Shamed by Ouster, Mike Rice Trying to Coach Way Back into Game He Can’t Quit

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — The coach who hurled a basketball at a player’s head and called another a “fairy” sits in a back corner booth at Ruby Tuesday, sipping from a glass of peach tea.   

Fifteen months after leaked footage of Mike Rice’s startling practice behavior went viral, the former Rutgers coach is still a bit uneasy in public.   

“The majority of the world thinks I’m a crazy, out-of-control person,” says Rice. “Does that bother me?

“Absolutely.”

Time can heal a lot of wounds—but it hasn’t mended Rice’s image. The coach knows it could be damaged beyond repair.

Snippets of Rice angrily shoving, kicking and cursing at players—and throwing balls at them—was scrutinized on CNN and SportsCenter and spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Everyone from LeBron James to Rick Pitino bashed him in the media. Within 24 hours, Rice had lost his job.

“I went overboard,” Rice says. “I deserved to be fired.”

In his first extensive interview in more than a year, it’s clear that Rice doesn’t seek sympathy for what transpired. He doesn’t harbor a woe-is-me attitude. If Rice is bitter at anyone, it’s himself.

Rice’s “lowlight reel”—provided to ESPN in the spring of 2013 by a former assistant—features 19 clips of questionable behavior culled from more than 500 hours of practice tape spanning two seasons. Considering how they defended him immediately after he was terminated, most players seemed accepting of Rice’s style, perhaps because they were showing marked improvement on the court.

Still, whether the blowups were merely a handful of regrettable hiccups or a reflection of the true Mike Rice doesn’t matter. There are no excuses, the coach said. For the rest of his career, those videotapes will hover over Rice’s head like that cloud above Pigpen. He’ll never be able to run from them.

 

So he’s stopped trying.

Instead, Rice is surging forward. He’s undergone anger management counseling in Houston with former NBA player and coach John Lucas, who runs a treatment program for troubled sports figures. He’s coaching his children’s AAU teams and training other players in private sessions.

Rice has also landed a job at the Hoop Group, a New Jersey-based organization that puts on clinics throughout the country. This summer, Rice served as an instructor at the NBPA Top 100 camp. He spoke with Bleacher Report during an hour-long lunch between sessions.

Rice wants to get back into coaching, but he can’t help but wonder if he’ll have that chance.

“I’m sure most people have their mind made up about me,” Rice told Bleacher Report. “The housewives who saw the clips on their afternoon talk show or the casual fan who watched it on SportsCenter, that’s all they’ll ever know of me.

“But hopefully there are other people who are more open-minded. Those are the people I want to reach. I want change the narrative of who Mike Rice was.”

He pauses.

“I want to change the narrative,” he says, “of who Mike Rice is.” 


Some of college basketball’s most successful coaches readily admit they hone their leadership skills and learn motivational tactics from books by legends such as John Wooden and Bob Knight.

Mike Rice was different.

Rice read books about war.

“D-Day, Operation Overlord…I devoured anything about the military,” Rice said. “Whether you’re talking about a Navy SEAL or someone storming the beach at Normandy back in the old days…soldiers all develop a certain mentality. No matter what percentage of guys get wounded or killed in battle, those men are trained to believe that they’re going to be the one that doesn’t get shot, the one that doesn’t lose his life.

“That was my thought process with my team. It was, ‘How do I train these men to do things they don’t want to do? How do I make them tougher than they ever thought they could be?’”

Mental strength and intensity became trademarks of Rice’s squads during his first head coaching stint at Robert Morris, where the Colonials won the Northeast Conference title in each of his three seasons. But when he was hired at Rutgers in 2010, Rice felt he needed to stress those traits even more.

The season before his arrival, the Scarlet Knights had gone 5-13 in the Big East, which at the time was considered to be the toughest conference in college basketball. The record didn’t concern Rice as much as the way it was achieved, as Rutgers’ 13 league losses had come by an average of 17.9 points.

