Coach Rice (far right) discusses the relationship he shares with the rest of the staff during this terrific interview.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the great ten year run that Gonzaga has been on is the continuity that the coaching staff has had. In an era where it seems that coaches are getting hired and fired every year, and assistant coaches are jumping on every opportunity to become a head coach, Gonzaga has been remarkable for the stability that it has had in the coaching ranks. In Leon Rice, Gonzaga has arguably the top assistant coach in the country, and we recently had the chance to speak with Coach Rice about everything from his desire to become a head coach, to the scheduling philosophy that Gonzaga has lived by during this great run. This is a really terrific glimpse into the Gonzaga program, and we want to thank Coach Rice for his openness during the interview.
Slipper Still Fits: Can you talk about the relationship the staff shares? It seems like Gonzaga has the rare group of coaches that for the most part have been together for the long haul?
Coach Rice: Oh yea, it is truly unique. I've known Mark for about twenty years, probably since 1987, so I guess for about 22 years. We met when we worked camps together in Oregon for Dan Monson, and we were already really tight before I took the job here. Now our families are very tight, and when we are away from basketball we do a lot of things together with our kids and families.
Slipper Still Fits: Obviously, as a coach, you must have thought about being a head coach and running your own program. What has been your approach at looking at various head coach openings, and does it get increasingly difficult to imagine leaving Gonzaga?
Coach Rice: You got to have your eyes open all the time, just to see what opportunities are out there. But first and foremost, we love Gonzaga and if we were to ever leave it would be like a divorce having to split the kids up from the community. Professionally, it is something that I will entertain and I have looked around at a small number of opportunities, but I don't actively pursue jobs, or initiate the contact. However, if the right one comes along and if I'm lucky enough to be involved, I'll look at it. But it has to be a very very good position for me to even consider it.
Slipper Still Fits: Obviously July is an important month for the program, especially with the new recruiting rules. Can you talk about how the new recruiting rules have impacted how you and the staff evaluate during the offseason?
Coach Rice: Well, year to year the impact of the rules will change. If we would have had these rules last year, it would have been very difficult, because that is when we found Sam Dower and found a good number of the guys that we got.
But now we only have three scholarships for the next two years so we don't need to evaluate 10,000 different players. So in that aspect, it is okay for us. With the changes you have to end up doing a lot or recruiting by looking at the recruiting services and the Internet. This year, the elite camp we had, and team camps have helped us see a lot of kids. That kind of helped us to replace our spring evaluation, and then in the July period we continue to catch up on that. With these changes, more mistakes are made because you can't evaluate a lot.
Slipper Still Fits: With the speculation that the 2011 class is stronger, or more loaded than the 2010 class, does it become difficult to figure out how to use the limited amount of scholarships available over the next two years.
Coach Rice: With this many new guys, our needs have changed and it is not crystal clear as far as what we need. When we got Demetri Goodson, we knew we needed a replacement for Pargo and that we wanted to improve our quickness. However, right now, it is not clear because these guys are so young, so the needs we have will change. Watching the new guys for three months in the summer, isn't enough to help us realize what we need, so that affects our 2010 recruiting. It's just like being a baseball hitter and waiting for the right pitch. Sometimes you have to be patient to find the right guy you are looking for, and then you swing.
Slipper Still Fits: We also wanted to talk about a recent trend in recruiting, especially in the last class, which has seen Gonzaga focus a lot more on Canadian and foreign recruits. Is this a developing trend, or was this class just a case of the recruits that committed happening to be from another country? Also, because of the lack of evaluation you can do for some of these guys, is there any risk in taking in so many foreign guys?
Coach Rice: This year, it just came together with so many foreign recruits. We evaluate each guy as a standalone, and compare him to other guys we like at the position. It's not like we say, "we need this many Canadians". We evaluate each one next to everyone else and it just worked out that way with this class. Also with the location of the school, Vancouver is very close. So while they are considered international guys, with the location, they are basically Northwest kids.
Yea, it is also difficult with the questions marks and not being able to see them play. But we have had good success with our international players dating a long way back. It has worked out good for us and you can get some great players, and we have had some good ones here because of that.
Slipper Still Fits: In terms of the incoming recruits, how have Sam and GJ developed since coming to campus? Also, of the group, which guys do you get a sense will be part of the rotation during their freshman year, and do you think it's likely that any will redshirt? It is more difficult with most of the newcomers not here for the summer?
Coach Rice: They are just terrific and hard working kids. GJ is a high-level athlete and an excellent decision maker. Sam is a big guy with a ton of potential and his ball just goes in the basket. They both have huge upside, and with them being here this summer, they get a chance to know the campus and figure out their way around, and know what to do once fall rolls around. It gets them off with a great start.
With Elias, we always want to support the international kids representing their country and we want to work with that country and their federation to help them out. Each kid is an individual and has their own stuff they have to deal with. We do our best to work out with them and the country, and make sure that everything is comfortable.
It's dictated by a lot of factors. We know that no one is going to come in and beat Matt Bouldin out for a starting spot. But with Austin being the 15th pick by the Detroit Pistons, I don't think we could have planned for it any better than we did. We have a lot of guys ready to play and a lot in numbers. So it was surprising that he left as early as he did, but we feel like we are ready.
Slipper Still Fits: With so many newcomers, and guys having increased roles, do you as a coaching staff have a sense for the type of role and expectations you have for each guy yet? How do you think Grant and Andy will figure into the rotation after sitting out last year to redshirt?
Coach Rice: There is going to be a lot of coaching going on and it will be a new challenge for us. We have done it before but this one is really different since we have so many new guys. We want really know what we have until the games start and the lights come on.
Both of them are gamers and are guys that are really ready and able to step it up with the lights on, but we haven't seen them in that situation in a long time. Grant has had a tough deal since he was injured this year and redshirted so he needs time to get comfortable since he has been out of basketball for two years. Andy had a good year physically and is up to about 240-245. He ‘s a real good player and real skilled and guys like that do good at this program. It's nice because they are pretty mature for freshman.
Slipper Still Fits: One of the big issues last season was the health of Rob Sacre. How has Rob developed since we last saw him play, and has been able to stay injury free this summer even while playing with the National team?
Coach Rice: Rob has made a big jump. He just looks like he is scoring so much easier than before and he has more confidence and he is showing that. It just looks like he is being more of a veteran. He's a good looking redshirt sophomore, but he acts like a veteran out there.
Slipper Still Fits: Because of the relative inexperience of this group, how did you take that into consideration when putting together the schedule for next season? It appears with the Maui, games against Duke and Michigan St, and Wake Forest, that you kept it quite difficult?
Coach Rice: Well first and foremost, we go after the best, and we have the highest level schedule with a great TV package. In some ways, that is an important part of what we do here and why we are so successful. We play in the best arenas, at places like Madison Square Garden, and that is the type of schedule and environment that kids that come here want to play in. It'd be nice to have eight vets play this schedule, but we will let it fly with the young guys we have, and we feel pretty good about the group we have.