Four Questions with Leon Rice

What's the mark of a consistently great program? The Boise State coach discusses how he's built his program to reach that level, and more.

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Model of consistency

Boise State’s won at least 20 games 20 times. Half of those seasons? They came under Leon Rice. That consistency is usually found at places like Kansas, Duke, North Carolina or Gonzaga, where Rice was an assistant under Mark Few for more than a decade.

And it’s not like Rice taking it easy this season, either.

The Broncos are 14-6 overall and 5-2 in the Mountain West, tied for second and with a chance at their second regular-season title in the last three seasons. Not bad for a school that made it mark with football, and is one of the centerpieces of a what Rice says is a “basketball league, with tremendous basketball programs and coaches.”

He discussed that consistency, Boise State’s approach, and what it’s like coaching his son in the latest Four Questions.

Q: Every coach will say their conference is a grind. But the Mountain West is a basketball-rich conference that presents its own unique travel challenges. And it features arenas where home court is significantly an advantage there. Home teams win 65% of the time and they’re often games decided by four points or less. It’s not a league for the faint of heart. Is that partly why you’ve found success with defense recently?

Leon Rice: You’ve got places that are at altitude, and these arenas where the whole state comes out and you get these great crowds. But then you also get these curveballs like playing at San Jose in a small arena which is hard because it's so out of the ordinary of what you're used to in this league. And that doesn’t even mention the travel that you gotta deal with.

To compete for a championship in this league, you’ve got to be a great defensive team. And because there are so many good defensive teams, you're not just gonna roll in win the league. Since we joined the Mountain West, we’ve had the second-most wins of any program, and we were the winningest program in the country in the month of January last two years. And you don't do that without being able to rebound and defend.

Q: That speaks to the continuity you’ve built with your players and coaches. But it also seems like you’ve leaned on your starters more than ever the last few years. Is establishing that continuity tougher than ever with the transfer portal today given what players are looking for in the transfer portal?

Leon Rice: There's a lot of factors that go into that, but a big key is you want your starters to play the optimum amount of minutes for them, and you want the best players on the floor as much as you can. In the old days, when it wasn't just a free-for-all transfer world, coaches would play maybe some guys down farther on the bench. But I think there's a lot of coaches now they're like, ‘Well, the guy's gonna leave no matter what I do.’ So you're coaching just to win those games, not to like things are an investment for two years from now.

Still, that's really the way you should coach. We are known as a development program and I wanna get guys experience, but practice is where you develop. Those guys out on the floor is the nucleus that coaches trust. Those guys have found ways to win games for us. That doesn't mean we don’t have a plan for those young guys. We do, but they gotta do that in practice and prove the trust.

Q: Your son, Max, is someone who earned that trust. It’s gotta be a delight to coach your son at this level — and I might need some advice, because my 10-year-old keeps turning a deaf ear to my coaching advice.

Leon Rice: That is not a unique problem that they turn a deaf ear. When my kids were little, they would do that to me. And then all of a sudden they see me coaching Adam Morrison — the third pick in the draft and he's listening to me — and then they're like, ‘Oh, maybe I should listen to him.’

Coaching your kid has unique challenges. The personality of the kid has to be right, the personality of the coach has to be right. And not to sound corny or anything, but, we totally forget that it's a father-son thing when we're at practice. Max has had to earn everything he's gotten here, even more than any other player.

Early on, I erred on the side not playing him. And then when I looked at it and looked at our record, when he played more than 20 minutes, we were like 20-2 and I felt like the worst coach in the country. Sure enough, once he got inserted in the line-up, it coincided with our Mountain West championships and then second place last year.

Q: As you navigate these last weeks, you’ll have your eyes on a third straight NCAA Tournament berth. Maybe you’ll get a tourney win this year, maybe not. But with the consistent success you’ve had, does it bother you that so much emphasis is based off either reaching the NCAA Tournament or winning a tournament game when it really doesn't encompass the totality of a season?

Leon Rice: Absolutely. Mark [Few] and I talk about that a lot. Getting to the NCAA Tournament is a huge accomplishment. This isn’t football where everybody gets to go to a bowl game.

Back in the day when the Mountain West wasn’t getting much respect, you spent your whole life on the bubble, you know? That’s painful because if you slip up, you’re off. Getting there year after year is an accomplishment. Winning, competing for conference championships every year is an accomplishment. That's the true measure of a program because those are the schools that are in your tax bracket. Sure, it'd be great to go to a Final Four. But would you trade that for the week-in week-out buzz that we get here? I don't think it's either/or, but it's hard. The grind and the consistency should be appreciated.

You just keep knocking on the door, you just keep doing the best you can do. And you know, and you can't let it become the end-all. Because if you get to the Sweet 16, they’ll wonder why you aren’t in the Final Four. You get to a Final Four, they’ll wonder why you didn’t win it. You win it, they’ll want you to win two. We’re just here to do our jobs, and keep grinding away. Everything else will take care of itself.