I’m on record as supporting mid-season firings. That’s a horrible way to put it, but there are clearly times where removing the head coach in mid-season can have benefits, and the case of UNLV firing – technically he wasn’t fired but work with me – Dave Rice on Sunday night is one of those. Rice was on shaky ground entering the season and a 9-7 start, including losses in the Rebels’ first three conference games, did not inspire confidence from the fan base.
UNLV could have let Rice finish out the season and he may well have had some success. The conference tournament is in the Rebels’ home arena and the Mountain West is extremely weak at the top. Even with a mediocre finish the rest of the way, it’s possible the Rebels would have been favored in the MW Tournament thanks to a boost from home-arena advantage. And it wouldn’t have been all that easy to fire Rice under those circumstances.
And even if the circumstances were right at the end of the season, it would have been a seriously bold move to select Todd Simon as Rice’s replacement. For one, it’s not often a fired coach is replaced on a permanent basis by a member of his staff. But also, Simon lacks much college experience, making a name for himself coaching nearby Findlay Prep and only joining the UNLV staff in 2013. But it’s possible Simon is the right choice for UNLV and his connections to Findlay Prep are part of that profile. And now, by giving him a shot in mid-January, Simon faces a low-pressure audition as a college head coach.
UNLV still has players to compete with the best in the Mountain West. The Rebels may be favored in each of their next six games. And it’s still totally realistic for UNLV to enter the Mountain West tournament as the favorite. Simon may well fall on his face as head coach, but even then, that’s information that UNLV wouldn’t have had if they let Rice finish the season. And the list of potential candidates isn’t all that exciting.
But even if Simon just does an ordinary job, the Rebels are going to look better over the final half of the season than they did over the first half. They’ve been on the wrong end of most of their close games and the win probability model says that the Rebels were at a 90% chance to win at some point in each of their conference losses. That kind of black cloud is bound to lift. And if it does, it’s not difficult to imagine Simon being a viable candidate for the head coaching role next season. Maybe he succeeds, and with Vegas roots, he becomes the long-term solution. Maybe Findlay Prep gets renamed to UNLV Prep and the Rebels become one of the west’s best basketball programs again.
That may not be what happens, but UNLV is playing the coaching version of the 2-for-1 here. And if they were convinced that they didn’t want Dave Rice back next season, it’s the smart thing to do.