BOISE — The scorebook from his first season as a freshman basketball coach at Pasco High School in Washington sits on a shelf in the home office of Boise State basketball coach Leon Rice.
His team posted a 52-26 win over nearby River View in his first game on Dec. 7, 1987.
There are signed jerseys and photos from his time at Gonzaga University and newspaper clippings from some of his big wins at Boise State.
He points out a Sports Illustrated from April 3, 2000, in which Rice’s wife, Robin, and son Max — now a freshman on the Boise State team — are featured in a full-page photo with the wife and son of Gonzaga coach Mark Few and others.
“They made it in Sports Illustrated before I did,” Rice joked.
There’s a ball commemorating his first win as Boise State head coach and a painting of himself and former Bronco Derrick Marks at the 2015 NCAA Tournament in Dayton.
Conference championship rings, NCAA Tournament souvenirs and more from his 30 years in the business crowd the shelves. It’s a trip down memory lane for Rice as he welcomes an Idaho Press reporter and photographer into his home to discuss his coaching career, his sense of humor and what makes him tick.
Rice, the longest-tenured coach in the Mountain West, is in his ninth season as Boise State's basketball coach and has the highest winning percentage in school history. The Broncos resume play at home at 8 p.m. today looking to rebound from a tough season-opening loss to Idaho State.
The Broncos have made two NCAA Tournaments under Rice, but he's hoping to lead a young group on a third trip to the Big Dance in March.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff in here, but wait until you see this,” Rice says as he walks toward a drawer behind his desk and pulls out a thick manila folder.
The story of how he got his start as a college coach was about to begin.
Rice managed a bar called the Gaslight Tavern while he did his student teaching at McLoughlin Middle School in Pasco. He coached the freshman wrestling team there before coaching sophomore football for a season at Richland and then the freshman basketball team at Pasco that winter.
He also spent the same two springs teaching four periods of migrant night school at Pasco.
“That was such a great eye-opener for me and a great experience because I learned so much how hard those kids worked,” Rice said. “They would work in the fields all day and then at 4 p.m. they’d come to four periods of high school and then go home around nine and get up early again the next morning. They were tough kids. I learned a lot.”
His goal was to be a college coach, so he sent 90 letters to college coaches and schools across the country asking for a chance to be a graduate assistant or a volunteer.
One by one, the rejection letters from schools like Kentucky, Georgetown and Notre Dame started showing up. Legendary Indiana coach Bob Knight said he had nothing available. Even the three schools that Rice eventually worked for — Oregon, Gonzaga and Boise State — all said no and wished him luck.
Rice kept a list on a sheet of paper of the schools he reached out to. He put an "X" next to the school when the rejection letter came back. He kept the return letters as motivation.
“I was determined,” said Rice, as he took the rejections from the envelope and spread them out on his desk. “I wasn’t going to stop until I got someone to say yes. I just wanted to get my nose in and my foot in the door somehow.”
Looking for anything he could grasp onto, Rice noticed a letter from Oregon coach Don Monson included a handwritten note at the bottom wishing him luck. Rice had been one of the many high school coaches to work Monson’s summer camp the year before and also was coaching at Pasco High where he coached years earlier.
“Seriously, when Don wrote back the handwritten one I was like, ‘So you’re saying I have chance,’” Rice said of the letter dated June 8, 1988.
Rice got wind a short time later that Monson would be recruiting at an AAU tournament in Yakima. The varsity coach at Pasco whom Rice was working for played for Monson when he was in high school, so the two drove to Yakima and went to the bar where they knew Monson was one night.
“I waited until he had a couple beers and I was sweating I was so nervous, but I went over there and talked to him,” Rice said. “And he finally said, ‘If you can get into grad school, I’ll take you.’ He rejected me and then a month later he gave me a job.”
It was around this time when Rice met his eventual best friend in Mark Few, the current Gonzaga coach. Few was a high school coach in Eugene, Oregon, at the time and the two, along with Bill Grier and Dan Monson (Don’s son), all became friends while working at Monson’s Oregon camp.
