TAMPA — The University of South Florida’s search for a new men’s basketball coach has changed directions — again.
UNLV’s Dave Rice was removed Saturday as a candidate on USF’s list, according to a source close to the USF coaching search.
Rice spoke with USF athletic director Mark Harlan at an undisclosed location, but never received an offer or specifics on a potential contract, the source said. Rice returned to Las Vegas on Friday, where it was reported he had received a USF offer, causing UNLV officials to huddle and discuss how they could keep their coach.
By the time UNLV announced a two-year contract extension for Rice on Saturday night, by the time it looked like a successfully executed leverage move, Harlan already had long turned his attention to other candidates.
Potential USF targets include Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg, New Mexico coach Craig Neal, Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua, Florida assistant John Pelphrey and Florida State assistant Stan Jones.
Another name to consider is Alabama’s Anthony Grant, who once was a key member of Billy Donovan’s Gators staff and interviewed for the USF job in 2003. Grant has head-coaching experience at VCU, where he defeated Duke in a 2007 NCAA tournament game, and Alabama, where he has gone 99-71 in five seasons.
But this season, the Crimson Tide slipped to 13-19 – the most defeats by an Alabama basketball team in 45 years – and AD Bill Battle felt compelled to give Grant a written vote of confidence. Grant, who was Jeremy Foley’s choice as UF replacement in 2007 when Donovan flirted with the NBA’s Orlando Magic, makes $1.9-million per season.
Louisiana Tech coach Mike White had been mentioned prominently early in the coaching search, but isn’t believed to be a current USF target.
Why Grant? He’s from Miami. He has successfully recruited the state of Florida. And with the pressure on at Alabama, the timing might be right for a challenge such as USF. Undoubtedly, though, he would need to accept a pay cut.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal, quoting sources, said Rice received a six-year contract offer from USF worth $1.3-million per season. Rice is making $700,000 per season at UNLV.
ESPN reported that Rice never received an “official offer’’ from USF, but there was an understanding he could have the job. When Rice returned to Las Vegas and reports began circulating about him having a concrete offer, though, the landscape quickly changed.
The latest twists and turns occurred as USF tried to distance itself from the fiasco of Tuesday night, when Manhattan College coach Steve Masiello accepted the job and signed a five-year, $6.2-million deal, only to have his candidacy rejected when Eastman & Beaudine, the search firm retained by USF, determined that he had lied on his resume and never received a degree from the University of Kentucky.
With academic credentials under tighter review, it was worth noting that Rice received a bachelor’s degree and MBA from UNLV, where he was also a Rhodes Scholar candidate.
Rice, 45, is 71-32 in three seasons as UNLV’s head coach.
Following the 2010-11 season, Rice succeeded Lon Kruger, who shifted to Oklahoma. Rice’s Rebels took first-round NCAA tournament defeats in each of his first two years, then finished 20-13 this season, which resulted in no postseason invitation.
Rice has three more seasons remaining on a contract. Upon his return to Las Vegas on Friday, after asking for financial improvements in the program, UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy took a proactive approach.
“Dave does have a solid offer from South Florida and it’s a good offer,’’ Kunzer-Murphy told the Review-Journal. “We want to keep him. There is a real push to try and keep him here. We talked about what he wanted to see here and we’ll address it,’’ Kunzer-Murphy said. “The president and I feel strongly about wanting to keep him.’’
USF is seeking to replace Stan Heath, who was 97-130 in seven years, including a 12-20 mark this season, which concluded with a nine-game losing streak. The Bulls were 3-15 in the American Athletic Conference. Heath lost 32 of his last 38 league games, including tournament play.
Heath was fired on March 14 with four seasons remaining on his contract, which was renegotiated in July 2012 by then-AD Doug Woolard, following USF’s first NCAA tournament bid in 20 years. Under terms of that contract, after his firing, Heath must receive a $1.5-million buyout payment from USF.