PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jamie Dixon hired Mike Rice as an assistant at Pittsburgh in 2006, drawn by Rice’s passion and ability to get into the living room of a prized recruit and close the deal.
The son of a coach cut very much from the same cloth that allowed his father, Mike Rice Sr., to carve out a career at Duquesne and Youngstown State, Rice’s competitiveness was the stuff of legend.
It also came in a package that inspired loyalty and respect, which made Rice’s dismissal from Rutgers on Wednesday for physically and verbally abusing his players all the more stunning for the people that knew him long before the video surfaced of Rice manically flinging basketballs at his Scarlet Knights.
“I think the people know him here, they know he’s a good person,” Dixon said Wednesday, hours after Rice was fired. “He’s acknowledged he’s made some mistakes.”
Dixon choked up while talking about Rice, whose future in coaching remains very much in doubt.
“Mike’s a good friend,” Dixon said. “He’s a good person.”
The same coach seen yelling anti-gay slurs at his players at Rutgers is the same one who convinced highly-touted point guard Tray Woodall to leave Brooklyn to go play for the Panthers. Woodall, a senior, took to his Twitter account to defend his mentor.
“They are going at my man Mike Rice too hard,” Woodall posted. “He’s the reason I came to Pitt.”
Woodall later added Rice is “not the only coach to put his hands on a player, or talk the way he did.”
Perhaps, but now he’s out of a job.
A star on the rise three years ago after leading Robert Morris to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, Rice now finds himself a flashpoint for what is — and what is not — considered appropriate coaching behavior.
The drive to succeed that made Rice such a success at Robert Morris — a Northeastern Conference school in Pittsburgh’s western suburbs — wasn’t part of a switch that Rice flipped on whenever he entered a huddle. It was always on, regardless of the situation.
Rice once knocked out one of his father’s teeth while they were playing against each other. Former assistant coach Andy Toole, now the head coach at Robert Morris, once called Rice “crazed” by the game.
Born in Pittsburgh, Rice spent his childhood by his father’s side, learning the Xs and Os while serving as a ballboy and engaging in lengthy debate over the dinner table. While in middle school, he once stood up in the middle of the Duquesne locker room and told the Dukes they weren’t playing hard enough. The players taped him to a training table as a way of thanking him for the pep talk.
The passion that bubbled over into fury wasn’t around — for the most part — during his days with the Colonials. Rice took over the program in 2007 and took Robert Morris to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and 2010.
In that second tourney appearance, the Colonials snared a No. 15 seed and took second-seeded Villanova to overtime before losing 73-70. Under the glare of the national spotlight, though, Rice showed a bit of the over-the-top behavior that would become his calling card — and ultimately his downfall. He erupted at the officials in the waning seconds of the game, screaming profanities at them as Robert Morris’ bid for the upset fell short.
It was dismissed as a coach getting caught up in the crucible of the tournament. Rice even signed a contract extension later that month, proof of the confidence athletic director Craig Coleman had in the direction of the program and the man leading it.
Coleman declined an interview request by The Associated Press on Wednesday but in a statement called Rice’s tenure with the Colonials “successful.”
“He is obviously an intense coach, and his passion for the game was mirrored by our student-athletes on the court,” Coleman said. “The behavior on the video is quite unfortunate, but it is not indicative of Coach Rice during his tenure at RMU.”
The incident did not stop Rice’s phone from ringing after the tournament. In fact, Rice was a candidate at Fordham not long after the loss to the Wildcats, and it appeared the New York school was seriously interested in him.
There was a fit, of course, because Rice played point guard at Fordham and he had strong recruiting ties in the New York metropolitan area, as evidenced by Woodall’s commitment. Ultimately, though, Fordham went in a different direction and hired Tom Pecora away from Hofstra.
Rice was content at that point to return to the Colonials and push toward another NCAA tournament appearance. But things change quickly in the coaching business, and when Rutgers had to relieve Fred Hill, Jr., from his duties as coach after an incident at a Scarlet Knights baseball game, athletic director Tim Pernetti looked up Rice.
Within days, Rice was hired — just like that. Turned down by an Atlantic 10 school in Fordham, and content to stay at an NEC school in Robert Morris, suddenly he was in the Big East with a dream job.
Too soon? Perhaps. After all, most Big East coaches do not land there immediately after stops in the NEC, but Rutgers looked at Rice and saw the man who could turn the perennially underachieving program around.
Well, it never happened. Though Rice and the Scarlet Knights had brief bouts with prosperity, including a dominating 62-39 win over Pitt and his former boss on Jan. 11, 2012, mediocrity ruled the day in Piscataway, N.J. And there were more lowlights — like a disheartening 56-52 loss to St. Peter’s on opening night this season at home — than highlights.
It all seemed so positive that night against Dixon and the Panthers. Rice, in fact, sprinted off the floor then paid homage to Dixon in postgame interviews, admitting he borrowed heavily from Dixon’s diverse schemes.
Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said it appeared the Scarlet Knights “knew all our plays” while the Panthers suffered their worst defeat ever at the Petersen Events Center.
The moment proved fleeting. Rutgers again struggled and Rice was suspended three games by the university early this season for improper conduct. The school also fined Rice $75,000 and required him to take anger management classes. He and Dixon spoke about Rice’s issues before Pitt played in Piscataway in January and Dixon believes Rice understood the depth of his transgressions.
The Panthers came in ranked No. 24 and left with a 67-62 loss, the first victory for Rutgers since Rice returned from his suspension. It appeared the Scarlet Knights and their hyper-competitive coach were starting to figure it out.
Instead, Rice lost 12 of his final 14 games, and three weeks later, his tenure ended abruptly in scandal. While Dixon prepared to head to the Final Four and the annual coach’s convention in Atlanta, his former assistant heads into a future forever sullied by his stunning downfall at Rutgers.
Whether Rice ever gets another chance to coach again remains uncertain. Dixon doesn’t believe Rice is the monster portrayed in the videotapes that will follow him the rest of his life.
“He made some mistakes,” Dixon said, “and I’ll leave it at that.”
Follow Will Graves at @WillGravesAP