“We just kind of hit it off from the start,” Few said. “There was a whole pack of us that were just young guys who were good high school players but definitely not college players but wanted to stay in the game and loved basketball. Leon and I had so much in common and we were all just really competitive. We’d coach hard, work hard and then go (party) pretty hard.”
Rice spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at Oregon where he did everything from lace up the shoes to put more air in the basketballs. His big break came when Monson tasked him with helping bring along Terrell Brandon, a star player who was ineligible his first season due to poor grades and test scores while in high school.
“Terrell was the guy that really helped me take that jump,” Rice said.
Rice would help him with basketball development stuff, but mostly made sure Brandon was taking care of business academically. Brandon became eligible the next year, stayed eligible and eventually became the Pac-12 Player of the Year and the first Oregon player to leave school early for the NBA.
“Don trusted me with him and I kept getting to do more, and the next thing you know I was coaching the defensive presses,” Rice said. “I would just keep getting more and more responsibility and the rest, as they say, is history.”
After two years as a graduate assistant, Rice was promoted to the restricted earnings position (what is now known as the director of basketball operations) at Oregon and made a salary of $16,000. When Monson was fired two years later, Rice landed his first full-time coaching position at Northern Colorado when he was hired by Ken Smith, an Oregon assistant who became the head coach there.
His first salary as a full-time coach was $19,000.
“And I was in hog heaven,” Rice said. “I thought this is awesome. In seven years from a GA to restricted earnings to an assistant I never made more than $20,000, but I didn’t care. I was in heaven because I was coaching college basketball.”
Rice met his future wife, Robin, while at Oregon, and the two got engaged before making the move to Northern Colorado. Robin was a junior college volleyball player who transferred to Oregon to finish her degree. The two were married in 1993.
Robin went to school to become a teacher but worked as a business analyst out of college. She transferred to her company’s office in Denver when Leon took the job at Northern Colorado and made $30,000 while serving as the breadwinner of the family.
“I had no experience doing that kind of work, but I kept doing it to kind of keep our head above water financially so he could take that job,” Robin said.
Rice leaned on his friendships with Few, Grier and Monson as he moved into his first full-time coaching position about the same time they all did. Monson and Few both eventually went from assistant coach to head coach at Gonzaga, while Grier was an assistant coach for the Zags before landing the head coaching position at the University of San Diego.
Current Colorado coach Tad Boyle and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon also became close friends with Rice and the other three due to their connections as assistant coaches at Oregon.
“We were all just trying to get into the business and we were all going through the same things at the same time,” Rice said. “It’s really crazy. You don’t usually see that. We all came up the ranks together and everyone went on to be a Division I head coach. Some of our fondest memories would be when we were on the road recruiting and we’d have $100 each to our name and we’d be at the casino in Las Vegas and we’d be sweating pretty heavily if we had $5 out there on a blackjack hand.”
Rice went from Northern Colorado to Yakima Valley College, where he served two seasons as an assistant and one as co-head coach. He then took over as head coach for the 1998-1999 season and led YVC to a school record 31 wins and was named the Eastern Region Coach of the Year.
Few took over as the head coach at Gonzaga in 1999 and Rice, coming off the record-setting year at Yakama, was hired by his friend to be an assistant. Rice spent 11 seasons under Few at Gonzaga, including the final three as the associate head coach. The Zags made four Sweet 16 appearances and went to the NCAA Tournament in all of Rice’s 11 years there. Five times Gonzaga finished in the Top 10 of the final Associated Press poll.
After turning down other head coaching opportunities, Rice left to become the head coach at Boise State in 2010.
Those close to Rice will say the same thing.
“He’s just a really genuine guy that is a lot of fun to be around,” Few said. “He’s got an unbelievable sense of humor, but you can run some serious things by him and get a good, solid opinion that you trust. Our families essentially grew up side by side. He’s a special guy with a special family.”
Rice enjoys watching movies with his family or reading a good book, but most of the time there's some football or basketball game on the family TV.
"Having all boys and with what Leon does, it's sports 24/7 in this house," Robin said of their three boys Brock, Max and Kade.
