don’t know.”
Though he might not practice bumper-sticker psychology, Rice does possess an innate knowledge of the game. His father, Lowell, is a retired coach at Rice’s alma mater of Claremont High in Southern California. His younger brother, Grant, has shown similar acumen, and his position as the head coach at basketball power Bishop Gorman High means the Rice brothers represent a pair of kings in the Las Vegas hoops community.
As an assistant, Dave Rice was an active and effective recruiter. And here, as he rises to prominence as a head coach in his own adopted hometown, his brother is the overlord of one of the region’s top prep basketball programs.
This dynamic is already in play as Grant Rice, himself a former Rebel guard, coaches one of the country’s premier players, 6-foot-6-inch forward Shabazz Muhammad.
Muhammad, who visited USC on Halloween weekend, has put UNLV on the oft-discussed “shortlist” of colleges he’ll select from when he signs in 2012. His younger brother by a year, guard Rashad Muhammad, is also a coveted prospect. Dave Rice has joked that if one of his brother's top players picks a college other than UNLV, Rice family gatherings might get a little dicey. But he is delicate when seriously describing this confluence of relationships.
“Like anything in life, there are probably some inherent advantages and disadvantages to that relationship,” Rice says. “First and foremost, I am Grant’s biggest fan. I agonize over his games and cheer so hard for him, when he wins the state championship I’m really, really happy for him, and when they come up a little bit short, like they did last year, it’s agonizing for my family, for me, for him …”
Empathy aside, Rice makes it clear he’s not going to lean on his familial ties to land a player. It’s often difficult recruiting Las Vegas players to UNLV, he says, because “there is this inherent feeling among local players that, while we have an advantage because we have access to them and they have access to us, the mind-set is, ‘Do I want to stay home, or do I want to experience another part of the world?’ ”
The key to recruiting, he says, is as simple as a single-card draw.
“It’s being really diligent and really believing in what you’re selling,” he says. “I am genuinely interested in learning about people and finding out where someone is from, what they’re about, what makes them tick. I just enjoy asking what their background is, because I just think it gets to the heart of what someone is about, their background and what they value and what they’re doing now. I’m just really fascinated by people’s life stories.”
There is a photo played prominently in the HBO documentary “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV,” where Rice is shown being led from the court, blood pouring from his nose. He recalls being hit with an elbow while wading into the lane for a rebound during a game against San Jose State.
“Of course, my teammates were joking with me, ‘You’re supposed to be behind the 3-point line. You’re not supposed to be trying to get a rebound. That’s what you get,’ ” Rice says, laughing. “But probably, in a way, it was how I earned my stripes a little bit with my teammates.”
The point: Rice’s demure demeanor does not at all mean he is a benign competitor. He might sound ambiguous about his team’s objectives, especially over the near future, but Rice clearly strives to achieve greatness. His favorite book is Jim Collins’ self-help best-seller “Good To Great.” His favorite line from that book is, “You don’t have to go very far to see that the enemy of great is good.”
Rice, too, has been in the game long enough to know he deserves this chance. He is a big fan of the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” and is asked if he would have chiseled his way to redemption over several years, in the same methodical manner as demonstrated by that movie’s central character, Andy Dufresne.
“Probably so,” Rice says. “I just think that there are so many lessons in that movie. Maybe it characterizes my whole story, just the perseverance. The one thing I would give myself credit for is that I would be patient enough to wait my turn and figure out a way, and smile, and make it work.”
Smile and make it work. Dave Rice is holding the right cards. By the time he leaves this game, his stack of chips will be higher than when he started. In Vegas, it’s as close to a sure thing as you’ll find.