Gorman: Rice has a long road back to redemption
Mike Rice returned this week to his hometown, which served as a springboard to a once-promising coaching career.
The New Kensington native, a former Pitt assistant and Robert Morris coach, went from rising star at Rutgers to a profanity-laced pariah who became the scourge of the sports world.
It was a year ago this month that Rice was fired after ESPN aired video of his abusive behavior toward Scarlet Knights players in a story portraying him as the biggest bully in college basketball.
Now Rice is vice president of the Hoop Group, a grassroots basketball organization that is running the Pittsburgh Jam Fest AAU tournaments at Western Pennsylvania high schools this weekend.
“I'm really excited doing what I'm doing right now,” Rice said. “It's rewarding to do what I'm doing, helping young people improve and get to the next level with a scholarship. I'm leaving all options open.”
Which makes me wonder what it will take for Rice, after a year in exile, to be welcomed back to the coaching ranks.
“It's going to take time, repentance and showing people that's not his character,” said Rico Correia, president and CEO of Centaur Consulting in Hackensack, N.J., which counts sports figures among its image-consulting clients.
“The best thing he can do is what he's already done, just go underground and be forgotten about for a while.
“He's going to have to work his way back. I'd tell him to, at some point, come out and let folks know that you've learned a valuable lesson in all of this … and become an advocate for change. That's all you can do.”
It appears that Rice is trying to put the Rutgers incident in his rear view and move forward.
“Rehashing that,” Rice said, “is not beneficial to me.”
Rice made it clear, however, that coaching is not only in his blood — his father, Mike Sr., is a former Duquesne and Youngstown State coach — but a passion he wants to pursue.
“Coaching players is where I want to be,” Rice said. “The game means a great deal to me, so to be able to be around it is important.”
But to pay his penance, he first must show contrition. It's not going to be as simple as saying a few Hail Marys.
Practice videos show Rice and his staff physically and verbally abusive to Rutgers players, cursing and throwing balls at them.
There's no room for that in the game, even if former Pitt point guard Tray Woodall tweeted last year that Rice isn't the only college coach conducting himself in an abrasive way with his players.
Criticism should be constructive: If you tear someone down, build them back up. That goes for all coaches.
“Like I told my players all the time,” Rice said, “you've got to get to the next play but understand the mistakes that you made, correct them and improve from them.”
Even so, Rice knows that the timeframe for his return won't be up to him. It's going to take someone willing to stick their neck out for a guy parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
Rice's return to college coaching likely would be better received in his hometown, where he's still remembered as an assistant on Pitt's 2007 Sweet 16 team and the coach who led Robert Morris to back-to-back NCAA appearances, its first since 1992.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was emotional when discussing Rice's firing last April — calling him a “good person” who has “acknowledged that he's made some mistakes” — and is described by Rice as a “good friend” and “sounding board.”
Given that Dixon has a vacancy on his staff, with Barry Rohrssen off to Kentucky, the Panthers would appear to be a potential place for Rice to resume his career.
Except for one problem.
Pitt's roster includes junior center Derrick Randall, a Rutgers transfer who filed a lawsuit against the university and Rice in December.
It's an irony that precludes Rice from consideration and reinforces an old adage.
“It takes a lifetime to build a reputation,” Correia said, “and 10 seconds to ruin it.”
But it shouldn't take Mike Rice a lifetime to rebuild a reputation ruined at Rutgers.
Here's hoping that when Rice gets an opportunity, he puts his passion to use in a positive manner.