by Jack Rieger
In late February of this year, Dave Rice sat quietly in Lawlor Events Center and watched a Nevada basketball shoot-around. Just one month earlier, he had been fired as the head coach at UNLV — a program he won a national championship with as a player, then went on to coach for 15 years as both an assistant and head coach. Rice was let go in the middle of the season, an unorthodox, cold move in the world of college basketball.
Rice is the third-winningest head coach in UNLV’s history, amassing a 98-54 record. He led UNLV to two NCAA tournament appearances in the four full seasons he coached and recruited a top-25 class in every year except his first. But 16 games into the 2015-2016 season, UNLV was 9-7 overall and 0-3 in conference. Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy met with Rice a day after UNLV’s third conference loss and the two mutually agreed Rice would resign as coach, although the consensus opinion among Las Vegas media was that Rice was forced out.
“It was difficult for me, for our family and certainly for the program,” Rice said. “I’m proud of the time I spent at UNLV. Some of my best friends in the world were guys that I’ve played with at UNLV or that I’ve coached with. It’s a special place for [my family].”
Rice is too respectful and gracious to speak badly about his former employer, but the truth is UNLV — a program Rice has given so much to since he was 21 years old — harshly dumped him in the middle of a season in an attempt to satisfy angry boosters and divert attention from a dysfunctional decision-making leadership group.
UNLV solidified its chaotic reputation following Rice’s firing, as the program cycled through four different coaches in the span of 100 days. Todd Simon, Rice’s replacemnt, was hired by Southern Utah at the end of the season. UNLV then inked Chris Beard to a five-year deal, but 19 days later Beard fled UNLV for Texas Tech. The Rebels settled on a contract with Marvin Menzies shortly after Beard skipped town, concluding the most dysfunctional and embarrassing month in program history.
After Rice was fired from his alma mater in January, he was able to watch his son Travis play high school basketball for Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. Gorman, a powerhouse program coached by Rice’s brother Grant, was playing in the state championship tournament in Reno on Feb. 25. Nevada head coach Eric Musselman invited Rice to watch a shoot-around at Lawlor the day before his son’s game. After the shoot-around, the two men spoke at length about their lives as basketball coaches.
“We talked about recruiting and building programs and his experiences in basketball and my experience in basketball,” Rice said. “I told him how confident I was that he was building a really strong program at Nevada and I thought they were going to be really good in the coming years.”
What Rice didn’t know at the time was that Musselman would eventually ask him to be an assistant coach on his staff.
“Over the course of the next couple months, we just stayed in touch through direct message,” Rice said. “When there was an opening on his staff, he reached out to me and we had a really good conversation and it absolutely felt right. I have a lot of respect and confidence in him and obviously there was an opportunity for me, so it just worked out that way.”
Rice was hired as a Nevada assistant coach on April 25, 107 days after being fired by the in-state rival. As an experienced and respected coach, Rice had opportunities to work as a head coach for other programs, but was so impressed with Musselman that he chose Nevada.
“There were other opportunities that I looked at, but I felt very good about the direction of coach Musselman’s program,” Rice said. “It gave me an opportunity to come in and learn from a very good basketball coach and be a part of something that I think is very, very special.”
While UNLV basketball has been characterized by chaotic coaching moves and disastrous management decisions, Nevada has evolved into a Mountain West power since Musselman took over the program last March. Musselman has recruited talented players like first-team Mountain West forward Cameron Oliver and convinced transfer stars like Jordan Caroline and Marcus Marshall to sacrifice minutes for a winning program. His latest use of witchcraft was persuading Rice — one of the most experienced assistant coaches in college basketball — to come to a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2007.
“Last year we didn’t have a guy that had head coaching experience,” Musselman said. “I mean, he’s coached more Division I games than I have.”
Rice’s hiring is the single most important move Musselman has made since coming to Nevada. The Wolf Pack now has one of the most experienced coaching duos in the entire country; the aggregate of their coaching resumes looks like a basketball encyclopedia. But the greatest tangible impact Rice will have is on recruiting. At UNLV, Rice was known as a masterful recruiter, convincing the likes of Anthony Bennett (first overall pick), Patrick McCaw (Golden State Warriors) and Stephen Zimmerman (Orlando Magic) to play for him. And remember, his brother is the head coach at Bishop Gorman — a high school that acts more like an NBA assembly line than an academic institution. Rice’s ability to recruit coupled with Musselman’s ability to maximize player potential make Nevada a tournament-bubble team this year.
Anyone who’s ever spent time with Rice on or off the basketball court knows about his personality. He’s not the typical fiery basketball coach who yells at players like a drill sergeant.
“He’s a steady, calm voice,” Musselman said.
Rice has a sterling reputation as a coach and a person, and especially as an effective listener. He wants to understand what motivates players and cares about their lives off the court.
“The first thing he says every time I see him is not ‘are you ready for practice,’ it’s always ‘how are you doing?’” said senior guard DJ Fenner. “How is your family, how are your grades? He wants to know about you before he talks about basketball. That’s my favorite thing about him.”
Fenner has played at Nevada for four years; he’s seen two different head coaches and countless assistant coaches who utilize different ways of coaching players. But he really appreciates Rice’s interest in his personal life.
“It means a lot because so many people get caught up in the game when there’s so many more intangibles and other aspects to it,” Fenner said. “A lot of the time a player is affected just as much by things off the court as on the court, so it’s really awesome that he’s like that.”
The pairing of Rice and Musselman looks more like a marriage from a family sitcom than a coaching duo. Musselman is extremely intense, relentlessly pacing around the court and shouting instructions. Rice is almost the exact opposite. He prefers to listen to coaches and players have constructive conversation at meetings or practices before contributing his carefully thought-out response. The personality combo seems to be working through the first few months.
“We’re a good match together for sure,” Musselman said. “Any time you can get someone that’s kind of an opposite personality of you it’s an added benefit. He’s a guy we’re going to rely on. Players are going to rely on him for advice through good times and tough times, and I think he’s a steady influence.”
Fenner has already recognized Rice’s natural tendency to reach his players.
“He gives great advice,” Fenner said. “For me personally, he’ll tell me I play best when I’m happiest and when I’m having fun out there. He’ll let me know he’s thinking about me or he wants me to do well, or he’ll give me positive encouragement.”
This is what Rice does better than anything else, and it’s what almost all of his former players will attest to. He is a skillful communicator and understands how to influence the emotional aspect of an athlete. It’s no coincidence that one of Rice’s favorite coaches is Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who’s also known for his Yoda-like ability to relax his players. Rice’s emotional intelligence combined with Musselman’s coaching ability is the perfect leadership duo for a team of 18- to 22-year-old college students.
When Dave Rice sat alone in Lawlor Events Center eight months ago — still feeling the raw emotion of being fired from his alma mater — he did what he does best: he quietly observed and analyzed an improving basketball team.
And he liked what he saw.
Jack Rieger can be reached on Twitter @JackRieger or by email at email@example.com.