The world has been overexposed to the word "winning" over the past two weeks after the ludicrous and pathetic behavior displayed by Charlie Sheen, and recently by disgraced former Manhattan and Seton Hall head coach Bobby Gonzalez after his comments toward new Pirates boss Kevin Willard. (Click here to see exactly what Gonzo had to say) Fortunately for those who still hold the concept of winning in a high regard, in central New Jersey resides a man who embodies the true meaning of a winner despite an intensity that is often misconstrued for hysterics. They say that true genius is misunderstood. Whoever coined that adage may very well have known what was to come in the career of Mike Rice.
After a three-year tenure at Robert Morris in which he led the Colonials to consecutive Northeast Conference championships in his first head coaching job following various stops as an assistant coach for over fifteen years following his 1991 graduation from Fordham, Rice replaced Fred Hill this spring as the head coach at Rutgers University, and has transformed the Scarlet Knights from Big East doormat to scrappy upstarts in less than a year. His critics may be unable to see past his fiery on-court persona that includes emphatically tossing his blazer within the first ten minutes of a game, but such displays only drive home the fact that the 42-year-old Rice is just far more driven than his counterparts. More importantly, behind the passionate and intense demeanor lies a man who, once you get to know him, is among the nicest and classiest people you would ever want to know.
Last October at Big East media day, I met Rice for the first time inside Madison Square Garden as he unveiled his intentions for the new era of Rutgers basketball, and I honestly did not know what to expect. After an interview that lasted nearly nine minutes, I was able to sense that Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti may have tapped into a gold mine when he plucked Rice out of Pittsburgh and Robert Morris. The best was truly yet to come for a program that had seen better days, but not since their players' parents were college students themselves. I will admit to only taking a passing interest in the Scarlet Knights during the first month of the year, and was honestly a little surprised to see how well Rice had his team playing in the nonconference portion of the schedule. The coach unexpectedly won me over for the first time six weeks later.
Rice's former Robert Morris squad made its way into Brooklyn on December 4th of last year to take on St. Francis; and for those who don't know, I am the Terriers' public address announcer for home basketball games. On the way back to press row during halftime, I noticed a familiar face doing an interview with the Colonials' radio broadcast team. I'll never forget my reaction, which was me asking St. Francis SID Dave Gansell "Is that who I think it is?" Sure enough, it was Mike Rice, who was in attendance cheering his old players on; even jumping up over six feet in the air (or at least it looked that way) when Robert Morris drew a foul and a three-point play in the second half. St. Francis won the game 65-63, (ironically, that was the final score of today's St. John's-Rutgers game, which I'll get to later) but my postgame activity was what made me embrace an up-and-coming coach who was slowly molding his program into his own image.
When I said hello to Rice, he remembered me from our Madison Square Garden encounter, and told me such before I even had an opportunity to reintroduce myself. Being in my position as an aspiring broadcaster in a field where getting noticed is an eternal struggle, the fact that a coach, let alone one in charge of a Big East team, was able to remember me goes a long way with me. I spent a good five minutes with Rice talking about his team and the strides they had made, wished him luck in his upcoming game against Marist; and told him I would be in attendance to see Rutgers host North Carolina three weeks later at Madison Square Garden. That game against the Tar Heels was the second instance in which Rutgers won me over; only this time it wasn't the coach, it was a player. North Carolina dominated from start to finish, but Rutgers had frustrated Roy Williams' team enough to the point where the Tar Heels had difficulty finishing down the stretch and also found it hard to contain Rutgers forward Jonathan Mitchell, who finished with 20 points. Watching "J-Mitch" evolve over the course of the night proved to be an eye-opener for me, as the Scarlet Knights had a diamond in the rough who not only made contested shots and NBA-range threes, but embraced the inherent challenges in taking them. Leaving the Garden that night, I immediately circled February 2nd as a must-watch game; as the combination of Rice and Mitchell would be inside Carnesecca Arena that night to face my alma mater of St. John's.
The St. John's game was the third in which Rutgers won me over. About three hours prior to tipoff, (I'm usually among the first media members in the arena on game night, as it's a routine from my play-by-play days that I've never broken away from) I noticed a familiar face on the bench watching pregame shootaround. Seconds later, I was courtside greeting Mike Rice and welcoming him to Queens. Again, the coach remembered me from St. Francis; and asked me how things were going for me. Rice's team put on a valiant display later that night as well, coming back to tie the Red Storm in the final seconds before Justin Brownlee won it for the Johnnies on a reverse layup that he took with a broken thumb. Jonathan Mitchell, who has since become my favorite player in the Big East because he is so good yet so underrated, scored 21 in the losing effort for the Scarlet Knights. The fourth and final time Rutgers won me over came this afternoon.
When the bracket for the Big East tournament was finalized Sunday night and St. John's had drawn the No. 5 seed, all I could hope for was that Rutgers would defeat Seton Hall in the preceding 12/13 matchup. A Rutgers win would enable me to cover a rematch with St. John's in the Big East tournament, and I wanted to see it for many reasons. However, the selfish desire to see Rice and Mitchell one more time was the primary motivation. I didn't get to see Rice until the postgame press conference, which was an event in itself. After the aforementioned Justin Brownlee stepped out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation with St. John's up two, (I got an official game time from my friend and colleague Chris Carlin after the game) he then threw the ball into the crowd; but the officials, who had missed at least two other calls that Rutgers should have received, called neither and the game was over. Even as a St. John's alum and broadcaster, I couldn't help but think that St. John's had won a game it shouldn't have. (At least not at that moment) I'm sure more than one person in the Madison Square Garden media room was expecting a harangue directed toward the officials from the perceived loose cannon that is Mike Rice. Instead, the coach took the high road and proved just how much of a great person he is by surmising the last-second happenings with a succinct "it is what it is," although he did admit there was a mistake. You can see the end of this one for yourself by just pressing play below.
I had already regarded Rutgers to be the Rocky Balboa of the Big East in that although they lost the battle against St. John's, (Apollo Creed in this instance) they ultimately won the war. Mike Rice may be 0-for-2 against the Red Storm, but his maintaining composure at a time where mortal men would have melted under pressure only adds to the many reasons why he is a man to be respected and idolized. It just goes to show you that in a world where we unfortunately celebrate the out-of-control escapades of celebrities in a society where TMZ has become a credible news source, there really are true winners walking this planet, people that are great in their profession; but even better human beings. People like Mike Rice, who will lead Rutgers into the promised land much sooner rather than later. Gatorade had its world-famous "Be Like Mike" advertising campaign featuring Michael Jordan in the early 1990s; but in 2011, we should aspire to be like another Mike. Not many are made like Mike Rice, which is all the more reason why he should be appreciated.
The next time Charlie Sheen says he is winning, he shouldn't look in the mirror. Instead, he should just turn on a Rutgers basketball game and take a look at a true winner in Mike Rice.