Commentary: Is Mike Rice Right for Rutgers?

Mike Rice went 71-31 in three seasons at Robert Morris, and will be introduced as Rutgers' next men's basketball coach Thursday during at a 3:15 p.m. press conference. But what kind of fit will he be with the Scarlet Knights? After speaking with various college basketball sources across the country, we decide whether Rice is a good hire, or a mistake.

When I first heard Mike Rice was the front-runner to become Rutgers' next men's basketball coach, I had a lukewarm reaction. I knew of him, but didn't know about him.

So I began talking to some of the people I've come across in 20 years as a professional journalism to learn more about Rice. As good fortune would have it, although I spent the last decade in the Los Angeles, many of my contacts in the college basketball coaching community have strong northeast ties.

And after speaking with a few handfuls of them in the last week (I am not revealing who they are), my enthusiasm built to where I am excited to see what he can do, beginning with his introductory press conference Thursday at 3:15 p.m.

This is not to say Rice, who went 71-31 and took Robert Morris to a pair of NCAA Tournaments in three seasons, is a can't-miss guy. Not having a successful coach since Tom Young shows the depths of which this program sunk to.

But given the pool of candidates, the salary restrictions and desirability of the job, athletic director Tim Pernetti got it right, and for a variety of reasons.

First, the program is a mess. From lack of bodies on the roster to the need to renovate the Rutgers Athletic Center, it is beyond a significant building job, and it will take the energy of a younger, charismatic coach just to get it to be a mid-level Big East program.

Second, he knows x's and o's. Every coach I spoke with said Rice is a very good tactician.

Third, Pernetti wants to renovate the RAC, and that will take loads of cash. Rice is outgoing and understands the importance of being the face of the program. He will schmooze the boosters and is a comfortable person with which to speak. While his Robert Morris team had too many technical fouls on the court, there were not behavioral issues off it.

Fourth, he wanted the job. And don't underestimate that. He may not want to spend the rest of his career at Rutgers right now – maybe that changes with a renovated RAC and a looming move to the Big Ten -- but he certainly isn't approaching it like this is his last head coaching job because retirement is around the corner and he is financially secure.

Finally, while some of my contacts voiced mild concern over Rice's on-court antics, every one of them said he is a tireless worker, his practices are intense and there will be accountability.

So, the next time a player wants to pull himself out of practice because he is tired and insert a teammate, that player might just keep walking to the locker room because it will not be tolerated.

At 41 years old and hungry to prove he can recruit and coach with the best, Rice gives Rutgers an interesting identity. His personality is suited to sell the program to the boosters, to the recruits and to the media. And Rice understands the power of getting along with everyone while also asserting his authority of being the men's basketball coach.

Rice's ties to the New Jersey/New York recruiting scene were trumpeted by his backers long before his arrival, but his recruiting depth goes beyond that. Rutgers always talks about being big players in the Metropolitan scene, and keeping Jersey kids home instead of watching them star at Villanova, West Virginia, Duke and so on.

Well, history proves even when Mike Rosario or Dahntay Jones chose the Scarlet Knights, it didn't work in the long run. Jones transferred to Duke and Rosario went to Florida, and both gave recruiters from other schools ammunition to tell future recruits why a move will not work.

Rice helped transform Robert Morris into a Northeast Conference power by recruiting Philadelphia as well as New Jersey. And while there is no comparison between the NEC and Big East, there is a track record of success.

There may have been sexier candidates, whether it was the grandiose dreams of Bobby Knight, the hope Fran Dunphy would leave his Philadelphia-based comfort zone or a repentant Billy Gillispie would bring his talent to Piscataway to energize a fan base in dire need of belief.

Instead, Pernetti went with a rising coach with the endorsement of the area's basketball community. Some people will call it a safe hire.

But, after talking to a network of coaches from around the nation who know Rice as a tactician, a recruiter and a seller, the better thing to call it is a the right hire.

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