Leon Rice once walked into ExtraMile and set out on a mission. He strided around staring at the ceiling.
“I counted 72 light bulbs that were out.” Rice said Thursday. “And there was nobody — what, am I going to go change them? ‘Hey, get me a ladder.’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Not long ago, Rice was tasked with one of the hardest jobs in these parts: running Boise State’s basketball program. He took over for a mediocre WAC program, then had to take his WAC-level talent to the Mountain West the next season.
It’s been a dozen years since the Broncos made that transition ... and only recently does it seem like Rice is being given the resources to actually win.
When speaking about BSU Athletic Director Jeramiah Dickey and his staff, Rice sounds like a villager after Robin Hood came around. Finally, some help. Some justice!
To hear Rice speak so glowingly talk about Dickey also, inadvertently, tells you all you need to know about the support the basketball program received under previous athletic director Curt Apsey.
“We were short-staffed,” Rice said, pounding on the table. “We didn’t have a video guy.”
They didn’t have a video guy. Didn’t have someone dedicated to recruiting. Didn’t have the budget to hold onto assistant coaches. Didn’t have what so many other teams in the Mountain West had.
Next time you’re at a college sporting event, look to the bench. Football or basketball, doesn’t matter. The more people in school-branded polo shirts, the more money that school has. Oftentimes, the school with the more polo-clad loiterers wins. Georgia and Alabama have small armies of folks on their sidelines, random graduate assistants or quality control coaches or analysts who focus on one hyper-focused thing.
Before last year, Boise State didn’t have that.
They had a few people in polos doing jobs that weren’t in their title. The assistants were scouting and also recruiting. The director of ops was booking travel and also slicing up film. And the head coach was running a team and also running to fix light bulbs.
“It (was) an avalanche of things,” Rice said.
The avalanche has begun to shrink. Before last season, Rice added a new position. Former Bronco guard Lexus Williams earned a full-time role as assistant to the head coach. Another polo. Then this season, director of operations David Moats became director of recruiting, a position that previously didn’t exist. Michael Johnson then took over as director of ops. Another polo.
Slowly over these last few years, the Broncos’ budget has grown — through administrative support and booster support. For example: Boise State chartered flights last week to and from Laramie, Wyoming. In years past, they flew commercial to Denver, then took a two-hour bus ride to Wyoming then did the same thing home.
“That makes a difference,” Rice said. “We used to have the worst budget in the league. It took a while to get back to neutral. Like, OK, now we can compete.”
Rice and Co. have done more than compete. They won the conference outright last season, then hoisted the Mountain West Tournament trophy for the first time and went to the NCAA Tournament. So far this year, the Broncos are on pace to do the same, currently sitting in first place in the conference ahead of Friday’s matchup at New Mexico.
For reference: In the last two years combined, Boise State is 20-4 against Mountain West opponents.
Last season was a fairytale. The wins were miraculous. This season is proof of sustainability. The wins are expected. Dickey invested in Rice, invested in Boise State basketball. And now the stock is rising. The team is excellent. The future recruiting classes are superb. The fans are buying in.
But, as Dickey so often says, what’s next?
Who knows? But Rice offers the path forward.
“The Gonzaga model,” he says,” is a great one for us.”
In other words, the Zags did not become national contenders overnight. Mark Few started as an assistant there in 1990 under Dan Fitzgerald then Dan Monson. He became the head coach in 1999. That’s years — heck, decades of putting the right pieces in place.
“Those guys were building for a long, long time before you got to see the Elite Eights, Sweet Sixteens and away we go,” said Rice, a Gonzaga assistant from 1999-2010. “Mark has never ever settled. That’s one of his best qualities. He just keeps growing that thing.”
And, so, as success comes at Boise State, Rice wants to shift into hyperdrive.
There’s already plans to renovate ExtraMile Arena and the basketball practice facility, the latter of which Boise State has already raised millions for. The next two recruiting classes are already stacked, with California’s Andrew Meadow highlighting the 2023 class and Pocatello’s Julian Bowie already committed for 2024.
The Broncos still have things to improve on the court, sure. An NCAA Tournament victory still eludes the school. But Rice can finally build his program on a sturdy foundation. He and his staff are no longer the only ones doing everything they can to help the Broncos win.
“Now we’ve got a lot of people helping us fight that fight,” Rice said.