BY MIKE PRATER
THE IDAHO PRESS
Leon Rice once shot himself. Seriously.
The Boise State basketball coach, then a curious child of the ‘70s in Richland, Wash., somehow turned a collection of friends, large rocks and a .22 bullet into a bloody left knee. His mother, a nurse, stuffed a belt in little Leon’s mouth and cleaned up the mess herself.
Rice knows pain.
And based on this season of results, he would probably rather fire a flaming cannonball into his other knee than continue the suffering of close and constant defeats.
The Broncos, thankfully, closed out the regular season Saturday with a dominant win over Air Force, but let’s focus on a bigger picture, where issues inside this program are larger than they appear.
Boise State has lost 24 of its past 39 games, dating to last season, and hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record in more than two months. The Broncos will limp into the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas this week, and return home shortly thereafter with 20 losses for the first time in school history.
Throw in a couple of player arrests and suspensions, and Rice’s season is officially a bloody mess, just like that knee.
Even listening to Rice talk about losing is painful. In Friday’s session with reporters, he threw out phrases such as “Valley of Death” and “having your heart ripped out.’’
Then, his tone turned really serious …
“Maybe been one of the hardest things in my coaching career, because it has been. … I go through, just like anybody else, I go through probably the stages of frustration and anger … homicide and then I want suicide. You want to do anything you can.’’
Of this season’s 19 losses, a school-record nine have occurred in one-possession or overtime games. That’s where the uber-frustration sets in for all parties, including fans who responded with declining attendance (average dropped from 6,747 last season to 5,041 this year). Some fans are even throwing around the “F’’ word – as in fired.
Rice is the second most successful coach in school history behind Bobby Dye, and has done things here that no other coach has done (six straight 20-win seasons, NCAA at-large, NBA first-rounder).
The thought of firing Rice is ridiculous. He’s proven to be a good coach, and has been rewarded with a comfortable contract that makes him the second highest paid employee in Idaho. He just needs to produce more consistent results. No harsh hiccups like this season, no premature MW Tournament exits like last season, and no more March Mediocrity (Rice is 18-20 in the month since joining Boise State in 2010).
Most recent case in point: Last Wednesday at New Mexico, which, shockingly, came down to one possession.
Boise State had the ball, seven seconds remaining, down by one. Justinian Jessup to Pat Dembley to Alex Hobbs. Turnover. Buzzer. And just that fast, the video shows Rice slamming his hand on the scorer’s table.
Jessup should have raced coast-to-coast for a layup attempt or foul, but these student-athletes can’t even spell confidence right now. The Broncos looked lost, confused and out of sync. There appeared to be no plan from practice sessions, or a previous timeout. No specific play – just a fling and a prayer. Not answered. Not even close.
This close loss was on Rice – a good coach in a bad funk.
The only silver lining is the hustle you see on the floor. Players are playing hard, competing until the bitter end, doing their best to please their coach. That’s a sign of respect and a strong culture.
More importantly, the silver lining indicates that the roster should improve dramatically next season with a promising batch of new freshmen, recruits and transfers. On paper, it could be Rice’s best team ever.
When this season ends, and that won’t take long, Rice said he’ll be on a plane the next day, searching for even more talent to climb out of this deep, dark hole.
“Like I said, the Valley of Death, we’re going to get out of it,’’ he said. “I know we’re going to get out of it next year for sure.’’
Hopefully he’s not shooting himself in the mouth.
Mike Prater is the Idaho Press sports columnist and co-hosts Idaho Sports Talk on KTIK 93.1 FM The Ticket every Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m. He can be found on Twitter @MikeFPrater and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prater’s opinions are his own.