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Hill: Dave Rice opens up about UNLV firing, unsettled legacy

Updated April 21, 2024 - 11:10 am

Dave Rice is a collegiate head basketball coach again.

Finally.

More than eight years after he was forced out as coach of UNLV — with a talented roster, in the middle of a season marked by wild swings of play from a young team, including multiple Top 25 wins and an 0-3 start to league play — one of the most genuinely nice people in sports is in charge of a program once again.

It’s a long overdue development that almost certainly was delayed by the way he was unceremoniously dismissed midseason, a fate typically reserved for egregious infractions.

Not that Rice is pointing fingers at his old bosses.

“I’m really proud of what we accomplished there and all the great things,” he said by phone this week. “But I also take ownership and responsibility for the things I could have done better.

“Now with this opportunity, I will do better.”

Salt Lake-bound

Rice, 55, has been hired as the coach of Salt Lake Community College after spending the last few years as an assistant at UNR, Washington and California Baptist.

While it’s not a Division I program, SLCC is an unquestioned power at the junior college level, and Rice said the foundation and resources are there to win at a high level.

“There is great tradition here,” Rice said. “I’m just the fourth head coach since 1991, and two of the previous three won national championships. It’s in a great location, an area I’ve coached in before.

“I’ve looked forward to the opportunity to be a head coach again, and I’m excited to do it at a place where we not only have an opportunity to win, but all I’ve ever wanted to do was make a difference. And we can do that by helping kids move on to opportunities at the four-year level.”

Anyone who knows Rice, a protege of Jerry Tarkanian whose first head coaching job was at his alma mater, knows just how much he means that.

Yet his legacy at UNLV oddly remains a source of controversy. He and his staff brought in some of the most outstanding recruiting classes the school had seen in decades.

Success in Las Vegas

Those classes created wild expectations to the point that averaging 25.5 wins in his first two years and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament just wasn’t enough. By the way, the program hasn’t been back to the tournament since that 2013 campaign.

When Rice dropped to 20 and 18 wins the next two years, his seat got hot. He was forced out the next season after an 0-3 start in conference play that included heartbreaking losses at Colorado State and Wyoming.

Rice won a remarkable 10 games against ranked teams during his tenure and had his team in the polls for a total of 25 weeks. He put eight players on NBA rosters and had three top-15 recruiting classes nationally.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is when I was at UNLV, we absolutely became nationally relevant,” he said. “There wasn’t a kid in the country that wouldn’t take our phone calls. That was part of my plan. One of the lessons I learned is we got too young. I’ll never make that mistake again. Any program I’m part of will be as experienced as possible.

“Whatever certain people may have thought, the bottom line is people across the country knew UNLV basketball was back.”

Then he was gone. In the middle of the season. The kind of dismissal that leaves an unearned and undeserved stain on a resume.

“I think I’m still processing it, if I’m going to be candid,” he said. “I still don’t understand why it transpired like it did. I understand it’s a bottom-line business, but I guess I’ll never understand why it had to take place in the middle of the year. But I do understand frustration. I was frustrated.”

He knows what happened. He’s just too polite to say it.

Some people around the program thought progress was too slow, and those voices were a bit too strong for an athletic department in far over its head at the time.

What those naysayers got was nearly a decade without a postseason appearance until Kevin Kruger finally ended that drought this year. Rice offered praise for the work Kruger has done and the foundation his father, Lon, had laid, and said they were supportive of the program during Rice’s tenure.

But the staffs that immediately followed Rice struggled to reach anywhere near his level, which makes his unsettled legacy a bit odd.

“I’ve always thought it was interesting that even now my UNLV tenure is still a source of debate,” he said. “I’ve always just believed we’re all Runnin’ Rebels. Let’s just be proud of the good things we’ve done and move forward. For whatever reason, some people have a hard time moving forward.”

Learning process

That’s what Rice has tried to do. He says he was able to take lessons from each of his recent stops as an assistant that will help him be better in his second coaching tenure than his first. Hopefully, this will lead him to another Division I job down the road.

“It’s hard not to be a little frustrated at times, but when I really grew as a coach and a person was when I wouldn’t allow myself to be a victim,” he said. “There have been some things that have been very difficult to go through, but I think it was best for me to just look at it as, ‘What could I have done better?’ I could have coached better. I could have recruited better. I could have managed my program better.”

The way things ended at UNLV and the process of waiting for his next opportunity could have soured Rice, and even his family, on the business. But his son, Travis, has followed him into the profession and is coming off a state championship season as a varsity assistant under Dave’s brother Grant at Bishop Gorman. Travis also coached the JV team to a 21-1 season.

Travis won’t join Dave’s staff at Salt Lake. Yet.

“Coaching is definitely in his blood,” the proud father said. “There will come a time we will work together, for sure.”

That would be nice for the family and a reminder that good things eventually do come for good people.

Even if they have to wait awhile.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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