“I watched tape of their games,” Rice said. “Every time they got hit in the mouth, they laid down. They had no fight. We were the punching bag of the Big East. My No. 1 goal was to change our mentality.”

Prior to the season, Rice hung a punching bag in the Scarlet Knights’ locker room to remind them of their reputation. He wanted to make his practices “brutal,” he said, to test—and strengthen—his team’s will. There was screaming and cursing and name-calling. Occasionally, during a demonstration, Rice would put his hands on a player and move him in a way that some would consider forceful.

“I wasn’t surprised that Mike was really fiery,” ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas told B/R. “I’ve seen him get nose-to-nose with guys in practice and challenge them. But I was surprised that it rose to a level that I would consider abusive. I talked to a bunch of people that he knew really well, some of whom he’d worked for, and everyone felt the same way I did: a really good person, a really good family man; this doesn’t add up.” 

In some instances, Rice may have been genuinely angry with someone’s effort. Other times, he says, the tantrums were manufactured to put pressure on the Scarlet Knights to see how they would react. 

“Sometimes I was just acting,” Rice said. “I was trying to create chaos in practice. I wanted our guys to become comfortable and composed in chaos. And it worked. Every single game, we fought as hard as we could. We got to be great in chaos.”

Rutgers went 5-13 in the Big East in Rice’s inaugural campaign, the identical record of the previous squad. But the margin of defeat dipped from 17.9 points to 8.8 points. A team that had been labeled as “The Leftovers” before the season was suddenly viewed as a dangerous opponent. Rutgers was still years away from being one of the Big East’s upper-echelon teams, but its direction appeared promising.

Rice said his practice style was hardly a secret. It wasn’t uncommon for his son (Michael) and daughter (Katie)—who are now 16 and 14—to attend Rutgers workouts along with his wife, Kerry. Even with them in the stands, Rice cursed like a sailor. He says using foul language is a “bad habit” that was formed during a childhood spent on playgrounds and in gymnasiums. Rice’s father, Mike Sr., was the head coach at Youngstown State and Duquesne and is now a broadcaster with the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I had been on him about his language for years,” Kerry Rice said in an interview with B/R. “I used to say, ‘Your mouth is going to get you in trouble one day.’”

Rice indeed ended up in a prickly situation, and he had more than his language to blame.

In the summer of 2012, after his second season at Rutgers, Rice chose not to renew the contract of the team’s director of player development, Eric Murdock. After being told he was losing his job, Murdock, a former NBA player, went to athletic director Tim Pernetti and accused Rice of verbally and physically abusing members of the team. Murdock gave Pernetti practice tapes he felt validated his claims.

Rutgers spent the ensuing months investigating Rice and his program. Each player on the squad was interviewed individually. Pernetti was told about Rice’s behavior—including the language and ball-throwing incidents—but many of the Scarlet Knights seemed to understand the tough-love approach.

“He wasn’t a guy we hated or despised,” forward Wally Judge told The Associated Press. “After practice, we would all go in the locker room and laugh. It was never a sad face or a hung head. What he did was he separated the court and he separated life. When we were on the court, we were locked in. That’s why you see so many intense moments, because he was so locked in on turning this program around.”

In December, Pernetti announced that he was suspending Rice for three games and fining him $50,000.

“Even before the suspension was announced, there were times when [Mike] thought, ‘Maybe I’m going too far. Maybe I need to take a step back,’” Kerry Rice said. “That whole last season, he worked on balancing his intensity and passion with not crossing the line. He worked on his language and on trying to correct someone’s mistakes in a different manner.”

Reportedly unhappy that Rice had not received a harsher punishment. Murdock turned over the practice tapes to ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

Rice said he had heard rumblings that Murdock, who did not return a message left by B/R asking for comment on this story, intended to make the accusations public. Months before the tapes became public, Rice said he showed the footage to recruits that were considering Rutgers and promised he was a changed man. He had already addressed his practice behavior with the media after he was suspended in December, and he knew he may face further questions if the tapes were released.

