Not hard to make case for high-character, committed former Rebel

In the court of public opinion on coaching hires, it helps to have character witnesses seated on your side of the gallery.

People who not only know you but know what you’re made of, who have seen and been impressed by the qualities that make you genuine and, in many cases, special. People who will raise their right hand and swear on a Bible that you, above all others, are the right person and have what it takes.

Dave Rice has that character witness in me.

No subpoena required to get me to testify. Just the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

For some UNLV basketball fans, the jury is still out on whether the 42-year-old Rice is the right person to take over the storied Rebels program. For others, the verdict is in: Rice, after serving a 20-year apprenticeship under a number of coaches, is the correct choice; or, conversely, the university blew it Sunday when it didn’t hire the higher-profile Reggie Theus.

But for those still weighing the evidence before making their final decision, permit me to tell you a few things about the Dave Rice that I’ve known for more than 20 years.

For starters, this opportunity means everything to him. Everything.

This is not about making a name for himself and then moving on to a bigger school, or how much money he’ll make now or in the long run. This is about giving all he has in an effort to return UNLV basketball to the nation’s elite, a level he experienced as a member of the Rebels’ 1990 national championship team and dominating ’91 Final Four team.

Dave and I have spoken many times over the years about his dream of helping return the Rebels to greatness. I would talk in terms of him someday becoming the head coach; he would smile, say that would be nice if it happened and then talk in terms of being part of the program in any way that would lift it back to national prominence. Sweeping the court and picking up towels would not be beneath Dave if he felt it would help his beloved UNLV.

Believe me, if Dave has an ego — and I’m not sure he does — it’s neatly packed away in the attic, collecting dust and cobwebs behind crates of humility.

And as much as Dave is about the UNLV program, he’s more about the players who constitute it, about their well-being and the lasting relationships that are derived from showing genuine care and concern.

As I listened to Dave on Monday address a Thomas & Mack Center board room packed with media and boosters, I couldn’t keep track of the number of times he mentioned the players, what they mean to a program, how UNLV basketball should be and always will be about them while under his direction.

In a sports world where so many coaches make it all about themselves, how refreshing it is to hear a coach say that it’s all about the players — and actually mean it.

To have the success that Dave envisions will require hard work and countless hours. Fortunately for UNLV basketball fans, hard work and long days are not a foreign concept to him. Whether it was as a UNLV student, where he excelled to the level of becoming a Rhodes scholar candidate; or on the court, where he played for the demanding Jerry Tarkanian; or courtside, where he served almost two decades as an assistant coach with four programs, Dave always has embraced the long haul over the quick fix. In that way, he is much like one of his mentors, revered former Rebels assistant coach Tim Grgurich.

Then there’s the integrity that Dave Rice embodies. His honesty is simply above reproach. He’s as decent of a person as I’ve known in my 33 years living in Southern Nevada. He will never do anything to embarrass UNLV, its basketball program or the community.

In the end, however — and let’s not be naive about this — it’s about winning basketball games. Dave knows that, he accepts the challenge, and as he has said his players will do on the court, he’ll run with this opportunity.

"Over the years, I certainly hoped this would one day happen," Rice said privately, before wading into a sea of well-wishers. "In a way, it’s a little overwhelming, and I’m definitely humbled by it.

"But please don’t confuse humility with commitment. The time will come soon when it will be about playing games and winning games. I feel I’m up to the challenge. I’m committed to the challenge."

In the case of Dave Rice V. Doubting Public, the defense rests.

Joe Hawk is sports editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at jhawk@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2912.

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