Hold your horses Rebel fans … this guy has a lot to prove

The way the laurels are falling at his feet, you would almost think new UNLV men’s basketball coach Dave Rice had built a winning legacy as a head coach.

Legacy? He hasn’t yet built a lean-to.

His career record as a head coach is 0-0.

But don’t look at that number, Rice’s rooters say. Look at the fact he has long ties to the Rebels and has been a winning assistant. This year Rice was an "associate head coach" to Dave Rose at BYU, a program that reached the NCAA Tournament on the strength of a single star, Jimmer Fredette.

Don’t forget Rice’s best attributes, they say. He’s a hard worker. Wikipedia smart. A real leader. Good family man. Clean living. Dogs and kids love him, too.

Rice might lead the league in IQ, GPA and Boy Scout badges. But what’s his record as a head coach again?

Oh, yeah. Still 0-0.

It might not say anything about Rice’s character or coaching ability that he has been an assistant for a couple of decades, but it says plenty about UNLV.

When Lon Kruger abandoned the program for a bigger paycheck at Oklahoma, he fortunately left it in good shape. Previous coaches treated the program the way a rock star trashes a hotel room, but Kruger at least departed with the Rebels having a stocked roster and a Top 25 team.

But not many Top 25 programs hire people with 0-0 career records, or need to. Two of the program’s more embarrassing hires in the past 40 years, Tim Grgurich and Bill Bayno, knew a boatload about basketball, but weren’t prepared to run their own ship. Grgurich sank immediately. Bayno failed the character test.

Perhaps this time is different. Rice’s abundant character references argue in his favor, and maybe in recession-strapped Nevada, he’s a blue-light bargain. UNLV President Neal Smatresk admitted, "I don’t think I should talk about budget details, but obviously this wasn’t a time that we were going to come back with a Lon-sized contract for anybody."

Translation: Expect a smaller paycheck with handsome incentives.

"Dave Rice is the right person at the right time for UNLV basketball on so many different levels," athletic director Jim Livengood enthused, later adding, "I was not worried ever by the fact he hadn’t been a head coach."

Livengood should only worry if Rice falls on his face.

Before I’m flattened by the ticker-tape parade, a couple questions:

Will he recruit at a high level?

UNLV isn’t BYU, whose recruiting trips have all the drama of door-to-door insurance sales. UNLV has taken chances on junior college transfers and head cases with 36-inch vertical leaps.

Will Rice’s connection to national high school basketball powerhouse Bishop Gorman through brother/head coach Grant Rice pay dividends?

"Christmas will be a little bit strained if we don’t get some of those guys," the new head coach quipped at Monday’s coming-out party, not adding that his job might one day depend on it. Rice helped himself immensely by adding San Diego State recruiting specialist Justin Hutson to his coaching staff.

Before you rabid Rebel fans start crafting conspiracy theories, this isn’t some backhanded endorsement of former UNLV star Reggie Theus. Hardly. Theus had the smothering embrace of Jerry Tarkanian and some big boosters, but his coaching record was mixed.

Speaking of Tark, didn’t we give him a gold watch a few years ago?

By pouting about Theus, he damned Rice with slight praise. He also looked like a failed meddler. At least he showed up for the news conference.

Rice not only has to win with his own recruits one day, but he has to balance the volatile political interests that accompany being the UNLV boss. The latter may prove his greatest challenge.

And if he fails?

At least then he’ll finally be able to say he has head coaching experience.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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