Year two at Rutgers hasn't been easy for Mike Rice, and he admitted he might be to blame for it. (Photo courtesy of Rutgers University)
One year ago after Rutgers was narrowly defeated St. John's in a Big East tournament game that the Scarlet Knights deserved to win, (and I'm a St. John's alum) but lost on a blown call in the final seconds, I wrote a piece on how Scarlet Knights head coach Mike Rice should be appreciated after how he took the high road in his postgame press conference that afternoon; choosing not to criticize the officials when he clearly could have, instead stating "it's what it is" and that he and his team would control how they respond.
In the wake of Rutgers' most recent defeat; an 82-65 loss to Marquette that was the sixth straight for the Scarlet Knights, the second-year coach revealed something rarely seen from college basketball coaches just one day before Rutgers' second game this season against archrival Seton Hall. With his players not responding to what the coach and his assistants were trying to impart on a young team that has missed the veteran leadership of graduated seniors Jonathan Mitchell, James Beatty, Mike Coburn and Robert Lumpkins, Rice realized that he himself was to blame for the lack of focus. "I pushed the wrong buttons at times," Rice told the Newark Star-Ledger's Steve Politi. "I've learned as much I've learned in 21 years of college coaching this year, and I've had to change."
Rice has always been respected by this writer for his candor, a sometimes brutal honesty that really opens the eyes of both media and fans and gets almost everyone to really see just how hard it is to rebuild a program like Rutgers that is in the shadow of local rivals while simultaneously trying to compete in arguably the strongest conference in the nation. Rice admitted that this team is not like the three teams he coached at Robert Morris; where he won back-to-back Northeast Conference championships in his last two years, prior to landing in Piscataway, but also found out that he is accountable when players have a lack of motivation.
"I've learned that if the player turns you off, it's your fault," said Rice. "A lot of the guys on this team need to grow and accept coaching; but my natural reaction is that by being meaner, I make them tougher. The nastier I got, the more they stopped listening."
Rice may still be one of the most intense coaches in the conference; one that frequently tosses his blazer to the bench within the first five minutes of a game, yet one that has also earned the respect of Hall of Fame mentor Jim Calhoun, who praised Rice's desire and ability to do more with less at Big East media day in October. Yet that intensity has given way to a more patient coach who is still navigating the waters of the Big East through a Jekyll and Hyde season for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have had their high points this season with wins over Florida, Connecticut and Notre Dame, (and also a hard-fought loss to Syracuse that Rutgers was never out of the game in) but have also lost to LSU, Richmond, DePaul and Illinois State among others.
When Rutgers plays Seton Hall at the Prudential Center tomorrow; most of the attention will be focused on the Pirates and their efforts to make the NCAA Tournament behind seniors Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, who are helping coach Kevin Willard win with a team led by recruits of former coach Bobby Gonzalez. However, some more attention should be paid to the man on the other side of the court; one whose team may not be as glamorous as his opponent, but a man who is willing to adapt to his situations, even if it takes a change of tactics to get his message across.