Updated 

If Rice stays, excuses won’t cut it


ANAHEIM, Calif.

A thought: Maybe this is the high school relationship that everyone knows is already on rocky grounds. Maybe this is one of those times when everyone but the quarterback and cheerleader can see the eventual ending to things.

Maybe this is a way for everyone involved to elegantly avoid stepping into a mud puddle if things continue down their current path.

Dave Rice has an offer to become the basketball coach at South Florida. It’s a lucrative one. It’s reportedly for six years at $1.3 million annually. It’s nothing to sneeze at.

It’s also some pretty big leverage for a coach who has led UNLV’s program for three years and has no NCAA Tournament wins to show for it, a serious amount of cheese for someone whose team had two McDonald’s All-Americans this past season and didn’t make the NCAAs or NIT.

How often can you say that?

But college basketball is a crazy business and for it, Rice was able to return from meeting with South Florida officials and sit with Rebels athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy on Friday to discuss how UNLV might be able to keep its coach.

Which is to say offering him a contract extension he has wanted for some time. He is signed for three more years. He’s likely asking that number be doubled.

The most important point: Even if UNLV and its boosters and Board of Regents agree that extending Rice is the correct choice after meeting early today on the matter, the pressure and expectations on him to win next season only increase that much more. The scrutiny will only intensify.

Even if there is more guaranteed UNLV money on the table in response to the South Florida offer, winning in March will remain the most significant part of any season for Rice.

Las Vegas is a town that eats its own. When it comes to a UNLV basketball team that underachieves, the lines at feeding time stretch from one end of the Strip to the other. Rice knows this. It could be one reason, along with the fat dollar signs attached to the South Florida offer, why he is seriously considering making Tampa, Fla., his new home.

College basketball coaches are a paranoid lot. They want to be loved. They care what others think. Many lack the sort of thick skin they claim to own. Rice’s skin isn’t all that thick and that has translated to his team not being all that tough.

He has serious issues to fix within the UNLV program. It needs more discipline, more of an identity. Any identity. And while the alum has always referred to leading the Rebels as his dream job, Rice’s margin for error here (no matter any extension) would be far less than in Tampa.

It wasn’t difficult to gauge across social media on Friday who fans were most worried about losing, Rice or his nationally-ranked recruiting class. The latter won going away. But that’s how fans think. It’s almost always more about players.

His program ended this past season on a downward trend. His top recruiter (Heath Schroyer) left for a head coaching job. There is still a chance key players (forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith) also bolt. He mutually agreed to part ways with guard Bryce Dejean-Jones.

I believe Kunzer-Murphy will assemble a package that meets those wishes Rice has imparted. I believe that deep inside, he wants to prove that UNLV made the correct choice in handing him the reigns to its program.

That he wants to stay.

But whether or not the types of student-athletes Las Vegas attracts are ones Rice can win big with remains a question to be answered. It’s one he needs to ask himself with an open and honest heart as he debates whether or not to leave.

He needs to do what’s best for his family and there are many dynamics that come with that. Finances. Schooling for his children. Quality of life.

And, mostly, pressure to win.

It affects not only Rice, but his wife and two sons as well.

It doesn’t make it right when family members are harassed for the father’s team losing, but such is the warped sporting society that breeds many delusional fans.

Should he leave, Rice would enjoy wonderful job security and put his family in a financial position it perhaps never dreamed of. It would also ensure that some of those closest to him here never have to face the reality of ending his tenure should the Rebels not win enough, of one day having to possibly fire one of the program’s beloved sons.

Maybe he stays and gets tougher on his team and his recruiting class is as good as advertised and the Rebels begin making deep runs in March. Maybe it all works out as planned and he is the coach here for the next few decades.

But maybe, just maybe, the only ones who really don’t know the best answer in all of this are the quarterback and cheerleader.

Maybe the universe is telling all sides involved that there is an elegant way to one day avoid stepping in that mud puddle.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.