Rice Hot Again As Television Commentator With Trail Blazers
By Sean Doherty
Seventeen years since his basketball coaching dreams began to come apart, at a time when the administration at his alma mater changed, Mike Rice has found his basketball heaven. He is in his 10th season as the radio analyst for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, and involved with owner Paul Allen's organization of radio and television stations and Rip City basketball magazine.
Another former coach turned media type.
The radio work offers Rice the opportunity to provide in-game analysis he learned as a player for John "Red" Manning at Duquesne University and later refined as head coach at Valley High and for the Dukes and Youngstown State Penguins. Combining that knowledge with the street-ball feel he gained during his youth in Detroit, he often goes head-to-head with NBC analyst Steve "Snapper" Jones as they share 90 minutes of pregame talk with listeners across Allen's network of stations. Rice's wit and judgment of talent jump off the airwaves and off the pages of Rip City to the point that he calls himself the Mel Kiper of the NBA Draft.
"It is more work than coaching," Rice said of his media post. "But I don't get blamed for the losses."
The knowledge Rice gained throughout his playing and coaching careers is worth its weight in gold nowadays, but after being fired at Duquesne, he was not really sure how it might help his future. That is, until one of those media contacts came up with an idea.
Beano Cook heard about an opening at ESPN, and thought Rice had the two most important qualities needed in a game analyst.
"Beano called, and told me to fly up to Connecticut for an interview," Rice said. "He said, `You know the game, and I know you can talk.' So, I tried out by watching a tape with a play-by-play announcer, and they hired me. Two weeks later, I'm working Pitt at Boston College."
At the time, college basketball was on fire, and Rice refused to bring any watered down personality to the show. It was no accident that a producer quickly recognized his aptitude for the medium, and recommended Rice to the Blazers organization.
Rice clearly enjoys his role with the Blazers, who had an outstanding season in 1998-99. His perspective from the broadcast table again reminds him of why he enjoys the game.
"Especially here in the NBA," he said. "You get to see a Karl Malone in every game. The excitement builds with our pregame talk show. Then, at tip-off, I'm watching the best players in the world, and at times actually coaching both teams for the listener--making moves and then counter-moves. I see new and more amazing things each night. It's almost like coaching. But when it's over, I might be worn out. But I am not the winner or loser."
Rice was a winner in his days as a fiery guard for the Dukes. He later brought the same qualities to the sideline as coach, but was considered controversial and outspoken, and ultimately ran up against an administration that did not see things his way.
Rice did not even see the City of Pittsburgh until he had already played a year of college basketball at Detroit Tech. Tech dropped the sport after Rice's freshman year. Manning and Duquesne took in the basketball orphan on the word of Dukes' player Ned Twyman.
Rice's team was one of Manning's best, the first for the great Willie Somerset with scrappy point guard Bill Stromple, an intimidating big man in 6-6 Clyde Arnold and a sharp-shooting big man in 6-5 Paul Benec.
"You could really coach that team, because they could do some different things," Manning said. "They were unique because you could interchange parts. Benec could go outside and Rice could score in the pivot as well as any 6'2 player I'd seen. They were fierce competitors."
With Rice and Arnold as captains, the '62 Dukes finished 22-7, beating Tim Grgurich and Pitt 73-70, to win the Steel Bowl Tournament at the Civic Arena. They finished fourth in the NIT.
Rice began his head coaching career at Duquesne in the spring of 1978, continuing a burgeoning rivalry with Grgurich, who was Pitt's head coach.
Rice beat Grgurich by signing big-time recruits Doug Arnold of Norwin High and Bruce Atkins of Wilkinsburg in his first year. The next year, he signed highly touted Ricky Tunstall from Altoona. Combined with Clairton's John Moore, they provided the inside game the Dukes needed to complement the electric play of Valley grad B.B. Flenory.
Manning said the team's success was testament to Rice's recruiting abilities, but that some of those same qualities later proved his undoing on The Bluff.
"Mike was a great recruiter," Manning said. "He just rubbed a few of the wrong people the wrong way. But it'd take a book and a half to tell the story of what happened in those years on the Bluff."
After consecutive NIT seasons with records of 18-10 in Flenory's senior year, and 20-10 with Tom Cvitkovic in his place the following year, Arnold was asked to leave school and Tunstall became ineligible. Rice's stripped-down team fell to 11-16.
Tunstall was asked to leave school with Rice in the spring of 1982-both would surface at Youngstown State in '83, where they built a team that had four wins their first year into one that was 19-11 in just two years.
Only Atkins lasted with the Dukes, playing his fourth year for new Head Coach Jim Satalin, and posting career numbers over 1,500 points and over 1,100 rebounds.
Arnold played out his career at Texas Christian, where he finished among the nation's top 10 in scoring.
As Rice explains now, the end of great success that Duquesne fans enjoyed and expected came from outside the university.
"A couple people came into the administration from outside the Duquesne family," Rice said. "They were not aware of the Dukes' history in basketball, and how important the team had been to the life of the school. Suddenly, it was not our basketball team. It became my basketball team. That does not work. It'll wear any coach out. Support and cooperation from a complete university community is necessary to build and keep a successful basketball program.
"We didn't have that, and apparently neither did the several coaches who followed me. I don't know what the situation is, now. But I think they're finding out how hard it is to build what had been left to fall apart."
Rice has moved on. His record at Duquesne was 62-49, and was 75-67 at Youngstown State. Darelle Porter is the fourth coach trying to approach the success that Rice's teams enjoyed at Duquesne.
Rice's career has nearly gone full circle. Grgurich also can also be found with the Blazers as the top assistant to Head Coach Mike Dunleavy. Rice and Grgurich, having first traded sharp elbows in some of the "Glory Days" games between Duquesne and Pitt, also coached their respective alma maters against each other. The last of those memorable battles was played in the Eastern 8, now the Atlantic 10. But the friendship has been renewed, 3,000 miles away and 17 years later, shortening both the distance and time for both men.
Rice is not tempted to coach again. He can do so vicariously through his son, Mike, an assistant to former Marquette star Bo Ellis at Chicago State. Rice with wife Cathy, and four grandchildren, is content to stay above the coaching fray.
"I didn't encourage (Mike) or discourage it," Rice said of his son's coaching pursuit. "It's something he's wanted to do. They're in a big rebuilding project at Chicago State and about ready to turn things around."
The father, however, has no desire to help the son, other than with occasional advice.
"No," Rice said. "I wouldn't want to screw up his team. He's probably a better coach than I am, anyway."