How Monmouth coach, former UNC standout King Rice is making the most of second chances

By C.L. Brown

King Rice knew he’d messed up.

In May 1990, the morning after an alcohol-fueled night led to charges of assaulting a female, resisting arrest and destruction of public property, he sat at home letting his answering machine pick up the parade of phone calls from teammates and coaches.

He even tried to ignore the one voice that mattered the most.

“King, don’t leave this town before you come see me,” Rice recalled UNC coach Dean Smith saying.

If Rice didn’t show up at Smith’s office, he knew he’d be kicked off the team.

Rick Fox, Rice’s teammate at the time, knew it too. Instead of just calling, he drove to Rice’s place, picked up his teammate and brought him to the Smith Center. Rice said it was the biggest of “four or five major jams” and Smith stood with him every time.

As Rice sat in Smith’s office for the latest of his bad decisions, the way he remembers the conversation established the foundation for how Rice would be as a head coach:

“What’s wrong with you? Do you think I’m only with you because of basketball? That’s what you think?” Rice recalled Smith saying. “By then I was crying. He’s like, ‘I told you this was forever, King. Not just when you’re helping me win games. This is when you need me the most. And you don’t want to come over here?’ And I was sitting there like, man, this man is amazing. Because everybody else turned their back.”

Later that summer, a judge in Chapel Hill ordered Rice to perform 75 hours of community service stemming from the charges that night, in addition to court costs and restitution to the town for damaged property.

Looking back, Rice said that Smith must have known that he was an alcoholic. Smith would give him the serenity prayer, which is used in Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step recovery program. Rice didn’t think he had a problem. And to prove he was not drinking anymore, he agreed to take Antabuse every day during his senior season. The medication is used in recovery programs because it makes the user have an unpleasant reaction should they consume alcohol.

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Rice played out the season alongside Fox and current UNC head coach Hubert Davis and helped the Tar Heels advance to the 1991 Final Four. On the surface, it seemed that Rice had conquered his demons, but they were really just festering.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t think I was an alcoholic,” Rice said. “I just thought, ‘I’ll do this just so they leave me alone,’ because I didn’t have to have alcohol. I proved that I didn’t have to have it, but then I’d go right back to it. They showed a lot of patience with me and I thank coach Smith all the time.”

Rice, who is in his 11th season as head coach at Monmouth University, has tried to show the same patience and have the same investment in his players that Smith once had in him.

J.R. Reid overlapped with Rice for two seasons at Carolina, although the two first met at Five Star Basketball Camp while both were still in high school. Reid, who considers Rice one of his best friends, is in his fourth season working on Rice’s staff as an assistant coach at Monmouth.

Reid called Rice a “special coach” because of the way his players love him.

“We’ve had players do things where another staff would be like, ‘Man, get him out of here,’” Reid said. “Coach (Kevin) Stallings didn’t give up on him. Coach Smith didn’t give up on him. So it’s hard for him to turn his back on a player. You know, and that’s one of the things that’s making him such a terrific coach.”

King Rice’s second chance

After his Monmouth team beat Pittsburgh last month, he gave an impassioned speech about the status of Panthers guard Ithiel Horton, who was suspended in November for assault, public drunkenness and resisting arrest. Horton had his criminal charges dismissed and rejoined the team last week.

Rice’s support for Horton goes beyond just knowing him since he was 11. Rice said he would not be where he is today without those who saw the good in him even while alcohol was causing him to make bad decisions.

Former Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings was one of those people.

Stallings hired Rice, then just 23, as an assistant coach at Illinois State. And in October 1996, Stallings’ phone rang, just like Smith’s had at UNC: Rice had been arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Stallings said he picked Rice up at the police station around 3:30 a.m., and they drove around for “three or four hours” talking about what happened, and what Rice needed to do moving forward. Rice knew he’d committed a fireable offense and Stallings could — maybe even should — fire him.

Stallings made it clear that it was the last chance he could give him. Another misstep, and he’d have to let Rice go. Stallings also believed in a philosophy passed on to him by his mentor, former Purdue coach Gene Keady: If it’s a good person, he’s worth trying to save.

Rice told Stallings on Oct. 27, 1996, that he’d never drink again. And he hasn’t. Rice has been sober for 25 years. Every year on the anniversary of that decision, he gives Stallings a call to say thanks.

“I’m not going to lie, that call every year, it warms my soul to the very core,” Stallings said. “He’s been more than I ever hoped would come out of that night in 1996.

“He has just been a remarkable story, and I couldn’t be more proud of who he is and what he has done with his life. And the impacts that he continues to have on other young men’s lives.”

Rice is candid with players and parents about his past; it has helped shaped who he is as a coach. He’s constantly working on his relationship with his players to the point that he gets emotional when he’s trying to steer them in the right direction by discussing his mistakes and the people who stood by him.

“I start crying almost every time,” Rice said. “I’m so thankful that so many people — you know, if one of them do it differently, I’m not here. I’m just not.”

That’s why Rice is so upfront about telling his story. He never knows who might need to hear it.

At Pitt, Rice thought he may have offended one of the police officers assigned to escort him through the building after his postgame speech. Horton was caught on video striking an officer. But the police officer was two years into his sobriety and thanked Rice for his words.

There was also a man in Buffalo who quit drinking alcohol shortly before Rice did. He brings Rice a coin acknowledging another year of sobriety — for 25 years, it’ll be a keychain — whenever Monmouth plays at Niagara.

“We didn’t know each other, but he heard my story so he came to the game just to tell me congratulations and stay strong,” Rice said. “We go out and tell the story because it’s a powerful story and a lot of people are struggling with alcoholism.”

Keeping life in perspective

Walker Miller is a graduate transfer who averages 14.9 points per game and leads Monmouth in rebounding while averaging 6.8 per game. Miller is the younger brother of former UNC guard and current Cincinnati head coach Wes Miller, who played for Roy Williams at UNC.

Walker Miller said he knew of Rice from his brother, and when he’d visit Chapel Hill in the summer. It wasn’t until Miller decided to transfer that he really got to know Rice and “that made the decision easy for me.”

“He’s one of the most honest, open and sincere people that I’ve ever met in my life,” Miller said. “He’s not going to hide from anything, and he’s going to be extremely honest. That might be the thing I appreciate most about him.”

Because of the real-life issues Rice endured, it keeps winning and losing in perspective.

Rice has never taken Monmouth to the NCAA tournament, although his teams won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 2016 and 2017. That could change this year: The Hawks are off to their best start in program history, including wins over Pitt and Cincinnati.

“I’d love nothing more than to get Coach Rice and this program and what he’s built here to the NCAA tournament,” Walker Miller said. “I’ve done it at Carolina, and I think it’d be an even more special experience in the sense that it’s something we haven’t done in a long time here.”

Rice would love for that to happen, but says it has little to do with the kind of coach he is. He’s more proud of the fact that 36 out of 37 players who stayed at Monmouth graduated, and the only exception, Josh James, is currently on staff and is nearing completion of his degree this year. Add two more seniors who are on track to graduate in the spring, and Rice’s total will be 39 of 39.

“Maybe the Lord thought I won enough championships already and now I’m supposed to just lead these young men to have better lives,” Rice said. “Maybe that’s the call. You know what I mean? The guy that kept getting in trouble put 39 graduates back out in the world to go have a better life.”

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