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Rice's abrasive nature apparent early on in career

Thursday - 4/4/2013, 11:54am  ET

FILE - In this Jan. 2, 2013 file photo, Rutgers head coach Mike Rice reacts after Syracuse scored late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y. Rutgers has fired Rice after a videotape aired showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players in practice and using gay slurs during practice. With mounting criticism on a state and national level, the school decided to take action on Wednesday, April 3, 2013. relieving Rice of his duties after three largely unsuccessful seasons at the Big East school. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli, File)

WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Jamie Dixon hired Mike Rice as an assistant at Pittsburgh in 2006, drawn by Rice's passion and ability to get into the living room of a prized recruit and close the deal.

The son of a coach cut very much from the same cloth that allowed his father, Mike Rice Sr., to carve out a career at Duquesne and Youngstown State, Rice's competitiveness was the stuff of legend.

It also came in a package that inspired loyalty and respect, which made Rice's dismissal from Rutgers on Wednesday for physically and verbally abusing his players all the more stunning for the people that knew him long before the video surfaced of Rice manically flinging basketballs at his Scarlet Knights.

"I think the people know him here, they know he's a good person," Dixon said Wednesday, hours after Rice was fired. "He's acknowledged he's made some mistakes."

Dixon choked up while talking about Rice, whose future in coaching remains very much in doubt.

"Mike's a good friend," Dixon said. "He's a good person."

The same coach seen yelling anti-gay slurs at his players at Rutgers is the same one who convinced highly-touted point guard Tray Woodall to leave Brooklyn to go play for the Panthers. Woodall, a senior, took to his Twitter account to defend his mentor.

"They are going at my man Mike Rice too hard," Woodall posted. "He's the reason I came to Pitt."

Woodall later added Rice is "not the only coach to put his hands on a player, or talk the way he did."

Perhaps, but now he's out of a job.

A star on the rise three years ago after leading Robert Morris to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, Rice now finds himself a flashpoint for what is -- and what is not -- considered appropriate coaching behavior.

The drive to succeed that made Rice such a success at Robert Morris -- a Northeastern Conference school in Pittsburgh's western suburbs -- wasn't part of a switch that Rice flipped on whenever he entered a huddle. It was always on, regardless of the situation.

Rice once knocked out one of his father's teeth while they were playing against each other. Former assistant coach Andy Toole, now the head coach at Robert Morris, once called Rice "crazed" by the game.

Born in Pittsburgh, Rice spent his childhood by his father's side, learning the Xs and Os while serving as a ballboy and engaging in lengthy debate over the dinner table. While in middle school, he once stood up in the middle of the Duquesne locker room and told the Dukes they weren't playing hard enough. The players taped him to a training table as a way of thanking him for the pep talk.

The passion that bubbled over into fury wasn't around -- for the most part -- during his days with the Colonials. Rice took over the program in 2007 and took Robert Morris to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and 2010.

In that second tourney appearance, the Colonials snared a No. 15 seed and took second-seeded Villanova to overtime before losing 73-70. Under the glare of the national spotlight, though, Rice showed a bit of the over-the-top behavior that would become his calling card -- and ultimately his downfall. He erupted at the officials in the waning seconds of the game, screaming profanities at them as Robert Morris' bid for the upset fell short.

It was dismissed as a coach getting caught up in the crucible of the tournament. Rice even signed a contract extension later that month, proof of the confidence athletic director Craig Coleman had in the direction of the program and the man leading it.

Coleman declined an interview request by The Associated Press on Wednesday but in a statement called Rice's tenure with the Colonials "successful."

"He is obviously an intense coach, and his passion for the game was mirrored by our student-athletes on the court," Coleman said. "The behavior on the video is quite unfortunate, but it is not indicative of Coach Rice during his tenure at RMU."

The incident did not stop Rice's phone from ringing after the tournament. In fact, Rice was a candidate at Fordham not long after the loss to the Wildcats, and it appeared the New York school was seriously interested in him.

There was a fit, of course, because Rice played point guard at Fordham and he had strong recruiting ties in the New York metropolitan area, as evidenced by Woodall's commitment. Ultimately, though, Fordham went in a different direction and hired Tom Pecora away from Hofstra.

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