Still, nothing could’ve prepared Rice for what happened on April 2, 2013.

Immediately after Outside the Lines ran its story, Rice became a public outcast. Rutgers had announced in December that Rice had thrown balls at players, but seeing actual video of it and hearing Rice curse was so much more jolting than reading about it in print.

It also didn’t help that the footage was released during the week leading up to the Final Four, when college basketball was at the forefront of the national discussion.

“This is an isolated incident that doesn’t happen in college basketball,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino told reporters at the Final Four. “Those things do not happen. I’ve seen some coaches that may use rough language. But that (other stuff) just doesn’t go on. It’s just an aberration that doesn’t go on in college basketball.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expressed his concern after the tapes went viral, and the LGBT community joined in the criticism and called for Rice’s job because of his insensitive references to homosexuals.

One day after the Outside the Lines story aired, Rice was fired. With television trucks lining his street, Rice emerged from his home and issued a statement of apology on his front lawn. Television networks sent fruit baskets and other gifts to his home in an effort to get Rice to give them an exclusive interview. When reporters knocked on his door, Kerry Rice answered and told them her husband wasn’t interested in talking.

“The whole thing was surreal,” Rice said. “Unless you’ve lived through something like that, there’s no way to describe what it’s like.”

Countless times, Rice expressed remorse to his family. When his son tried to defend him to critics on Twitter, Rice made sure to tell him that Dad made a mistake.

“I stepped across the line of what was common sense,” Rice said. “You can make them run, you can make them do push-ups and you can choose not to play them. But you can’t throw balls at players. That’s what I did wrong.

“They got every instance of it [on film] in the first two years I was coaching there. But no matter how few times it happened, it’s still indefensible.”

Most of Rutgers’ players stood by Rice’s side immediately after his termination. Guard Austin Johnson said the videos were “a highlight reel of [Rice's] worst moments” and that they weren’t a true depiction of the atmosphere at Rutgers’ practices. Judge agreed.

“You can’t let those individual moments define what he was,” Judge told the AP. “I have grown from the moment I stepped in these doors, not only as a player but as a person, because of how he treated me.” 

Rice appreciated the support, but it wasn’t going to help him get his job back. Kerry Rice still becomes emotional when talking about her husband’s firing.

“He felt like that was his opportunity to get into the higher realm of coaching,” she said. “Basically, you have four or five years in a job like that. If you can’t turn the program around in that amount of time, the program moves on. The pressure to get it done may have been the reason that, at times, he boiled over a little bit.

“He certainly paid for it in a grand way.”

Unless he was coaching his daughter’s seventh-grade basketball team, Rice spent most of that April and May at home. He tried to avoid watching television and was rarely in good spirits. Months earlier he was a head coach in the nation’s toughest conference making a base salary of $650,000 per year. Now he was without a job and, even worse, his name was toxic inside basketball circles. And out of them, too.

“Part of me just wanted to curl up in a little ball and hope that it would all go away,” Rice says. “But then pride kicked in.”


During his final two years at Rutgers, Mike Rice used to get annoyed whenever he coached against St. John’s. The Red Storm’s leading scorer, D’Angelo Harrison, had a habit of whining during games, throwing fits on the bench and complaining to referees.

“His body language was so bad,” Rice says. “I couldn’t stand watching him play.”

That’s why it almost felt ironic when, three months after his firing, Rice found himself sitting next to Harrison in anger management classes in Houston, addressing the same issues within himself that he once detested in his former opponent.

“We were no different,” Harrison told B/R.

Taking the advice of friends who said he needed to do some “soul searching,” Rice had come to Houston to see John Lucas, who leads a highly regarded rehabilitation program for athletes and coaches battling various addictions and issues.

Lucas, who has battled his share of demons in a career that saw him go from college star at Maryland to 14-year NBA veteran and later a head coach, has been referred to as “The Sports Whisperer.”

“There’s nothing worse than a dilapidated spirit,” Lucas told B/R, “and that’s what Mike had. His spirit had been broken.”

