MBB : Relentless pursuit: Rice’s fiery attitude earns him respect as he attempts to build RU program

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Comments The first time Andrew Toole met Mike Rice, he thought he was a little bit crazy.Playing pickup basketball at Normandy Park in Middletown, N.J., in the summer of 2001, Toole, at the time a standout guard at Pennsylvania, only knew Rice as the older man who competed much harder than he should have on the court.Little did Toole know he was matching up against his future boss and mentor.‘Mike was overly aggressive and probably argued every call that was made in the entire game,’ Toole said.The two formed a bond soon after when they both worked for the Hoop Group Eastern Invitational Basketball Camp. Rice built an extensive web of connections in the Northeast at the high school, AAU and junior college levels while serving as the director of Hoop Group from 2001-04. And the relentless recruiter used those connections when he got back into coaching as an assistant at St. Joseph’s (Pa.) and Pittsburgh, before landing his first head coaching job in 2007 at Robert Morris, where Rice brought Toole on as an assistant.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThe three years Rice spent at RMU transformed him from a coach’s son and former collegiate point guard into a hot coaching prospect known for bringing in talented recruits.Now in his second season as the head coach at Rutgers (12-14, 4-9 Big East), Rice has brought in the best recruiting class in the Scarlet Knights’ history. And he has motivated that talent to buy into his intense approach.‘Every day you have to go in with that same mindset, that focus: ‘OK, we’ve got to get everybody going in the same direction, focus and get improved,” Rice said during the Big East coaches’ teleconference Feb. 9. ‘And if we don’t, you really can go crazy because of the fact that there’s just so much to work on with this team.’Headlined by 6-foot-9 forward Kadeem Jack, the No. 33 overall prospect, Rutgers’ 2011 recruiting class was 24th-best in college basketball, according to Rivals.com. Jack turned down offers from West Virginia, Miami and Arkansas.‘He’s relentless,’ St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli said. ‘… Mike’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in recruiting. He recognizes the fact that you have to coach your current team and recruit your future teams.’Working under Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh, Rice helped assemble a 2007 recruiting class highlighted by DeJuan Blair and Brad Wanamaker. As the lead recruiter for Wanamaker, as well as 2008 signees Tray Woodall and Nasir Robinson, Rice utilized relationships built from his time at the Hoop Group, former Panthers assistant Orlando Antigua said.Through it all, he has always been the same exuberant, passionate pickup player Toole matched up against on the New Jersey court and went on to learn from at RMU.‘He doesn’t bullsh*t you,’ said Toole, Rice’s successor as RMU’s head coach. ‘He tells you exactly how it is, and I think that people appreciate that when they really get to know him because the way that he is in recruiting is the way that he is when he coaches you is the way that he is with everything.’And while Rice is known for being animated on the sidelines and chastising referees, his passion is complemented by compassion toward his players.In 1987, Rice, then a freshman point guard at Fordham, went to the Brooklyn home of assistant coach Jack Armstrong for Thanksgiving dinner.Surrounded at the table by Armstrong’s boisterous Irish family, the 18-year-old Rice fit in perfectly, Armstrong said.He always does.‘What you see is what you get,’ Armstrong said. ‘Some of it is sometimes overly enthusiastic, occasionally a bull in a china shop when he was a young player. But when you get to know him, how could you not love him?’Mike Deane felt the same way.After coaching at his alma mater for three seasons, Rice was hired as a ‘restricted-earnings coach’ in 1994 by the former Marquette head coach.Deane had already completed the interview process for the open assistant position when he received a call from former Fordham head coach Nick Macarchuk on a Friday night toward the end of training camp. Macarchuk convinced Deane to give Rice a shot.Deane had a ticket waiting for Rice at LaGuardia Airport the next day. And on that Sunday, Deane offered him the position.‘He was a guy that you had to kind of lasso and hold back a little bit, but he’s a very intelligent guy,’ Deane said. ‘He’s very well-spoken. He could interact very well with anyone, whether it was the biggest benefactor for the university to the common guy on the streets that delivered a pizza to him.’After his time at Marquette, Rice would go on to be an assistant coach at Niagara and Chicago State before working for the Hoop Group and ultimately rejoining the coaching ranks at St. Joseph’s.At St. Joseph’s, Rice entered Martelli’s office fired up every morning. He continually broke down opposing matchups to the finer details — how the Hawks should defend opponents’ ball screens and offensive sets.‘Whether it would be with a blocking pad when guys are taking power layups, whether it was in making sure they knew exactly their defensive assignment, it was every day,’ Martelli said.‘There were no days where Mike’s personality wasn’t on display. That’s the beauty of Mike. He’s always on. He’s always engaged.’Rice then took his madness to Pittsburgh in 2006 and finally earned his first head coaching position in Moon Township, Pa., where he turned Robert Morris into a consistent postseason participant.The Colonials went 46-40 in the three years preceding Rice’s tenure. They went 73-31 in the three years under his leadership, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2010.As a No. 15 seed in the 2010 tournament, the Colonials took second-seeded Villanova to overtime. The Wildcats escaped — earning some questionable calls along the way — but former RMU guard Gary Wallace, who plays professionally in Norway, said in an email to The DailyOrange that the oft-animated Rice was not mad at his players in the locker room after the game. Looking back, it is clear Rice has improved the programs at which he has been employed. And in doing so, he hasn’t changed a bit.His success in transforming the Colonials program led to his hiring at Rutgers. Heading to Piscataway, N.J., Rice maintained his fiery personality on the bench.Armstrong, the former Fordham assistant coach, saw that firsthand last year when Rutgers took on Syracuse on Feb. 19. Calling the game for ESPN, Armstrong met with Rice on the Carrier Dome floor before tip-off.‘Mike came up to me, and he says, ‘Jack, you should be proud of me. I haven’t gotten a (technical) this year,” Armstrong said, already beginning to chuckle. ‘So during the game, he gets a tech, and he looks right over at me, and he’s just shaking his head like ‘Oh, man, you’re going to kill me after the game.”This time around, it is the Orange who will be visiting The RAC, a hectic, insanity-driven environment that Martelli said matches Rice’s personality perfectly.The Scarlet Knights have compiled a 10-5 record at The RAC this season, including wins over No. 14 Florida, No. 23 Notre Dame and Connecticut, despite battling through numerous injuries and working with an inexperienced roster. ‘These guys have talent,’ Rice said during the teleconference. ‘We have a number of guys that on any given night can help us win. We just lack the consistency.’But Rice makes up for it. At each of his stops, he has established a name for himself as both a tremendous recruiter and coach with his consistent, energetic approach.That mindset is the same he had while playing against Toole a decade ago at Normandy Park in Middletown. It’s the same mindset he carried into men’s leagues, in which he often referred to Toole as the Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan. It’s the same mindset he has taken into work every day for the past 21 years.And, after growing to be both colleagues and close friends, Toole still thinks he’s nuts.‘That’s part of his greatness, is that he is crazy,’ Toole said. ‘He is so intense, so energetic and so passionate about the game.’[email protected] center_img Published on February 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm Contact Stephen: [email protected] | @Stephen_Bailey1last_img

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