Ice down those scorching-hot takes on whether Dave Rice should have been fired now or at all before they burn us like summer seat belts. Stash that opinion right next to the one on the perfect guy to become the next Runnin’ Rebels Basketball Coach Who Is Not Jerry Tarkanian (totally an official title). Right now, UNLV fan, demand this answer from the Rebel in the mirror: What exactly do you expect from your basketball program? If the reflection replies with any combination of “1990,” “glory days” or “Tark,” smash your mirror. Yesteryear ain’t yesterday.
Tarkanian’s championship deserves to be celebrated as the pinnacle of sporting achievement in Nevada. Cherish it because of how difficult it was to win. The Rebels made their first Final Four in 1977. They missed March Madness the next six years and needed seven more to claim their only crown. Today’s Rebels need the sun to set on outdated expectations so their shadow doesn’t smother what success could look like now. Don’t evaluate Rice’s tenure until you define concrete expectations of UNLV basketball that honor 1990’s success while working in 2016’s reality. The facts: Rice carried the 1990 pedigree, recruited well against legacy schools, operated a program free of controversy, won 64 percent of his games and failed to match the postseason success of Tark or Lon Kruger. How you evaluate these facts will set your framework.
Even if you lower your standard to Top 25 rankings or NCAA Tournament victories, start gathering quarters from the couch, because winning costs cash currently not in UNLV’s budget. Starting the night Duke became a four-letter word in Las Vegas, Power 5 schools—the richest and most dominant—won 19 of the next 25 national championships. Rice regularly recruited against these behemoths and often won, building four classes ranked in the national top 15. USA Today reported in April that the average salary for Power 5 coaches qualifying for the NCAA Tournament sat near $2.9 million. The capital ‘P’ in Power comes from football. UNLV’s gridiron rebuild crawls through its infancy for now, as does any potential ability to generate revenue to underwrite basketball. Rice’s total compensation of $700,000 would rank 42nd among the 64 universities in last year’s March Madness. That barely keeps pace with inflation from Tark’s self-reported $400,000 package in the early 1990s, let alone today’s gassed-up paychecks.
In 2014, UNLV administrators supported Rice’s contract extension to Nevada’s Board of Regents in part with this written statement: “Coach David W. Rice has completed several very successful seasons during his tenure at UNLV … [his] 71 wins over his first three years ranks second all-time at UNLV, only to Hall of Fame Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s 73 wins.” Invoking the Tarkanian name after Rice’s third year and ushering him out with a nearly $1 million buyout following a string of disheartening losses halfway through his fifth spotlights the unpredictable nature of the coaching business. It also leads to the vital question UNLV’s next coach undoubtedly will ask in his interview: What do you expect?