Lucas’ first goal was to get Rice to forgive himself for what he did. The chore was a difficult one. As upset as he was about losing his job, Rice harbored even more guilt and shame because of the embarrassment he’d brought to his wife and family.

“My wife is the best wife and mother in the world,” Rice says. “She volunteers for everything. The whole thing became so public that she couldn’t go anywhere. My son had to switch schools five times as I’ve moved up the coaching ranks and he never complained.

“Everyone had sacrificed a lot for me to fulfill this dream I had. For me to ruin all of it with a dumb mistake was very disappointing, very hard to accept.”

Throughout the summer of 2013, Lucas and other counselors worked to get Rice to forgive himself. Lucas shared his own story of drug addiction and recovery, and Rice benefitted from listening to others in group sessions.

“Recovery and mental health is an oxymoron,” Lucas says. “You have to surrender to win, but surrendering is a foreign concept to athletes and coaches. They don’t know how to do that. They just find another way to compete.”

Although he certainly didn’t condone Rice’s actions, Lucas helped the coach realize why he made some of his mistakes.

Along with the pressure he put on himself to succeed, Rice also felt his style was working. Practices were intense and productive, the team was more competitive and, for the most part, he said, everyone got along. It wasn’t uncommon for players to eat dinner at Rice’s house. Guys weren’t transferring en masse and Rice felt he had a good off-court rapport with most everyone on the team.

“What none of those tapes show is me hugging guys after a good play in practice or joking with them,” Rice said. “There were times when guys would play around and put me in a headlock two minutes after I’d screamed at them.”

Certainly, Rice said, there were times when players were despondent after he yelled at them and needed a pep talk from an assistant. But that’s common in almost any program run by a fiery coach.

“There wasn’t a team mutiny,” Lucas said. “People weren’t running away. No one had a problem with it. His intentions were out of love, but it came across as malice. That’s another reason it was all so tough for him to accept.

“He did all these things out of love and affection, but he took it too far and everyone around him got hurt because of it.”

During anger management counseling multiple times each week in Houston, Rice and others were asked to list things that had made them angry in recent years and to reveal how they handled those issues.
Most times, the instructor would suggest different, less combative ways to solve problems. There was also role-playing in the classes, where participants were thrust into various situations to see how they would react.

“Mike was one of the most vocal guys in the class,” says Harrison, who still keeps in touch with Rice and has visited him in New Jersey. “He knew he’d messed up and he was eager to get better, eager to change. Eager to get his life back on track.”

One of the perks of Rice’s time in Houston was the opportunity to get back on the court. Lucas conducts camps each summer for players of all ages and also runs an open gym each weekday at a local high school. Rice became the lead instructor.

At times, Rice found himself running drills that included second-grade boys, eighth-grade girls, Division I men’s prospects and college stars who had returned to their hometown for the summer.

“It got to the point where, if I was out of town, I’d leave my gym with him,” Lucas said. “The parents absolutely loved him. They had no problems with him or his intensity. In fact, they demanded he coach like that.”

When Rice left Houston in August, he was in high spirits.

“[Lucas] got me to talk about things that I didn’t want to talk about,” Rice said. “When I got there, I was beating myself up. I didn’t want to move on. But by the end that had all changed.

“He also allowed me to get back in the gym, to my comfort level. It felt good to be on the court without having people looking at me and thinking, ‘There’s that guy.’”


Instead of answering his phone, Mike Rice responded to a call last Wednesday afternoon with a text.

“Sorry,” the message read. “Doing a workout with six D-1 girls right now.”

Rice’s voice was filled with energy when reached later that afternoon.


”I’m having a blast,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to teach the game again. It reminds me of why I got into coaching in the first place. It’s rewarding to work with young people and watch them get better.”

Now Rice hopes to do it again on a bigger stage. He wants to coach in college again. The hard part will be finding a school willing to give him a chance. While it seems unlikely Rice could land a head coaching job in a major conference, there’s always the possibility someone could hire him as an assistant. Even then, he knows he would be viewed as a risk.

