When newly hired Boise State coach Leon Rice began his new gig two months ago, the longtime Gonzaga assistant was surprised by the warm reception he received from strangers who ran into him on campus or around town.
"Eventually I realized everyone here is Gonzaga basketball fans, so it started making sense to me," Rice said. "They all knew my track record from Gonzaga, so they're really excited I took the job. That makes you feel very welcome."
Rice hopes to convert some of those Gonzaga supporters into Boise State fans, but he'll have to overcome some significant obstacles to boost the sagging attendance figures that got his predecessor fired, and turn the Broncos into winners. Not only must he rebuild a program that has made just one appearance in March Madness in 16 years and has never won an NCAA tournament game, he also may have to do it in a tougher conference than the one Boise State is in now.
Since Boise State's football success makes it an attractive commodity to other conferences, there's talk that the Broncos could receive a formal invitation to join the Mountain West as soon as next month. A move from the WAC to the Mountain West would provide the football program increased competition and a potential automatic BCS berth, but it also could leave Rice with just a year to make the basketball program competitive with the likes of BYU, UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico.
"First of all, I'm ignorant to all that because I haven't spent a day in the WAC yet," Rice said. "Somebody asked me, 'If you change leagues, is that going to change how you recruit?' I don't think so. You're trying to get the best players you can get no matter what. You're not going to settle for a guy because he can play in this league. You're trying to get the best players regardless."
One reason the potential move to the Mountain West didn't prevent Rice from accepting the Boise State job is because he sees untapped potential in the Broncos' basketball program. Rice probably could have been Mark Few's eventual successor at Gonzaga had he remained there, but the chance to remain in the Pacific Northwest at a school committed to athletic success was too great an opportunity to pass up.
"There's a ton of potential at Boise State," Rice said. "The support (athletic director) Gene Bleymaier gave the football coaches really caught my eye and what they were able to do here football-wise caught my eye. A lot of people will talk about wanting to do what Gonzaga did, but they didn't understand the resources you have to commit to do that. I felt like Boise understood that because of what they did with their football program."
Rice inherits a program that stumbled to a disappointing 5-11 finish in the WAC last season, but will return eight seniors next year including four of its five top scorers. In eight seasons under former coach Greg Graham, Boise State compiled a 142-112 record, hardly earth-shattering yet a sign that perhaps the program isn't light years away from where it wants to be either.
To elevate the program to the next level, Rice hopes to follow the blueprint he and Few used at Gonzaga, emphasizing continuity within the program, an up-tempo style of play and a Pacific Northwest recruiting base. Rice also has sought the advice of Boise State football coach Chris Peterson and his staff in hopes of gleaning some insight into their success.
"They know the lay of the land, what works here in Boise," Rice said. "We'd be ignorant to put our heads in the sand and not try to emulate them. We haven't had a chance to sit down and talk a lot of specifics, but Coach Pete has reached out to me more than once and has been more than welcoming. I plan on reaching out to them more and more, and get some specifics that have helped them."
Just like Boise residents have become Gonzaga basketball fans in the past decade, Rice said he became a Boise State football fan while living in Spokane. He enjoyed watching another team from the Pacific Northwest make a splash on the national stage and appreciated the similarities between the rise of Gonzaga basketball and Boise State football.
Rice obviously remains a Gonzaga basketball and Broncos football fan, but he hopes to give Boise residents another quality team to support.
"My goal is to give our fans something to do in the winter," he said, chuckling. "That seems like a good place to start."