Sitting atop Willy, a buckskin paint, on the sidelines at a Boise State football game, Leon Rice could imagine only two things going wrong.
First vision: He would end up like the silver-helmeted ROTC commandant in “Animal House,” foot caught in a stirrup, dragged up and down the field by the spooked horse.
Second vision: He’d lose control of the 17-year-old gelding and it would trample Kellen Moore, the star quarterback.
“Either way, I’d end up on ‘SportsCenter,’” Rice said, “and if it’s the second one, I’m banned from the city forever.”
But when you’re trying to establish a foothold for basketball in a town gaga for Broncos football, a horse is a resource, of course, of course. And so much to the astonishment of his new players, who were being introduced to the crowd during a timeout, onto the field rode Leon Rice.
Tall in the saddle.
It was just 10 months ago that Rice piled his wife, Robin, and three children into “the family truckster” and left the security of a decade-plus stay on the Gonzaga staff of Mark Few to make his own way as a head coach.
It was a move fraught with trauma and risk. The Rices and Fews were as close as two families can be; in the family vote, the two youngest Rice boys went yea for staying. Already, the Few children have been to Boise to see a game, and the Rice kids are due up for next weekend’s Gonzaga homestand.
As for the risk, the Zags have been Top 25 perennials. BSU, meanwhile, has been called a “sleeping giant” in basketball for so long that it’s come to define the program. Getting to the NCAA Tournament just once in 16 years almost makes it a coma.
Now, though not on horseback, Rice returns to the area Saturday. The Broncos have a date in Moscow for one of the most anticipated basketball meetings in years with rival Idaho, which happens to be looking down at its old pal in the Western Athletic Conference standings.
Though not that far down. The Broncos were off to a 4-0 start in the WAC before dropping home games to Utah State and Nevada last weekend, the latest dip of the roller coaster.
Six wins to open the season, followed by four losses. Five of seven losses coming by a basket. A four-overtime escape at San Jose State. A win on the road over longtime Zag staffmate Bill Grier, a loss at home to another close friend and former GU coach, Dan Monson.
“I hate those,” Rice said. “I told Dan, ‘Man, we’ve got to get out of this (series),’ and he said, ‘Well, you’re not going to give up a home game, are you?’ And, no, I couldn’t do that.”
The Broncos are an anomaly, streaky as they come despite a mostly senior lineup. But Rice likes their fight – likening a loss to powerhouse UNLV to “Rocky, waving Apollo Creed in for more.”
Boise, of course, signed him to a five-year, $2 million deal to turn the program into less of a Rocky and more of an Apollo – or, if you will, a Gonzaga.
Having been at Gonzaga, Rice could hardly escape hearing about schools wanting to be the next one.
“And what they always seemed to be thinking is that, ‘If we hire a new coach, we can be Gonzaga,’” he said. “Like that’s all there is to it.
“There’s a lot of bricks that need to be laid first, and the level of commitment that has to come from the administration. And the thing that impressed me about Boise State is that they’ve done that in football. It’s not something they have to be convinced of.”
The parallels of Boise State football and Gonzaga basketball have been drawn before, and they are not without merit – programs in so-called midmajor leagues that have turned themselves into high majors by capitalizing on success with reinvestment. For Rice, the timetable may have to be accelerated a bit – next year, the Broncos move up to the Mountain West Conference, which this year is considered no worse than the fifth-best basketball league in the land. And there is that heavy burden of what the football team has done.
“But I don’t find it that in the least bit,” he said. “I think it’s terrific, and it gives you national credibility. We signed a kid out of Chicago and while the football team is playing Virginia Tech on TV, he’s sitting there with all his buddies saying, ‘I’m gonna go there.’ It’s a complete asset – blue turf and all.”
Not that there aren’t daunting moments – sitting atop that horse, for instance.
“They were telling me, ‘Hey, the horse is a little nervous,” Rice remembered, laughing. “He’s nervous? What about me?”