Dave Rice, once a teacher in sweats, has grown into a coach in a suit

Dave Rice, UNLV’s new head basketball coach, smiles as he prepares to take questions from reporters during an introductory news conference Monday, April 11, 2011.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Dave Rice introduced at UNLV

KSNV: Dave Rice Returns

The day I met Dave Rice, he was wearing sweats.

Most of the days I met with Dave Rice thereafter, he also was wearing sweats.

They were prison gray, not at all fancy, with “UNLV” shouting in red letters across the chest.

The UNLV coaching staff in those days was known more for being well-suited than sweat-suited. Then-head coach Bill Bayno and his assistants strode often onto the court as if they were models in a runway show at Fashion Show mall. Bayno hated wearing ties, that much I remember. But these guys took immense pride in looking great. If fashion style points were added to a team’s Rating Percentage Index, the formula used to rank college basketball teams, UNLV would never have dropped from the Top 10.

Assistant Coach Rice looked good, too, on game days. He always looked the part on the sideline, dapper in a scholarly sort of way. But the Dave Rice I remember, and these memories are admittedly gauzed over for the time that has lapsed, are of him in baggy UNLV sweats and Nike sneakers.

You might command respect as a head coach in an Armani suit, yes. But it’s easier to teach in sweats.

In the two seasons I covered the UNLV men’s basketball program from 1996-1998, I learned that Rice could really teach basketball. Whenever I had a question about how the Rebels would game plan an opponent, I would ask Rice. Often, we’d wind up in front of a TV with him pushing a tape into a VCR and pushing “play-rewind” over and over to show how an upcoming Rebel opponent might employ a full-court press, or abruptly switch its defense from man to zone.

One session in particular I recall was before UNLV was to play Princeton in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament in Hartford, Conn. Princeton had found success running its devastatingly effective offense, the “1-4,” which was a symphony of constant motion, quick passing and jarring back-screens. I asked Rice to break down the 1-4, and we holed up in the head coach’s office and watched tape of the Tigers execute layup after layup off this offense.

It was a thing of beauty, really, unless you were a Rebel player.

After a while, Rice pointed out that the offensive scheme was effective not for its brilliant conception, but because of the persistence and discipline of the Princeton players. The question was if UNLV had the intestinal fortitude to play tireless half-court defense on each Tigers possession.

New UNLV head basketball coach Dave Rice points to players as he speaks during an introductory news conference Monday, April 11, 2011.

“Watching this on tape can’t do this justice,” Rice said after we’d exhausted the tape. “You have to see it in person.”

Even though he was an opposing coach, you could feel that Rice was wowed by the Tigers’ precision offensive scheme. In that game, Princeton ground down the Rebels, 69-57, with an efficiency Rice had outlined days earlier.

But there is a great leap from teacher to coach. I’d heard a college basketball analyst say during the Final Four that the game has become over-coached and under-taught. That makes sense. Teaching happens in sweats, not in a suit, and that’s where I’ve known Rice to prosper. How he’d be as a head coach, in a position where so many well-suited men have been devoured, is an open question.

How well would Rice recruit? How would a man I’ve known to be demure, and even shy, deal with the inevitable glad-handing that has become as important to running a college hoops program as breaking down video of the next opponent?

Just fine, I feel.

Soon after I moved to Las Vegas, during the summer before the 1996-’97 season, my brother, Bill, visited me. I wanted to show him where I worked, so we drove to the Thomas & Mack Center. We walked the concourse and cut into the basketball offices, where we found one person working -- the guy in sweats.

Rice talked of his days playing with Tark and how he hoped to help return the Runnin’ Rebels to their glory days. It was not a long conversation and was wholly spontaneous. Afterward, Bill said, “He is the nicest guy I’ve met here so far.”

Months later, during the middle of the season, during an informal chat in his office, Rice unexpectedly asked, “How’s Bill Kats doing?”

I was startled.

“You remember, you brought him in here …” Rice started to explain.

“Yeah, I remember,” I said. “I just can’t believe that you do.”

If I had a teenage son good enough to play college basketball, I’d turn him over to Rice, no problem.

In time, I lost that job covering the Runnin’ Rebels. What else I can say about Dave Rice is, after that happened, he was the first person from the Rebel program to call me at home. I’ve not forgotten that, and I’ve long wondered if the UNLV job would bring him back to Las Vegas.

It has. The school has hired a great teacher, and more important, a great man. Whether he’ll be a great head coach depends on so many variables that no one can be certain. But I’d bet on the guy in the sweats, any time.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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