Over and over again for 10 years, King Rice leaned on Kevin Stallings for advice, help and support.
Now in his first year as a head coach at Monmouth University in New Jersey, Rice still finds himself thanking his former boss for lending a hand.
The latest example, while it might be a small deal to many, is a huge favor to Rice. On Friday, the 42-year-old will return to Vanderbilt, where he spent the last five years as an assistant. His Hawks, struggling through a 0-5 campaign, will play Stallings and No. 18 Vanderbilt (3-1) at 9 p.m. Friday at Memorial Gymnasium.
While it will easily be Monmouth’s biggest challenge of the season, Rice couldn’t be more thrilled for the opportunity.
“He is probably the single-most responsible person for me having this opportunity to be a head coach,” Rice said. “He has been helping me in my life a whole bunch of ways and this was a really big one. I’m just thankful that he would play me to help my program.”
Without Stallings, Rice might not be a head coach.
In 1996, in just his third season as an assistant for Stallings at Illinois State, Rice hit rock bottom when he got a DUI. Well aware he had a drinking problem long before this arrest, the 27-year-old sat in jail wondering if this was the end of his young coaching career.
For Stallings, he was just three seasons into his first head coaching job and the last thing he needed was a distraction. Cutting ties with Rice would have been the easy – and perhaps warranted – answer.
“That was a tough call for me, especially because I’m not very tolerant of social misgivings,” Stallings said. “But it is just one of those instinctive things as a head coach that you weigh what is and what isn’t. I just felt like the right thing to do, for him, was to keep him on the staff and try to help him. Now, obviously there were some probably well stated parameters for him to maintain his job.”
So Rice quit drinking – cold turkey.
“It was time,” he said. “I had been in jams. Every time I got into a jam it was because I was drinking. I finally was fed up with it. It was time to move forward. My girlfriend [Summer], who is my wife now, she was tired of it. It just was time. The actual stopping was not hard.”
Recently, Rice celebrated 15 years of sobriety – a milestone he says he reached in large part because of Stallings’ support.
“With Coach Stallings being a guy that had never drank alcohol, he didn’t really understand that, how it was such a problem for me,” Rice said. “He didn’t like the fact that it was such a problem. But he was willing to learn and help me get through it. That just says a lot about who he is.”
After five years at Illinois State, Rice was an assistant for two seasons at Providence. He was the head coach of the Bahamian National team from 2002-04. During that time, he also spent five years as a personal trainer for former North Carolina teammate Rick Fox, who was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 2006, he was reunited with Stallings at Vanderbilt.
Having played point guard for Dean Smith at North Carolina, which included a Final Four appearance in 1991, Rice had the impressive playing background. He also had been an assistant at four different schools and had played a vital role for a Vanderbilt program that reached four NCAA Tournaments in five years.
Armed with an understanding of Xs and Os, a vibrant personality, a positive attitude and an ability to connect with young people, Rice appeared ready to take the next step as a college head coach.
He got interviews. He was a candidate for numerous jobs, including at Tennessee State when a vacancy came open three years ago. But he never received an offer.
Maybe he was just getting out beat by better candidates. Or maybe his past still haunted him.
“My actions caused me to have to take longer to fulfill one of my biggest dreams,” Rice said. “I was never a guy that was going to point the finger at someone else. I’m a guy that looks in the mirror a lot and when it is on me, it is on me. That was on me and I never made excuses for it. Did it hurt me from getting jobs? I think so. But maybe the jobs I didn’t get they just had a better candidate.
“I brought those things on so I don’t spend a lot of time making excuses for them.”
Tennessee State head coach John Cooper lights up when talking about Rice. Their relationship spans more than 20 years, when Cooper was playing at Wichita State. One of his college teammates played against Rice in New York during high school. While at South Carolina and Auburn, Cooper coached with and for, Jeff Lebo, who played with Rice at North Carolina. And the two crossed paths on opposite sidelines, while Cooper was at Auburn (2004-09) and Rice was at Vanderbilt.
After Cooper was named TSU’s head coach in 2009, they became even closer. Rice would come over for lunch and even sit in on Cooper’s staff meetings.
So Cooper knows firsthand how diligently Rice worked to not let a single moment define him.
“There was certainly a price he had to pay for that,” Cooper said. “Not only did he pay that price but he mourned and overcame that. You see it now. A lot of people would have tucked their heads and run the other way but he didn’t. For those of us who know him, obviously he made a mistake, but the person and what he is about and how he deals with kids and how he treats his kids is beyond reproach. It really is.”
In April, Rice’s opportunity finally came.
Growing up in Binghamton, N.Y., Monmouth was an intriguing destination. Interviewing 50-60 candidates, athletics director Marilyn McNeil believed, from her first meeting with Rice, that he was “the perfect fit for Monmouth.”
“That obviously says they’re not in the business of judging people,” Rice said. “They felt like enough time had passed. I was sorry for my mistakes and they saw something positive in me that made them want me to be their coach. This is an unbelievable job. I am very lucky to have this job.”
His basketball team might be winless – in a recent phone call Cooper reminded him to patient – but these days, Rice doesn’t have much to complain about. He is back home near family and his wife just gave birth to their second son, Julian James.
That mistake from 15 years ago is indeed a thing of the past. And on Friday, when he goes to give his old mentor the pregame handshake, Rice will make sure to remind Stallings just how much he meant to him.
“It has really turned into a positive deal,” Rice said. “Now, I’m 42 years old. I’m not a young dude. I’m not a young coach. I’ve got two kids and, you know, he helped me back then and now I have all positives.”