Rice is right at Rutgers

He’s a 41-year-old who earns a six-figure salary in one of the toughest leagues in college basketball. Still, there are times when Rutgers’ Mike Rice sounds more like player than a coach.

Take Monday, for instance.

Less than two weeks before his first game on the Scarlet Knights’ bench, Rice said during a phone conversation that an opinion of him has already been formed throughout the Big East.

“Let’s be honest,” Rice said, “compared to the other Hall of Fame coaches in this league, no one thinks very much of Mike Rice.”

Mike Rice wants to prove that it is possible to win at Rutgers.
(Thomas Cain/AP Photo)

Ah yes, the always-popular “disrespect card.”

Athletes use it all the time to motivate themselves for games. Then there’s Rice, who apparently will let it fire him up throughout the season. The way the former Robert Morris coach sees it, most people think making a winner out of Rutgers’ long-struggling program is an impossible task.

“That excites me,” Rice said. “I come to work with a chip on my shoulder. I love proving people wrong.”

Rice may be selling himself a bit short.

If the past six months are any indication, there’s every reason to think that Rice has already won over the skeptics who haven’t seen Rutgers win an NCAA tournament game since 1983.

Of the 53 new Division I coaches hired during the offseason, not many – if any – have made as good of a first impression as Rice. With the fall signing period just a few weeks away, Rice has secured verbal commitments from five players ranked among the nation’s Top 150 prospects by Rivals.com. Rutgers has seven pledges overall.

“I didn’t play many rounds of golf this summer, let’s put it that way,” Rice said. “Our fans are hungry. They’ve been patient long enough. We’ve got to get the kind of players in here that can get this thing going in the right direction.”

Rice has plenty of athletes from which to choose.

The New York-New Jersey area is stocked with players who should have Rutgers high atop their list when it comes to choosing a school. But for whatever reason, past Scarlet Knights coaches have either failed to sign them or haven’t been able to coach them well enough once they got them on the court.

Rutgers has gone just 41-109 in Big East play the past nine years. The Scarlet Knights never finished higher than 14th in conference play under Fred Hill, Rice’s predecessor.

Twelve players either quit, transferred or were forced out under Hill, yet the school was prepared to give him one more year. Hill, though, lost his job after getting into a heated argument at a Rutgers baseball game. His father is the Scarlet Knights’ baseball coach.

That paved the way for Rutgers to hire Rice, who averaged nearly 28 wins over the last three years at Robert Morris and nearly upset No. 2 seed Villanova in the first round of last season’s NCAA tournament.

“We’ve got a lot to sell at Rutgers – especially right now,” Rice said. “I can point to [another Big East school] and say, ‘Look at this McDonald’s All-American,’ or, ‘Look at this five-star recruit. He’s only playing five to seven minutes a game as a freshman or sophomore because he’s behind someone. You’re going to play 24-28 minutes a game for me.’ We’ll sell them on that opportunity.”

Rice’s success on the recruiting trail hasn’t surprised the man who hired him.

Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti knew Rice was a good fit for the job after the two met in a New York hotel room in April. Pernetti worked with coach Greg Schiano to turn around the Scarlet Knights’ football program. Now he’s committed to doing the same thing with basketball.

“We were there for six hours,” Rice said, “and it would’ve been longer if both of us wouldn’t have gotten hungry.

“I always thought that a football A.D. would be better for me anyway, because I run my programs like a football coach. The intensity, the energy, the urgency. [Pernetti] and I just hit it off. We had the same vision.”

As good as Pernetti felt after the interview, he became even more comfortable about hiring Rice after talking with some of the top high school and AAU coaches in the East.

Rob Kennedy runs the Jersey-based Hoop Group, one of top grass roots organizations in the country. Kennedy said Rice’s ties in that state along with New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. will prove invaluable on the recruiting trail. Along with his head coaching stint at Robert Morris, Rice was also an assistant at Pittsburgh and St. John’s.

“What Mike has done in recruiting so far – with seven Big East-quality players already committed … that’s almost unprecedented,” Kennedy said. “That’s because everyone likes and respects Mike.

Rutgers players are already learning how intense Rice can be, as Robert Morris' Karon Abraham found out.
(Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

“He’s the perfect guy for Rutgers because of his energy. To have to recruit against some of the top coaches in this league on a daily basis can be a daunting task – especially for a guy at a school without a lot of basketball tradition.

“But Mike has the energy to fight through the hurdles and obstacles that he’ll come up against on a daily basis. He’ll go over those hurdles, around them, through them … whatever he’s got to do. He won’t get deterred. The passion you see is real. It’s him. He’s not flipping on a switch. It’s in his DNA.”

Indeed, while some long-time supporters were hoping Rutgers would go after a bigger name such as Bob Knight, Fran Fraschilla or Eddie Jordan, Pernetti discovered that Rice had the perfect blend of youth and passion to take on such a mammoth rebuilding effort.

Even Rice acknowledged that the program had sunk to a level where Pernetti couldn’t afford to make the wrong hire.

“The fans here are frustrated,” he said. “People from New Jersey haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about. When you haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in two decades, there’s an anger and frustration that you can’t ignore.

“Whether its ticket sales plummeting or a lack of interest from the students … it was close to being a program that no one cared about. It was a very critical hire.”

Rutgers fans realize it may be a year or two before evidence of Rice’s hard work begins to show up on the court. Standouts such as Kadeem Jack and Jerome Seagears are the future of the program. But those players – who are ranked No. 33 and No. 99 overall in the Class of 2011 – are still in high school.

In the meantime, the Scarlet Knights are preparing to open the 2010-11 season with just 10 scholarship athletes. Rutgers has a few proven players in Dane Miller, Jonathan Mitchell, Mike Coburn and James Beatty. And New Mexico State transfer Robert Lumpkins will be eligible immediately.

Rutgers, though, has major depth and size issues. Rice said there isn’t a senior on the roster.

“Teamwork over talent is something we talk about every day,” he said. “But over time, it’s usually the teams with the pros who win out. We’ll get better as the season goes on, though. They’re giving me everything they have as far as effort and energy.”

Not that they have any choice.

As much as he’s known for his relentlessness on the recruiting trail, Rice has a reputation for being a fiery, in-your-face kind of coach. One player said that Scarlet Knights practices are “R-rated.” Not that they’re surprised.

Rice, after all, has been promising to “shake up” the Scarlet Knights’ sleeping-giant-of-a-program since the day he arrived. He seems well on his way to doing just that.

“I sound a lot like the last three or four guys who have been hired at Rutgers,” Rice said. “Until I turn it around and make it a winner and get to the NCAA tournament, I’ll be just like the rest of the coaches. I think I’m different in a lot of ways, but until I actually do it, it’s just talk.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 1, 2010