MBK: Boise State's Leon Rice is the logical target for next hoops coach
Five years ago Boise State head basketball coach Leon Rice interviewed with then Washington State athletics director Bill Moos for the vacant Cougar coaching job after Ken Bone was fired.
Shortly thereafter, Rice signed a new five-year contract with BSU, and WSU eventually hired Ernie Kent.
Fast forward to today. Rice is still at Boise State and Kent was last seen at the local bank depositing the generous $4.2 million check handed him by current AD Pat Chun as a parting gift following five lackluster seasons.
Circumstances have definitely changed since Rice sat down with Moos in March 2014 before quickly pulling out of consideration. He just completed his ninth season at Boise with a 13-19 record. While that single season record is unimpressive when viewed in a vacuum, Rice has led the Broncos through a period of unprecedented success, including two trips to the NCAA Tournament and two to the NIT.
Why is Washington State a good fit for Rice? Four reasons.
First, he is a WSU alum, graduating in 1986. Later, following assistant coaching stints at Oregon and Northern Colorado, he was the head coach at Yakima Valley College in 1998-99 before becoming an assistant at Gonzaga for 11 seasons (1999-2010), rising to Associate Head Coach from 2007-10. Thus, he is very familiar with the hoops scene on the Palouse and understands the difficult and unique challenges faced by any WSU basketball coach. Some analysts have described WSU as the toughest job of any Power 5 school.
Second, he’s a winner. Rice led Boise State to 20 or more wins in seven of his first eight seasons, highlighted by a 25-9 record in 2014-15 when the Broncos tied for first in the Mountain West and earned the school’s first-ever at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. His 178 wins as BSU head coach ranks second in school history. He is the first coach to lead Boise to 20 or more wins in six consecutive seasons. The last time Boise State won 20+ game for three consecutive seasons was 1986-89.
Third, he’s a fun guy. Last season Rice promised to ride a horse through Boise State's campus if Broncos fans sold out the home game against UNLV. They did and Rice kept his promise. A few weeks earlier, Rice walked through the freezing Boise River after another home game sold out.
Fourth, he should double his salary at WSU. Rice’s contract with Boise State has an interesting clause. According to the Idaho Press, Rice gets an additional year added to his contract whenever BSU wins at least 18 games. His salary for the 2017-18 season was $675,000, a figure that will escalate yearly to $800,000 for the 2022-23 season.
Kent was paid $1.4 million per year, and nobody expects the new coach, whoever he is, to sign a multi-year contract for an annual amount less than that in today’s market.
In his statement released yesterday, Chun emphasized a coaching change was necessary to “energize our fan base.” Based on his history at Boise State, few candidates would do a better job of that than Rice. Boise State, a school similar to Washington State in that the football program dominates media coverage and fan interest, averaged 6,747 fans per home game in 2017-18, second highest since 2000-01.
It's time for Leon Rice to come home. National college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman, formerly of ESPN and now with Stadium, agrees. He predicted Rice to WSU in a story published yesterday.
If it happens, Chun will have made a home run hire.
Perhaps Rice has worn out his welcome a little bit at Boise State after the Broncos finished six games under .500 this season. Some BSU fans with short-term memory loss are probably already clamoring for a change. If so, that restlessness could work to WSU's benefit as Rice might be looking for a soft landing spot following nine mostly successful years in Idaho.
Moreover, Kent is not exactly leaving the cupboard bare. Sure, Robert Franks is gone, but promising young players such as C.J. Elleby, Alijaz Kunc, Marvin Cannon and Wichita State transfer Chance Moore give the Cougars an encouraging core for next season.
Right now, Washington State is one of two openings in the Pac-12. UCLA fired Steve Alford in December. An interim head coach has led the team since. The Bruins lost in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night, so the job search there should begin in earnest. Many national analysts expect a big-name coach to take over in Westwood, so don’t expect any crossover between UCLA and WSU.