Rice's job is so time-consuming that he'll often watch film at home to at least be near his family. His normal spot in the living room has large windows that provide a view of a beautiful wooded area behind his house.
"He'll set up in front of that fireplace with a TV tray and his computer and his coffee and Christmas music and he'll just watch film," said Robin, who will leave him alone while he's working but often will join him to watch Gonzaga, Colorado or the other schools where they have friends.
Rice certainly has a serious side to him, but more times than not he's cracking a joke or giving a quirky comparison or movie reference while speaking with the media. His friends and teammates say he's the same way with them.
Told he had a unique personality, Rice smiled.
“I would say that’s fair,” he said.
It’s that sense of humor and outgoing personality that quickly ingratiated him with Boise State fans. The winning helped, as well.
Rice led the Broncos to a 21-13 record and a trip to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational in his first year at Boise State. After they transitioned from the WAC to the Mountain West the next year and went just 13-17, Rice and the Broncos earned the school’s first-ever at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in year three and went 21-11.
Two years later, the Broncos won the Mountain West regular season title in 2015 and again earned an at-large bid to the Big Dance. They’ve been to the National Invitation Tournament in each of the past two seasons and last year went 23-9 before seeing Chandler Hutchison become the first player in school history to be picked in the first round of the NBA Draft last summer.
“I don’t think there’s a better coach in the league. I always worried about going against him the most,” said former Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy, who went 0-5 against Rice and the Broncos in Boise. “If I was an athletic director at any university, he’d be the first guy I call. If I was the athletic director at North Carolina when Roy steps down, I’d call Leon. I think he’s that good.”
Asked what makes him hold Rice in such high regard, Eustachy said, “He checks all the boxes. Some guys are great coaches, but not good guys. He has it all. I can’t think of a better coach in the country. I really can’t. And he’s been great since I first went against him. I know I was horrible when I first started at Idaho, but he was a rock star right out of the box when he got to Boise.”
Boise State is the only team in the Mountain West to finish in the top three of the regular season standings in each of the past four years. The Broncos have won 20 games in seven of Rice’s eight seasons at Boise State, including the last six in a row.
Rice was honored as the 2015 Mountain West Coach of the Year.
Would some fans like to see more postseason success? Sure. But Rice has provided a consistent winner that challenges for the postseason every year. And those that know him closely, including Mark Few, haven’t been surprised one bit.
“He is without a doubt the total package,” Few said. “He’s got the great personality to recruit and he’s such a likable, positive, funny, upbeat guy. He’s also a great evaluator and he’s confident and won’t just go off rankings or ratings or what other people are saying, which can be fairly predominant in this profession.
“He’s just got a really, really good feel for the game of basketball. A lot of times in this day and age there are really good recruiters that are well connected but have no feel. Then there’s the old coaches that can really coach but don’t go out and recruit or the young guys that are all about analytics but have no feel. Leon has it all. He’s really got it all. He has the common sense approach and feel for the game but he’s smart enough and has that great personality that people trust him and want to come play for him.”
For as busy as Rice is during basketball season with practice, games, watching film and everything else that comes with running a Division I program, he makes sure to find time for himself.
On this day he takes an Idaho Press reporter fly fishing at a private pond owned by his neighbor. It’s a short walk from his house but provides the escape he regularly needs.
“I just come for quick hitters,” Rice says as he casts his line back into the water. “I’ll catch a few and go home. That’s the beauty of it. I’ll come here to get away for a bit.”
Rice lives in a secluded area near the greenbelt in Southeast Boise. He’ll bike to Boise State when the weather is nice or walk his dog down by the river. It’s being outside that Rice loves most about living in Boise.
“I just like to get into nature. Find a beautiful spot and let your mind do its best thinking,” Rice said. “I get my best thinking done when I’m on bike rides, walks with my dog, just being outside. All my good ideas come when I get to do this kind of stuff.”
Rice learned to fly fish from Few, who enjoyed criticizing his skills during a recent phone interview.
