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Ex-UNLV coach Dave Rice takes high road with Pac-12 champs

There’s a new series on Netflix about people in sports who have suffered adversity and then risen above it. It’s called “Losers” — mostly to attract the viewer’s attention, one supposes.

Those featured: a reluctant boxer, a lower-level British soccer side, a minority figure skater (Surya Bonaly, who once lived and trained in Las Vegas), a curling skip from Canada, a self-absorbed marathon runner, a sled dog musher from Alaska, an underachieving playground basketball legend and Jean van de Velde, who ignominiously triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open when a less ignominious double bogey would have won.

While en route to the MGM Grand to meet with Dave Rice on Wednesday morning, it occurred he might be a candidate for season two.

After making 16 cameo appearances for UNLV’s 1989-90 national championship basketball team and improving the Rebels’ grade-point average to no end, the Rhodes scholar candidate served a long apprenticeship at his alma mater before moving on to Utah State and Brigham Young as an assistant.

Rice was named Rebels head coach before the 2011-12 season.

It was his dream job.

We’ll let the media guide at the University of Washington, where Rice is now a top assistant under Mike Hopkins for the Pac-12 champion Huskies, take it from there.

Fired without cause?

Rice spent four full seasons as head coach at UNLV where he led the Rebels to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2012 and 2013 and recorded an overall record of 98-54. He is the third winningest coach in UNLV history behind Jerry Tarkanian and Lon Kruger.

He mentored four players who were drafted by the NBA, including the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Anthony Bennett. During his historic first season, his UNLV squad was ranked in the nation’s top 25 for 13 straight weeks and 14 overall, reaching as high as No. 11. He also guided the Rebels to 10 wins over top 25 teams.

Rice helped bring two top 10 recruiting classes to UNLV along with a No. 11 class. He oversaw the development of Mountain West Freshman of the Year Rashad Vaughn, who went on to be drafted No. 17 overall in 2015.

Because this was a media guide which only points out the good stuff, the part about Rice being fired shortly after achieving all of the aforementioned was left out.

It happened during the middle of the 2015-16 season, which was embarrassing to Rice and inexcusable. The next time UNLV talks about taking care of its own, try not to laugh.

It happened on a surreal Sunday night within weeks after UNLV had upset top-15 teams Indiana and Oregon. At 9-7 the Rebels were scuffling, but one would have thought Dave Rice was in Barry Burn lying four sans socks with his pants rolled to his knees.

Before he was given the hydrogen cyanide without warning, Rice had turned down an overture from South Florida to stay on as Rebels coach. He was more loyal to UNLV than a Saint Bernard. Which means nothing when impatient boosters feel the urge to seek return on their investment.

UNLV threw Dave Rice so far under the bus that his familiar white dress shirt and red tie got caught in the rear differential.

Stiff upper lip

When the dirty deed was done Rice — one of the nicest guys you’ll meet — did not react bitterly. Same for Wednesday at the MGM, now that time has passed.

“It was great to be the head coach at my alma mater,” he said before heading off to watch film of some underachieving Pac-12 team with son, Travis, a reserve Huskies guard.

“I’m proud of what we accomplished. Certainly there were things we’d all do differently. But the bottom line is we had a lot of success, had a lot of guys graduate, won a lot of games. So I’ll always appreciate the opportunity I was given. Las Vegas will always be a very special place for our family.”

We were sitting just down the road from where St. Mary’s had upset No. 1 Gonzaga Tuesday night in the West Coast Conference championship game. Eight years earlier at Orleans Arena, Rice had led UNLV to a similarly stunning victory over another No. 1 side, this one hailing from Tobacco Road and wearing Carolina Blue.

“They were undefeated,” Dave Rice said of Roy Williams-coached North Carolina, a proud smile creasing his still boyish 50-year-old features. “I still have people who come up and say they were at that game, and what an exciting time that was.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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