By Kevin Sweeney
Over the past few days, the Duquesne coaching search has quickly gone from promising to bleak as candidate after candidate has passed on the position. First, it was Rice, the highly successful head coach at Monmouth who was reportedly very close to accepting the job. Then, a few tweets from Duquesne students saying they had seen Becker, the head man at Vermont, on campus made many believe a hiring was imminent once again. However, those rumors were quickly quelled as video of Becker on the Vermont campus surfaced. Then, Duquesne’s attention turned to Fife, the former Fort Wayne head coach now serving as an assistant under Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Fife was in “advanced talks” with Duquesne this more morning, per Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, before discussions breaking down and Fife stopped pursuing the job.
Despite the lucrative contract (Duquesne has reportedly up to $1 million per year to spend), the prestigious conference (Atlantic 10), and the upcoming renovations to basketball facilities, the school has come swung and missed at the top of their wish list. As Jesse Kramer wrote so eloquently on The Comeback today, “Assistant coaches don’t want Duquesne as their first job. Hot mid-major coaches don’t see the position as worthy of leaving a secure job in a worse conference.”
That’s why Mike Rice is the perfect fit for the vacancy.
Mike Rice needs Duquesne as much as Duquesne needs Mike Rice.
Rice, the former Robert Morris and Rutgers head coach, saw his career derailed after an Outside the Lines feature showed him pegging his players with basketballs and calling them homophobic slurs. Rice became the face of the bad side of coaching, and his career appeared over.
However, Rice has slowly begun to repair his image as an assistant coach at the Patrick School in New Jersey, where he recently helped his team to NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title. There, he’s drawn praise from everyone he’s worked with for his work with his players, many of whom will play Division 1 basketball.
Right now, he’s the best option Duquesne has. Yes, they could look to names such as North Florida head coach Matt Driscoll or Kentucky assistant and former UTEP & Auburn head coach Tony Barbee, both of whom have been connected with the opening, but neither are as good a coach as Rice. Driscoll has posted just 2 winning seasons in his 8 at North Florida, and hasn’t been a coach in the northeast since 1997 when he coached at Division 3 La Roche College in Pittsburgh. Barbee, while successful at UTEP, struggled mightily at Auburn and dealt with multiple off-the-court issues from his players while on The Plains.
Duquesne’s basketball program has struggled for a long time. They play in a tough conference, which will make it that much more difficult to build a program from the ground up. But if there’s ever a time when it’s possible, it’s now.
Pittsburgh, which has long cast a shadow over the Dukes in terms of local support, is in a down spell. Arena renovations are coming.
Rice’s credentials speak for themselves. A Pittsburgh native, Rice spent time at Pitt as an assistant and at nearby Robert Morris as head coach. At RMU, he led the most successful 3-year run in program history, with 3 20-win seasons, a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, and even the near-upset of Villanova in NCAA Tournament during his final season. He parlayed that success into the Rutgers job, where his record was exceedingly mediocre at 44-51. In a vacuum, those numbers are ugly, but when you consider what the program did in the years before and the years after, they paint a much nicer picture.
In addition, he’d bring intrigue and excitement to a program sorely lacking it right now. The Dukes ranked last in attendance in the A-10 in the 2015-16 season, and I believe they will hold that spot once again in 2016-17 once the NCAA Attendance Report is released.
Salary would also not be an issue for Rice. In theory, Duquesne could pay much less for Rice than that $1 million per year, perhaps less than half of that number, to start. That would leave enough remaining money to contract the services of an elite assistant coaching unit, who could help bring in high-level talent right away. The contract could also be a short-term one, allowing athletic director Dave Harper to easily hit the reset button should things go south.
Is Mike Rice perfect? No.
But neither is Duquesne, and that’s why they are a match made in heaven.