“He’s at the beginning stages of figuring out what an awesome endeavor it is,” Few said with a laugh. “We come to Boise quite often so we’ll try to get him out there on the Boise River a little bit to coach him up, but he’s a work in progress. He’s not quite ready for prime time.”
The two didn’t fish together much at Gonzaga because they enjoyed their rare time away from each other. Now they will fish often when the Few family comes to Boise to visit during the off-season.
“South Fork of the Boise, we’ve caught some big ones up there,” Rice said.
Rice has had opportunities to leave Boise for more money and a bigger conference, but things like this have kept him here. His alma mater, Washington State, offered him the job and a huge pay raise in 2014, but he eventually agreed to a new contract at Boise State and decided to stay.
He interviewed for the head coaching position at Saint Louis in 2016 and has been contacted about other jobs, as well. Nine years after he first took the job at Boise State, he’s still here.
“Unlike most coaches, Leon’s quality of life outside of work is important to him,” said Boyle, who has been the head coach at Colorado since 2010. “It’s important to his family, and I think Boise is a wonderful place to live, the community is great and I think Leon values that. I hope that Boise values him because I think it’s a great fit and that’s why he hasn’t moved."
“I know for a fact Leon has had the opportunity to move on from Boise but it’s living there, it’s being around those kinds of people and it’s just a great fit. That’s not to say he’ll never leave, but when you look at the fit, it really is a good fit. It’s a good fit for Boise. He’s a heck of a coach, a heck of a guy and he lives in a heck of a community.”
The city of Boise is a lot like Spokane in a lot of ways, which is why Rice turned down other opportunities at Gonzaga before being hired at Boise State. He saw it as a program he could build at a place that provided everything his family needed to stay there a long time.
Nearly a decade later, the two sides still seem like a perfect match.
“I think he’s just a terrific fit there,” Eustachy said. “He loves it there. I know he’s had opportunities to go to say Washington State and other places and we talked a lot this summer and now his son is on the team and he’s just in love with the town of Boise. I think it’s a win-win.
“He just checks every box where how could you not like Leon? Most importantly you can be likable but you may not be able to coach. Well he’s likable, he’s good with the community, the players love playing for him, and he’s a great, great coach. I think Boise is extremely lucky to have him.”
Rice's son Max is a freshman at Boise State, while his youngest son, Kade, is a freshman at Bishop Kelly. That would lean an outside observer to think it would be unlikely Rice would leave for the next four years.
“You can’t say never, but we’ve grown roots here,” Rice said. “We love it here.”
Life is different for Rice these days compared to his start 30 years ago. His salary is close to $700,000, and his wife no longer has to work. They live in a beautiful home with everything they could ask for, in a town that has more than they need.
“You get to this level and the compensation is different from when we started, but that’s not why we got into it,” Rice said. “We didn’t care. If we were still making $20,000, we’d still be happy. That’s why we got in. We just loved coaching and wanted to do it all the time. But when you look back at it to where I am now, it’s like, ‘Man, that’s kind of crazy.’”
Who knows what the future will hold for Rice and the Broncos. Boise State suffered a tough loss in the opener but should be a team that improves as the season goes on. If history is any indication, they’ll find a way to win 20 games and compete for a spot in the postseason.
Robin plans to frame the three rejection letters from Oregon, Gonzaga and Boise State and display them more prominently in his office. Rice didn’t know what he was getting himself into 30 years ago, but he’ll be forever grateful to Don Monson for giving him a shot.
“I’ve scraped and clawed from the start,” Rice said. “And it’s exceeded my expectations in the fact that I’ve got to do some extraordinary things because of coaching basketball. The great friendships and relationships I’ve made. You saw all those pictures in my room. It’s all about relationships. I still have two of my players from my 1988 ninth-grade team that come down to a game every year.
“To be able to help kids and coach at every level, I’ve coached ninth grade, junior college, Division II all the way to where we are now, some of my greatest accomplishments are helping guys turn their life around and see them go on to do great things. It’s all been way more rewarding than I ever could have imagined.”
And his time at Boise State has been a big reason why.
“This place has been so great,” Rice said. “I’m enjoying the heck out of it.”