Rice said he hasn’t received any college coaching offers since his firing at Rutgers.

“Am I completely healed? No,” Rice says. “You’re never going to be a completely different person. I’m going to fight that intensity every time I step on the court. But the sport means too much to me.

“I will make a change.”

Rice’s best hope may be landing a job at a smaller, mid-major school—much like where he started at Robert Morris.

“The challenge for a guy like [Rice] is…look at Bobby Petrino; he may be an a–hole, but he’s proven he’s a hell of a football coach,” an athletic director at a high-major Division I school told Bleacher Report. “But what does Mike Rice have on his resume that’s such an enormous, redeeming factor that you’re going to go through the hassle of dealing with the PR aspect of it to have him on your staff?

“He’s not going to get hired as a head coach at a high major university. He’s going to have a hard time out-running that video. But sooner or later, someone at some level is going to give him a second chance.”

Rice certainly appears to have backing.

 

While some colleagues have bashed him, others have voiced support. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Indiana’s Tom Crean are among those who have contacted Rice to wish him well. 

Bilas noted that it’s a sensitive time in the sports world, meaning it could be increasingly difficult for a school to consider a coach with a tainted past.

“There is nobody out there that doesn’t have any blemishes,” Bilas said, “although what Mike went through is a little bit more than a blemish. It certainly left some scars, but he’s done everything you could ask to prove he’s better than that.

“That doesn’t excuse what happened. Nobody is asking that it be excused. But you move on and you forgive. There have been a lot of lessons learned by everyone. They were hard lessons. He’s worthy of the risk some people perceive him to be.”

Rice said he’s kept in touch with some of his former players from Rutgers. Other relationships have been strained. Guard Derrick Randall, who transferred to Pittsburgh, filed a lawsuit against Rice in December for assault and battery. And in February—nearly a year after his firing—Rice learned that three other former players had retained attorneys. Rice said he hasn’t been served papers in those cases.

“Everyone wants to cast judgment so fast,” Crean, the Indiana coach, told B/R. “It’s not our place to cast the blame or to press the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ button, especially on things we don’t know much about or have only seen parts of. That’s up to the people that are involved in it.

“Mike is a very talented coach. He has an edge to him. I would bet that he’s going to be a very strong comeback story.”

No matter where Rice ends up, he knows that the tapes of his practice tirades will always follow him. When he’s calm on the sideline, people will be watching from the stands, waiting for him to erupt. Facial expressions will be scrutinized and slaps on the arm might be deemed a shove. If Rice yells at a player, he’ll be accused of losing his composure.

Something similar actually happened this summer. Lucas received a call from a friend who had watched Rice coach an AAU game. At one point, Rice became upset with a player for talking back to a referee and made him sit in the stands for the remainder of the game.

Lucas called Rice to find out what had happened. The player, Lucas said, turned out to be Rice’s son.

“I said, ‘Couldn’t you have waited to do that outside after the game?’” Lucas said. “And he said, ‘No, it had to be dealt with right then.’ He was right. He didn’t do anything wrong.

“When I coached, I walked out onto the court and pulled my son out for the rest of the game and people applauded me. When Mike does, they think he’s lost it.”

Lucas pauses.

“Mike shouldn’t have to completely change into something he’s not,” he said. “When you can forgive yourself, you don’t care what others think.”

If anything, Rice is motivated by the negative perception that most people have of him. Everyone has seen the clips of him going ballistic in practice. Perhaps someday soon, people will get to see the new Mike Rice, the guy who is eager to prove that his strengths still remain but that his weaknesses are a thing of the past.

Rice smiles when asked to name the biggest change he will make if he returns to the court. In some ways, his new coaching philosophy mirrors his approach to life.

“Sometimes losing has a bigger impact than winning,” Rice says. “Losing hammers home a lesson. Your weaknesses get exposed. You learn from your mistakes.

“And then you come back stronger.”

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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