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Ron Rice: The coach who finally came home

By Frank Giardina

OUR STATE was rocked last week by the sudden passing of former WVU football coach Bill Stewart, who died of an apparent heart attack Monday.

It's a sad reminder of a story that broke the hearts of many football fans in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland in December of 1972.

Ron Rice played football at DuPont High School and graduated in 1955. He went on to play football and baseball at West Virginia Tech, then began to pursue a coaching career.

He started coaching in 1960 at Harpers Ferry High School, where in two short years he had an undefeated season. Among the players in the program was Mickey Jackson, who would go on to star at Marshall and be an assistant coach at Ohio State for Woody Hayes.

From Harpers Ferry, Rice moved to Vincent, Ohio, where he posted an 18-2 record in two seasons. He then took the job at Handley High School in Winchester, Va., and built the Judges into a powerhouse. In five seasons under Rice, Handley posted a record of 43-5-2.

Rice then moved into college football and served as a graduate assistant at the University of Virginia. He joined Jim Lester's staff in 1971 as an assistant at the University of Maryland and was retained when Jerry Claiborne took over before the 1972 season. At age 34, Rice was building a reputation as an outstanding college assistant coach with head coaching potential.

Then tragedy struck.

On Dec. 19, 1972, Rice was back in his home state recruiting in Logan County. He was at Man High School when he had a mild heart attack and was taken to Appalachian Regional Hospital. While there, he suffered a massive coronary and passed away, leaving behind a wife and a 13-year-old son.

His passing sent shockwaves through the Maryland campus and Winchester, Va. Claiborne had this to say about Rice:

"He was one of the greatest men I have had the pleasure of working with. It makes you wonder what is going on in the world when something like this happens to a great young man like Ron Rice."

Former Daily Mail columnist Bill Smith wrote a column about Rice with the headline "Everyone Liked Him." Quoted in the column, former Stonewall Jackson and Tech athlete Dick Hart said, "Ron was a wonderful person. He was our leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Doing things for other people was a way of life for him. I can't believe it. I loved the guy." 

Former Nitro football coach Jon Loftis described Rice as "a coach with a great future, and everyone who ever came in contact with him loved him." 

Like Stewart, Rice was a college football coach who coached many years out of state. But, at the end, he truly came home. He is buried in the Montgomery Memorial Cemetery in London. 

At Rice's funeral, the Fidler & Frame Funeral Home in Belle was packed with college coaches from all over the region. His brother in law, Jim Morris of Hurricane, had this memory:

"After the funeral and everyone was starting to leave, Coach Claiborne from Maryland came up to me. He said that he needed to get all of the recruiting notebooks from Ron's car that he had been accumulating. That's when it hit me. Life goes on. Recruiting never stops." 

Our state has produced many great college coaches. Judging from the testimonials I have read about Rice, I am not sure any have impacted as many lives as he did in his brief 34 years. 

Reach Frank Giardina at flg16@hotmail.com.


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