Rice, coaching in his sixth decade, leads Bobcat middle school boys for first time in illustrious career
By DOUG DONNELLY
OTTAWA LAKE – It’s hard to have a lot of firsts when you’ve been coaching for six decades, but last fall, Whiteford basketball coach John Rice did something he had never done before.
Rice, who started coaching in the late 1960s, coached the Whiteford eighth-grade boys basketball team to a perfect 13-0 season. It was the first time he had coached middle school boys basketball – he handled both the seventh- and eighth-grade teams for the Bobcats this season – and the first time he had a team finish undefeated.
“Coaching is coaching,” Rice said. “It doesn’t matter the level. The skill level is a little different. You start with discipline. I told the kids before the season that I was going to push them to do things they never thought they could do.
“I didn’t have any problems with them all season. They are good kids.”
Rice decided last summer to coach the seventh-grade boys team because his grandson, Jack Olrich, was going to play. He also coached is granddaughter Emma, now a Whiteford varsity player, in middle school a few years ago. When the Whiteford eighth-grade coach had to resign shortly before the season due to a job change, Rice was offered the job.
“I wouldn’t have coached both teams,” he said. “I did it because I wanted to help, and they asked me. We’d practice every day for an hour and a half with the seventh-grade, then an hour-and-half with the eighth-grade.”
Rice has been a basketball fixture for decades at Whiteford. An Ohio native, Rice got his first varsity coaching job at Danville, Ohio, in 1969. He coached there for two seasons, Mount Vernon Bible College for two years then he his wife Sandy moved to Michigan when he became the Whiteford boys varsity head coach just before the start of the 1973-74 school year. He coached the Whiteford boys varsity for 30 seasons before stepping down. That came after his best season with the Bobcats, a 23-1 team in 2002-03.
After that, he had brief coaching stints at Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard, Flat Rock, Toledo Woodward and Toledo Bowsher. He returned to coach the Bobcat varsity boys from 2015-16 to 2017-18, winning his eighth Tri-County Conference championship in his final season. He was honored for his 500th varsity win that season.
“I really enjoyed those three years back,” he said. “The kids were great.”
Rice’s coaching resume is long. He coached varsity baseball for eight years at Whiteford and was an assistant JV and varsity football coach briefly in the 1970s. He coached the Bobcat JV girls basketball team for more than 25 years while Kris Hubbard coached the varsity and coached a Whiteford boys freshman team one season while his son, John, played. His daughter, Stephanie, was on one of his girls JV teams.
Over the years, Rice has also been an assistant at Sylvania (Ohio) Southview, at a high school in Florida and was recently an assistant at Maumee Valley Country Day when University of Michigan recruit Zeb Jackson played as a freshman and sophomore for the Hawks.
“I’ve had good teams and bad teams,” Rice said. “I’ve coached a lot of basketball, but I’d say my style is still pretty similar.”
This year’s middle school boys teams were impressive. The seventh graders started slow but won four of their past six games and showed remarkable improvement.
“We lost by Clinton by 30 the first time we played them but only four the second time,” he said. “They came a long way. You love seeing kids improve like that.”
The eighth-grade team was dominant, winning every game by a double-digit margin and capturing the Madison Tournament championship. Jake Iott, Jack Iott, Evan Parker, Kolby Masserant, Lincoln Joerin, Trent Olrich, Noah Stevens and Josh Hill all led the team in scoring at least once in the 13 games.
“They are a really talented group,” Rice said. “They are just good, solid athletes. They scored a lot of points by playing good defense. It’s going to be a good group. They are very deep, too. They are all pretty equal in ability.”
Rice has coached a few sons of former players. One of the players on this year’s eighth-grade team was Noah Stevens, the son of one of Rice’s former players, Brad Stevens. It was Stevens who succeeded Rice as the Whiteford varsity coach back in 2003. He also was a JV coach under Rice for several seasons after playing for him from 1980-1984.
“He’s still very much like he was when I played,” Stevens said. “No doubt about it. He still never sits down. I think he thinks better on his feet.”
Stevens sometimes ran the clock during the middle school games this season, giving him a close-up view of Rice during much of the season.
“His timeouts are just the same. There are times where he’d say something out there and I’d just laugh out loud,” Stevens said. “He still a motivator. He let the kids know when they needed it. I was looking forward to watching him this season and he didn’t disappoint.”
Rice probably has one more season to go. He said he’ll probably coach the eighth-graders next year. After that, his coaching career will have reached an unbelievable seven decades – the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m 74. I have no business being out there still. I’ve coached a lot of places and a lot of basketball teams. But, it’s time to be done. I should be in Florida fishing.”