Just about 24 hours after losing at Wyoming to drop to 0-3 in Mountain West play, Dave Rice is out as head coach at UNLV.
Shortly after Matt Youmans of the Review-Journal tweeted out the news on Sunday evening, the university confirmed the move via press release, calling Rice’s dismissal a “resignation.”
The full statement from athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy:
“Earlier today I met with Dave Rice and after discussing the direction of our season, we mutually agreed that it was time for a change. Dave has had a great deal of success during his tenure as our head coach. He loves this University, this community and his players. He will always be a cherished member of the Runnin’ Rebel family and we are grateful for all he has done for this program. However, being winless in conference play and losing five of the last six games is simply not good enough for Runnin’ Rebel basketball.”
Third-year assistant Todd Simon will take over as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2015-16 slate, and UNLV will conduct a full coaching search after the season.
Rice was in his fifth season as head coach. After making the NCAA tournament in his first two years (2011-12 and 2012-13), Rice’s squads missed the postseason the past two seasons, and after losing three straight games to start the Mountain West schedule, the university decided it was time to part ways.
Rice signed a contract extension during the spring of 2014 and had three years remaining on his pact after this season. According to the press release, Rice will be paid the full remainder of his contract, which is usually a strong indication that a coach has been forced out.
“I am particularly proud of our accomplishments, not only on the court, but also academically and in recruiting,” Rice said via a statement. “It has been a great honor to coach at my alma mater and I wish the players, the coaches, the University, the program and the fans the very best as they move forward.”
Some quick thoughts on the move:
Expectations not met
Rice’s greatest sin may have been raising expectations to an unrealistic level. By all accounts, UNLV has the athletics budget of a mid-major school, but Rice aspired to build the basketball program into a national brand. That included recruiting at a five-star level, scheduling like a blue blood and promising run-and-gun teams reminiscent of the Tark era.
The fan base, the media and especially prominent boosters bought into the hype and expected glitz and glamour and top-25 caliber results. When Rice was unable to mold his collection of top recruits into a consistent winner—unexplainable losses to also-ran Mountain West teams were especially painful—the university decided four and a half seasons was enough and it was time to move on.
Is it possible to return UNLV to the top level of college basketball? Maybe. Rice proved it’s possible to recruit the players necessary to restore the program to the national rankings. But it will take an extraordinary coaching talent with proven recruiting chops and X’s and O’s ability to mold UNLV into a Final Four contender anytime soon.
Is there a coach with those credentials out there to be hired? And will he fit into the university’s meager budget? That will be the main storyline in the offseason.
Simon to top spot
For the next 15 games, the Rebels will be in the hands of third-year assistant Todd Simon, who started as a video coordinator at UNLV from 2004-06 before making a name for himself as the head coach for Findlay Prep’s nationally renowned high school powerhouse.
Simon, 35, has played a leading role in bringing analytics to UNLV, and he figures to employ some of the same data-driven tactics that he used to make Findlay Prep into an unbeatable machine. Obviously, UNLV won’t have the same kind of talent advantage that Findlay Prep had over its opponents, but Simon preaches smart shot selection and a harassing style of defense that the Rebels seem equipped to play. Of course, we’re midway through the season, so the product on the court may not change dramatically, but I’d expect Simon to at least put his stamp on the team as much as he can, given the circumstances.
Impact on players
No players have been made available to the media, and they probably won’t until Monday at the earliest, so it’s too early to say how the locker room is going to handle Rice’s dismissal. But a coaching change obviously presents huge upheaval for college players, who were all recruited by Rice and committed to his program because they felt some sort of bond with the man.
The biggest question now is how the move will impact the roster. Some players will consider transferring, and some of the more talented guys may lean toward the NBA draft rather than sticking around and taking their chances in 2016-17 with a coach they didn’t sign up to play under. But I think most of the players will stick with UNLV. Derrick Jones committed to the Rebels last spring, when rumors were swirling about Rice’s job security, and he said he was pledging to the program, not one coach:
RunRebs: How closely have you been following the Dave Rice job situation this week?
Derrick Jones: I don’t know a lot about what’s going on there, or what’s going to happen next year. If coach Rice is the coach next year, I’ll give him 100 percent. And if he’s not, I’m still going to give 100 percent. That’s the school I committed to, and they’re going to get my heart and my all.
So while the immediate panic is that Patrick McCaw and Stephen Zimmerman and Jalen Poyser and Derrick Jones and Jordan Cornish and every other valuable player will bolt in the offseason due to Rice’s departure, I think it’s unlikely we’ll see a ton of roster attrition. Players committed and transferred and declared for the draft while Rice was the coach, and they’ll continue to do so now that he’s gone. I expect Jones’ point of view to be the most common.
As a final note, I’d like to express a sentiment that is going to be very common in the coming days. And that is that Dave Rice is, without question, a quality man who respected everyone he dealt with during his time as head coach, and that includes the media. He gave serious consideration to every question asked, and always delivered thoughtful answers, whether it was in a relaxed setting before practice or minutes after a tough loss. Regardless of his win-loss record, he understood how much UNLV basketball means to the fans and treated his position with reverence. For that, I’ll wish him well in his future endeavors.