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Rice's passion transforms Robert Morris

| Thursday, March 6, 2008

When it comes to basketball, Robert Morris coach Mike Rice has no mercy.

He once knocked his father Mike Rice Sr.'s tooth out during a game of four-on-four. Robert Morris no longer holds staff pick-up games because Rice tends to get a little too excited, aggressive or -- as he calls it -- competitive. Besides, he pulled his calf muscle during a game at the beginning of the season and has been out of commission since.

"When basketball is involved, he is 150 percent over the top with doing everything possible to win," Robert Morris assistant Andrew Toole said. "He's crazed by the game."

That's Rice. Intense, fiery, insane -- but in a good way, those closest to him say. And when he gets anywhere near the basketball court, his energy is magnified times 10.

That passion always has been uncontrollable for Rice, who Wednesday was named the Northeast Conference Coach of the Year.

"I was still in college when I went to a local park and didn't know who Mike Rice was," Toole said. "He was a loud, obnoxious guy who won three or four games in a row, and me and my friends had next game. We beat him. He was yelling, screaming and carrying on. As soon as I met him (at a previous job interview) I said, 'This is the jerk from in the park.'"

Rice's emotions are slightly more controlled on the sidelines, where he led Robert Morris (25-6, 16-2) to its first NEC regular-season championship since 1992. In his first year as head coach, Rice is riding the nation's third longest win streak with 13 victories and has his eye on winning the NEC Tournament, which would result in the Colonials' first NCAA berth since 1992.

Rice showed the Colonials tough love from day one. Mere minutes after the players had taken physicals, the defensive-minded coach held his first practice, at 9:15 p.m. There was no ball involved.

The team endured 40 minutes of defensive slides and rebounding drills, and then learning how to take charges and clap when a player hit the ground.

Rice set the tone early, but what's unique is that he's able to walk that line between coach and friend.

"You have to be yourself and then you have to be honest," Rice said. "How I treat our players and demand things is like when I was a player (at Fordham), how I responded to things."

Rice's interesting mix of work and play has developed a team chemistry responsible for this incredible run. At Rice's practices, there are no first and second teams; the reserves and starters are paired together for drills and scrimmages. There's lots of yelling, cheering and ego-squashing.

Guard Tony Lee, the NEC Player of the Year, picked up on Rice's no-nonsense approach when Rice met with the team during an interview before he was hired in April.

"He seemed a little crazy," Lee said. "He was cocky. He didn't give us too many compliments. ... He came in being pretty negative to us, but it helped. If he would have come in stroking our egos, we wouldn't be where we are."

After spending 16 years as an assistant coach, Rice has stolen a few philosophies from his mentors, including Pitt's Jamie Dixon and Phil Martelli at St. Joe's, where Rice coached from 2004-06.

"I think there are guys who can be lifelong assistants and be great at it," Martelli said. "I always thought with Mike that before he was on my staff that he was a head coach in waiting. What's extraordinary is the fact that so many guys go into a new situation their first year and overdo it. It doesn't seem like he's done that."

Rice inherited many qualities, particularly his energy, from his father, who coached at Valley High School, Duquesne University and Youngstown State.

"In my family, if you weren't energetic, you'd be squashed," Rice said. "It's not fake or phony. I don't have to generate that energy. It's just there."

Because of his father, a television analyst for the Portland Trail Blazers, Rice was exposed to the game at an early age. He was the gopher at his dad's camps, even as a 5-year-old. Rice handled many ballboy duties, but it wasn't always easy hanging around with the older guys.

B. B. Flenory, who starred at Valley and Duquesne, would tape Rice to a wall and throw balls at him. In one instance at Duquesne, the players taped him to the training table because the middle schooler tried to give a halftime speech telling the Dukes they weren't playing hard enough.

Not much has changed three decades later.

"I think he has the love of basketball and the knowledge of what it takes to win and lose," Rice Sr. said. "I think he's been around the locker room all his life and he knows the hard work that goes into winning. He's one of those coaches who doesn't want anyone to take a day off from working hard."

Probable starters
Player Pos. Cl. Ht. PPG
Nick DelTufo F Fr. 6-8 6.8
Alex Nunner G Jr. 6-3 7.0
Whitney Coleman G Jr. 6-3 12.2
James Hett G Fr. 6-0 4.9
R.J. Rutledge G Fr. 6-5 6.9
Robert Morris
Player Pos. Cl. Ht. PPG
Bateko Francisco G Jr. 6-1 8.4
Jeremy Chappell G Jr. 6-3 15.0
A.J. Jackson F Sr. 6-6 14.2
Jimmy Langhurst G So. 5-11 9.6
Tony Lee G Sr. 6-0 13.8
Notes: Robert Morris swept the two-game series with a 59-44 win at home and a 61-60 win at Monmouth. ... Monmouth will be without Rickie Crews and last season's NEC Rookie of the Year, Jhamar Youngblood, who both left the team. ... Top-seeded Robert Morris won the NEC championship in each of its three appearances (1989, 1990 and 1992) when seeded No. 1.
Additional Information:

Today's game

No. 1 Robert Morris (25-6) vs. No. 8 Monmouth (7-23)

NEC Tournament quarterfinals

When, where: 7 p.m. today · Sewall Center, Moon

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