Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Adios, Mike Rice.

     According to the PG and other media sources,  The head basketball coach at Robert Morris University, (Full Disclosure: This blog's author graduated from Robert Morris in 2000.)  Mike Rice has accepted a deal to take up the head coaching job at Rutgers University in the Big East basketball conference.  The PG's story can be seen here.  This turn of events occurred less than one month after he signed a contract extension to remain at RMU until 2016-17.  The RMU story about that press conference can be found here .
     I won't go through the accolades that Coach Rice brought to Robert Morris during his three year stay at Moon Township. They are available at the links posted.  I'm not going to rip Coach Rice for what he did.  He did what any sane, rational thinking human being who is interested in moving up in the world would do.  He saw an opportunity to move ahead, and raise his status in his chosen profession, and he took it.  I and the rest of the Robert Morris community wish Coach Rice well in his upcoming tour at Rutgers and hope he can duplicate his success in what is commonly considered the toughest college basketball conference in the NCAA.  
     He has his work cut out for him.  The Big East is a meatgrinder of a conference.  He will be starting at a program that is at the bottom of the league.  Rutgers will be competing for news coverage in the shark tank that is the New York City media market.  Coach Rice will find that unlike the Pittsburgh print and electronic media which generally believes that the only college basketball played in this town is at the University of Pittsburgh, with the occasional bone thrown to Duquesne, and could not find their way to Robert Morris even if you dumped them in front of the main gate of the school, the New York market will be scrutinizing his every move and will be covering Rutgers at a level that he never experienced at Robert Morris.  Especially, with the body of work he's bringing to Rutgers, the expectation level of the fans, boosters and alums of the Scarlet Knights will be very high.  But if there is a coach that can take a program and raise it to heights never before seen in its history, Coach Rice is it.  He's fiery, preaches stiff defense and fundamentals, comes from good coaching stock and is a rising star in the world of college basketball coaches.
     But if anything, my beef is about contracts, and how little they mean in the world of Div 1 college basketball.  Less than a month ago Coach Rice signed a contract that was supposed to have bound him to coach at Robert Morris until the 2016-17 season.  A month later, that contract has been consigned to the circular file.  I went through school under the impression that a contract was a contract and both parties were liable under law to uphold the terms of that contract.  But if you look around the world of professional and college athletics, you'll find that contracts signed by coaches and players are hardly worth the paper they are printed on.  Coaches sign contracts and bolt for better gigs all the time.  I often wonder why colleges and coaches don't just sign year-to year deals and be done with it.  That's pretty much what these contracts are anyways.  It's much more transparent and honest.  But honesty is a quality not often found in big-time sports in general and college basketball in particular.  
     Robert Morris didn't have the ability to make Coach Rice stick to the terms of their contract because they don't have the leverage.  RMU is a small school in a Pittsburgh suburb that plays in a conference that is consistently ranked at the bottom of Division I of the NCAA. They play in front of  2,000 people at the most and under a thousand the majority of the time.  Even if RMU had gone 28-0 and blew through the conference tournament winning every game by 20 points, the best seed they could have hoped for would have been maybe a 12 or an 11 seed. Usually the NEC champion ends up either a 14,15, or 16 seed and is knocked out of the tournament by the big boys by at least 20 points.
      The coaches that ply their trade in the NEC, for the most part, are young guys who are in their first head coaching job after a string of assistant posts. They coach in relative obscurity in front of crowds from a few hundred to about 3,000 or so, and the major media outlets barely notice them. After a few years, if they stand out as Coach Rice did, they could have head coaching jobs offered to them from schools in the next tier up.   Most Colonial fans didn't expect Coach Rice to spend his whole career here.  If anything, they would have ripped him for not taking the chance when it came available.  But if RMU were to push hard to hold Coach Rice to the terms of his contract,  they would have a hard time getting a quality coach to come there again.  Coaches want the freedom to move up if opportunities present themselves and schools like Robert Morris are used to their role in the college hoops landscape.  Provide a good opportunity to cut their teeth as a first-time head coach in front of a largely supportive, if not tolerant, community and little hard scrutiny by the media.
     But now the questions get tough.  Who is Robert Morris going after now?  Who's available at such a late date.  It's safe to say that Coach Rice will want to take most of his assistants with him to New Jersey.  Maybe one of them will be interested in staying behind and stepping into his shoes.  They'll know his system and have had a major part in recruiting the kind of players that made Robert Morris successful under Rice's term.  It would save the school time and money to hire in-house.  But there are also a lot of quality assistant coaches out there that would be interested in the opportunity that RMU provides.
    Another question regards the recruits in the pipeline.  Gone are the days when a player would pick a school because of its stellar academic traditions or because they provided the best opportunity to get a degree.  These days, blue-chip recruits at the highest levels want to go to the school that gives them the best shot at making the NBA. They're not interested in going to school for four years.  One and done is the mantra of big-time college basketball.  Today's players go with the coach that will get them where they want to go, and they'll follow that coach from one school to another.  Even if they have to sit out for a year as per NCAA transfer rules.  At the level Robert Morris plays, there is little 'One and done.'  Most players at RMU are there for the degree and will play for the four years they are eligible.  But there are recruits that Coach Rice tapped that signed letters of intent under the impression that they were going to RMU because Rice would be there.  But now that he's gone to Rutgers, they're still committed to RMU.  If they choose to back out, they lose their scholarship, have to sit out for a year, and lose a year of eligibility. Letters of Intent are bound between a student athlete and a school, not a coach.  It's safe to say  that a few recruits might be willing to sacrifice a year in order to play for the coach that recruited them, but why should athletes be dinged if they choose to jump ship and play elsewhere when coaches are not held to that same standard. 
     Most likely, the recruits that RMU picked up will stay at the school, adjust to the new reality and hopefully play for the name on the front of the jersey and not for the name on the coach's office door.   Today's players are not stupid and naive.  They watch ESPN and read Sports Illustrated.  They know what is going on in the world of college basketball. The good, the bad and the ugly.
    Who's at fault for all this?  The blame can be easily spread around.  The NCAA, because it makes rules and policies that benefits the coaches and penalizes the athletes that make those coaches great.  The college presidents for chasing the money and forsaking the greater mission of their universities.  The coaches for saying that they'll stay to get the fans and supporters fired up about the next season and then bolting out the door for the bigger prize, without so much as a "by your leave."  But it's the players, fans and supporters that get the shaft in the end.  Now Robert Morris' 2010-11 season which looked so promising with the possibility of another NEC championship and NCAA tournament appearance has been shredded along with Mike Rice's latest contract extension.
     But anyways,  Coach Rice, thanks for the three years of thrills and excitement you've given Robert Morris.  You've put us and our little school on the map.  You've brought us a measure of respect, and Colonial Nation wishes you well as you move on with your career.
    We too will move on.  There are coaches out there, like you, who are looking for a place to cut their teeth as a head coach.  And RMU aims to provide that opportunity.  One day, we'll get lucky and find a coach who'll give us the same level of success and is also willing to sit a spell and maybe makes us his first and last head coaching stop.

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