PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Mike Rice never dunked a basketball or dreamed of playing in the NBA.
His desire was to be just like his father, a college basketball coach.
Rice accepted his biggest coaching challenge on Thursday, signing a five-year, $3.2 million contract to resurrect Rutgers from the depths of the Big East Conference and to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1991.
"People may think differently, but I think it is a sleeping giant," Rice said of Rutgers. "At least that's what the last 100 or so AAU and high school coaches told me. Why can't it be? It's the state university, an incredible place to work, an incredible place in the metropolitan area in the best league in the country basketball wise."
The 41-year-old Rice had a great three-year run in his first head coaching job, leading Robert Morris to two straight NCAA tournament berths and a 73-31 record.
Succeeding at Rutgers is going to be a lot tougher. Rice inherits a team from Fred Hill that went 15-17 last season and finished 14th in the 16-team Big East with five league wins.
Hill resigned under pressure about two weeks ago after an incident at a Rutgers baseball game put the embattled coach in the position of being fired. He and the university eventually settled on a buyout.
Rutgers also lost its top two players after last season. Conference defensive player of the year Hamady Ndiaye finished his eligibility and leading scorer Mike Rosario has decided to transfer to Florida.
When Rice addressed his returning players before his news conference, there weren't enough to play 5-on-5.
Winning against the likes West Virginia, Connecticut, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Syracuse and Louisville is going to take more than eight players.
"There is not a white flag in my drawers in my desk where I work," said Rice, who admitted that he and his team are going to enter next season as the 'ultimate underdogs.' "There are no white flags with Mike Rice. Patience is not something I do well either, but I will persevere. I will put daily goals of improving every single day and learning from some setbacks."
Success will have its rewards.
Some of the bonuses in Rice's incentive-laden contract include annual payouts of $15,000 for 20-win seasons and conference regular-season championships; $20,000 for conference tournament titles and NCAA tournament berths, $25,000 for a Final Four berth and $50,000 for a national title.
While athletic director Tim Pernetti received hundreds of inquires about the vacant coaching job, he said that Rice stood out in every way. During their five-hour meeting, Pernetti loved the fact that Rice saw the job as an opportunity.
"His attitude is synonymous with the way we want to play basketball at New Jersey at Rutgers," Pernetti said. "His passion and energy blew me away. The work ethic that he has would fall into that same category. He is not only a basketball coach, I think he is a life coach as what he has done to develop his players at Robert Morris and the other places he has worked to develop them also as people."
Pernetti said that Robert Morris' 73-70 overtime loss to No. 9 Villanova in the opening round of the NCAA tournament really impressed him. He also has no problem with Rice's fiery nature.
"What I want at Rutgers is a coach who is going to be intense, hard working and emotional and who is going to care every single second," Pernetti said. "At the same time, I think we have a guy who understands all those things and understands were the line is."
Rice learned the coaching ropes from his father, Mike Sr., who coached at Duquesne and Youngstown State. During the summers he went from gym to gym and camp to camp.
Like his father, he stresses defense. His teams at Robert Morris were among the league leaders in field goal percentage annually.
"There is success in defending and that's what my teams do," the younger Rice said, noting that Rutgers allowed opponents to shoot an unacceptable 47 percent from the field last season.
Rice, who said he has a good relationships with high school coaches in the New York metropolitan and Philadelphia areas, said there are quality players still available for Rutgers to recruit. He has plans to meet with some soon. He also said he would take a little time to find the right people for his staff.
There been rumors that he might be interested in hiring Kevin Boyle of St. Patrick, the nationally ranked high school team in Elizabeth.
"There is no fear here," Rice said. "There is no nerves here. It's just every single day, fighting, scratching, clawing to improve this program, whether it's the talent level or the individuals I have on this team. That is the one goal I have."
The toughest thing for Rice might have been getting to New Jersey. His wife, Kerry, packed the car, and Rice said he didn't know who would get the front seat? — him or the 12-pound dog named Raleigh.
Rice won out. The dog sat with his daughter, Katie, in the back seat.
"I was away recruiting when they got the damn thing," Rice quipped.
Rice was an assistant coach at Fordham, where he also played point guard, Marquette, Niagara, Chicago State, Saint Joseph's and Pittsburgh.