Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016 | 2 a.m.
UNLV beat writer Mike Grimala joins sports editors Ray Brewer and Case Keefer to discuss UNLV's 49-point loss to Duke and how it needs to respond in games against Incarnate Word and Oregon this week.
We need to stop blaming Dave Rice.
In the aftermath of the UNLV basketball team’s 49-point shellacking by Duke on Saturday, one of the most humbling losses in Rebel history, disappointed fans took to radio shows, message boards and social media to assign blame for the once-proud program’s drastic fall. They expected to lose; just not by seven touchdowns.
Many fans seem to revert to a common scapegoat: Rice.
Rice was fired in January midway through his fifth season as the coach, but some fans can’t seem to let him get on with his life. Yes, Rice’s teams were loaded with talented players and severely underachieved, and that’s something for which he’s fully accepted blame.
But he’s not responsible for what happened Saturday. That falls squarely on the decision-makers, and the backers influencing decision-makers, at UNLV.
They had two months after firing Rice to prepare for recruiting a new coach but appeared flat-footed through the most of the process last spring. They should have had a list of plausible candidates, not pie-in-the-sky candidates. Brad Underwood went to Oklahoma State, Mick Cronin stayed at Cincinnati and Chris Beard left before the ink on his UNLV contract could dry for a better situation at Texas Tech. Were those seven days of Beard’s UNLV tenure Rice’s fault, too?
Marvin Menzies was coach option No. 6, which includes flirting with Rick Pitino and George Karl.
By the time Menzies arrived on campus in mid-April, it was absurdly late in the recruiting calendar, meaning he had to get creative in supplementing his roster of just three returning players. He signed someone who played in a second-tier level of junior college last season, a graduate transfer from the West Coast Conference and work-in-progress big men from Africa and Serbia. I didn’t realize there was Division II for junior college until Menzies signed guard Jovan Mooring.
That’s the team UNLV fielded against Duke’s roster of McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA players.
One of those All-Americans was Chase Jeter, who played at locally at Bishop Gorman High for Rice’s younger brother, Grant. Grant, who like Dave is a former Rebel, was at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday.
Here’s what he encountered:
“I just met Grant Rice, who is Dave Rice’s brother, and currently Bishop Gorman’s Head Coach,” wrote Rebel fan Andrew Carrillo on Facebook. ”Grant also decided to buy me a beer out of nowhere, which was pretty cool. I also witnessed a UNLV fan trying to heckle him because of the Dave Rice era at UNLV. Sad.”
The anti-Dave Rice comments continued on Twitter. Here’s a sample:
• “You can thank the blow-out loss to duke on Dave Rice for scheduling it.”
• Dave Rice & TKM (Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy) happened! Outside of (former UNLV President) Robert Maxson, they’re the worst thing to ever happen to UNLV!
• “It’s evident from my timeline that some #UNLVmbb fans would rather have beaten Duke, go 18-15 & miss the tourney than fire Dave Rice.”
Even Dick Vitale, the legendary ESPN announcer who called the Duke game, chimed in during the telecast: “The firing of David Rice set the program back because of when it happened. Rather than allow him to finish the entire year, middle of the season — just tough.”
The season has long been written off as a wasted year because of the mismanaged coaching search. The outcome of the Duke game was decided last March and April, not during the two hours over the weekend in front of a national television audience. Again, that’s the fault of UNLV decision-makers and nothing to do with Rice.
Rice was classy from start to finish in his coaching tenure, even positively talking about UNLV to media that cold Sunday night in January hours after being dismissed from his dream job. He beat nationally ranked opponents, including three last season, and put players into the NBA. But the Rebels missed the NCAA Tournament in three straight seasons and were a middle-of-the-pack team in the subpar Mountain West to justify the university going another direction.
That direction, unfortunately, wasn’t clearly defined. His bosses failed to realize that when you force out a coach as widely respected as Rice, that others in the industry take notice and don’t want to work for you.
The university’s quick trigger and failed coaching search will set the program back for years, especially when you consider attendance at home games has drastically declined. They have averaged about 9,259 fans through the initial six home games of the season, far less than the 15,678 in Rice’s second season of 2012-13. Do the math: 6,000 fewer fans per game at an average of $10 per ticket is $60,000 per game, or about $1 million for an 18-game season.
While Menzies may turn UNLV into a winner, the Rebels surely looked a few years away from being competitive on Saturday. He’ll need time and patience from fans and, more important, the decision-makers at UNLV, to survive the mistakes of last January-April.
It’s time to quit blaming an old coach who, besides setting an ambitious schedule, had no control over the decisions that led to Saturday’s disaster.