Seven years ago, Dave Rice departed UNLV with no guess if he would ever get a return date. Finally, though, he got the call to come home.
"We are excited to be returning to my alma mater," Rice said Sunday after accepting an offer to be the Rebels' next basketball coach.
His welcome-back party is scheduled for today, with a 4 p.m. news conference at the Thomas & Mack Center followed by a fan reception at 5 p.m. at Cox Pavilion.
Rice, Brigham Young University's associate head coach, and his wife, Mindy, a UNLV graduate, drove from their home in Provo, Utah, to Las Vegas after he landed his first head coaching job.
Rice, 42, replaces Lon Kruger, who resigned April 1 after seven seasons to take over at Oklahoma. The terms of Rice's contract are still to be finalized.
He is trying to assemble a impressive staff. According to sources, Rice is seeking to add former Rebels star Stacey Augmon, a Denver Nuggets assistant coach, and San Diego State assistant Justin Hutson, a highly regarded recruiter.
The naming of Rice ended a coaching search, led by UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood, which turned into a tug of war between boosters and fans supporting either Rice or Reggie Theus.
Livengood announced four finalists for the position Tuesday, with Rice and Theus instantly emerging as the leading candidates.
Rice was a reserve on the Rebels' 1990 NCAA championship team and 1991 Final Four team. Theus is recognized as one of the program's greatest players, starring from 1975 to 1978 and leading UNLV to its first Final Four appearance in 1977.
"There's no way you're going to make everybody happy," Livengood said.
Brad Rothermel, special adviser to the athletic director, said the decision was bound to displease a faction of the fan base.
"Some would be irritated if David didn't get the job. Maybe more support Reggie, and they would be upset," said Rothermel, UNLV's athletic director from 1981 to 1990. "If you don't get your man home, you're going to be upset."
Theus and former Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian were in the surprised and unhappy crowd.
"This was a dream job for Reggie, and I just thought it was an automatic," Tarkanian said. "Most people wanted Reggie, or the people who I know.
"But I'm happy they got a former Rebel. It's hard for anybody to tear down Dave. He's a very good person and a very intelligent guy. I like Dave a lot."
Tarkanian's obvious preference was for Theus, who has an extensive background in the NBA as a coach and player, but he said of Rice: "I'm sure he'll be very dedicated to the job and work his tail off."
Theus, an assistant for the Minnesota Timberwolves, sounded almost stunned after getting snubbed for a job he has coveted for years.
"I'm sad. I'm disappointed, obviously," Theus said. "I'm happy for David. The opportunity is enormous. I love the Rebels, and I want the best for them."
Rice's credentials were sometimes questioned because he has no head coaching experience. He has been a college coach for 20 seasons, however, and Livengood targeted him as soon as Kruger exited.
Rice interviewed Wednesday and met for several hours with UNLV President Neal Smatresk and members of the Board of Regents, which is expected to meet Friday to approve Rice's contract.
"I thought Livengood did a terrific job," Regent Mark Alden said. "Theus is a nice guy, and I think Theus is very qualified. But the decision was made to hire Rice. He said, 'Mark, I just want to coach here. This is my dream job, and I want to come back. It's not about money.' "
An assistant at UNLV for 11 seasons, Rice was not retained by Kruger in 2004. But that move could have been a blessing in disguise for Rice, who was able to expand his résumé. He spent one season at Utah State before joining the BYU staff in May 2005. He coordinated the Cougars' offense and recruiting.
As a Rebels assistant, Rice worked under Tarkanian and head coaches Tim Grgurich, Bill Bayno and Charlie Spoonhour.
Rice was not a star player, but he was a standout student. He earned his bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV in 1991 and his MBA in 1993. He was a two-time UNLV Scholar-Athlete of the Year and a Rhodes scholar candidate. In two seasons on the court, Rice played in 38 games and started in one, scoring 57 career points.
Before UNLV, Rice attended Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., where he earned All-South Coast Conference honors as a sophomore and was chosen the 1989 California Junior College Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
He is a native of Claremont, Calif., and graduated from Claremont High School. He and his wife have two sons, Travis and Dylan.
Rice inherits a Rebels team that returns four starters from a 24-9 season that ended with a lopsided loss in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore guard Anthony Marshall, one of the team's returning starters, called Rice a "great coach" and said he and his teammates welcomed the news of Rice's hiring.
"We're looking to take UNLV to another level and start a new chapter," Marshall said.
Livengood's potential candidate pool included several high-profile names, including former Rebels great Larry Johnson and coaching legends Larry Brown and Bob Knight.
In the end, he found a true Rebel.
"Everything else being equal, and it is, you should take somebody who has strong UNLV ties," Rothermel said. "I know David very well. We have to get resources for him so he can recruit and do the things he needs to do to win."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.