Rick Byrd's quiet determination propels Belmont to NCAA tournament team

Sunday, November 13, 2011 at 11:21pm
By Steve Cavendish

It’s one thing to be Cinderella. It’s another thing entirely for people to expect you to be Cinderella.

This is the problem Belmont’s Rick Byrd has these days.

“This year, in particular, expectations are pretty high and not just among the people that care about Belmont winning or losing — which is not like Kentucky or UCLA or North Carolina or Vanderbilt — but there are some national expectations,” he said of the college basketball season that kicked off this past weekend.

The Bruins won 30 games prior to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, and Byrd found his team in the unfamiliar position of being the trendy pick by talking heads and “bracketologists” to knock off No. 4 Wisconsin.

Office pool junkies look for upsets in that sweet spot where the overperforming mid-major schools relegated to 12th and 13th seeds face off against underperforming teams from the power conferences at 4th and 5th seeds. It’s a kind of bracket arbitrage — a search for value when making your bet.

With the masses singing their praises and a campus full of students looking for a breakthrough — that elusive first win in the NCAA Tournament — the Bruins took the floor full of hope. They were good enough to do it. Everyone outside of the state of Wisconsin wanted them to do it.

But they didn’t. They were buried by a stifling Badger defense and a rain of 3-point shots that seemed to fall at exactly the wrong times. It would have to wait until next year.

Byrd was disappointed. Not in the season, mind you: He’s very aware of the challenges that a school his size is going to have. And certainly not in his kids, a team built with players largely unwanted by bigger programs. No, he was disappointed in having the opportunity and not taking advantage of it.

After all, his career has been a series of seized opportunities. A Knoxville sports writer’s son who served as a graduate assistant to the legendary Tennessee coach Ray Mears, he turned that into an assistant and then head coach position at Division III Maryville College in 1978.

Five years later, he transformed tiny Lincoln Memorial into an NAIA contender. And 25 years ago this week, he began his first season at Belmont, guiding the Bruins from small-college afterthought to NCAA Tournament team.

It’s hard to measure Byrd’s ambition by looking at him. Short in stature and unfailingly polite, he doesn’t radiate the stereotypes of major college basketball: slick, controlling, camera-ready. But the hunger is there. And more than in most sports, the success of a basketball program can usually be measured by the drive of its coach. Six hundred and ten victories in a career indicates at least one thing: Byrd badly wants to win, even if his off-court demeanor doesn’t scream it.

That drive caught the notice of one big suitor last spring. After a series of missteps, Tennessee fired its coach, Bruce Pearl, at the end of the 2011 season and brought to Byrd’s doorstep the biggest opportunity of his life. For a son of East Tennessee, a Volunteer alum whose earliest memories involved all things Big Orange, it was a huge opening — maybe a once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance. And when the phone rang, Rick Byrd took the call.

 

 

Thirty years ago, Belmont was an institution still trying to grow out of its past as Ward-Belmont School for Women. It was known less for academics or athletics than for a famous alumna — Minnie Pearl — and a beautiful, if a bit creaky, antebellum mansion sitting at the top of Music Row.

Bill Troutt was hired to change that image. The youngest college president in the country when he took over in 1982, Troutt instituted an ambitious growth plan that added graduate degrees, raised admissions scores and nearly doubled the student body.

But there was a missing component. No matter how well the school was regarded regionally, it had to have a national profile to attract better students. And while some of the school’s academic efforts (notably its music business program) did pull kids from all over, it needed something more.

Belmont needed a winning team.

In the spring of 1986, Belmont’s men’s team was near the end of its third straight mediocre campaign, and coach Don Purdy announced his resignation. Purdy’s 16-year-old son was a rising baseball star at Overton, and the combination of the losses and time away from his family finally caught up with him, and he asked for a change. As his replacement, Belmont and Troutt interviewed only one candidate: a young coach within the conference named Rick Byrd.

“I had developed a strategy for creating a Belmont with a national presence,” Troutt said. “Athletics were a key part of that. I knew that if Byrd took [the job], Belmont would succeed.

“You build great institutions with great people, people with great character. It was clear to me that Belmont was emerging with great programs and attracting attention with our academics. But we needed attention outside the region. We had to have great coaches to move to the next level.”

Belmont’s strategy paid off within three years. Byrd’s win totals grew — 15 the first season, then 22, then 25 — as he brought in his own players and style. In the 1989 district playoffs, All-American Joe Behling exploded for 58 points, 29 in each half on a mind-boggling 24-for-30 shooting performance. Sweetening the victory all the more, it was on archrival Lipscomb’s floor. Belmont qualified for the first of five trips to the NAIA national tournament. 

That night, Troutt thought, the program was on its way. Four springs later, in 1993, he invited NCAA executive director Dick Schultz to deliver the school’s commencement address — and the news that Belmont was jumping to Division I basketball.

 

 

Sitting in his office overlooking Belmont Boulevard, Byrd is so low-key he’s almost monotone. But as he reflects over a quarter century of basketball at Belmont, his candor speaks volumes.

Would a player like Behling make his team today? Yes. Would mainstays of his successful early teams such as Scott Speedy and Scott Corley — who at one time both had top spots in Belmont’s record book — or Greg Thurman, Al Allen or Kerry West be good enough? It depends, Byrd says. Many from the NAIA era could probably make the team, the coach explains, but they might not start.

But bring up Lipscomb, and the typically reserved coach shifts in his chair a little bit.

“It’s maybe the biggest day on campus for each school of any kind, anything that goes on during the year where more people come together and get excited about something,” Byrd says. “I could do without it. And I told Scott [Sanderson, Lipscomb’s current coach], we started talking about scheduling [after Belmont moves from the Atlantic Sun to the OVC next year], I said, ‘You know what I would rather do; I would rather not play it at all. I could do without that game the rest of my life.’ You talk about a lot of pressure you put on yourself to try to win a game because it’s such a big rivalry game.”

When a reporter brings up Don Meyer — Byrd’s opposite number at Lipscomb for many years, and one of college basketball’s all-time winningest coaches — that well-hidden pressure starts to show.

“I didn’t enjoy those games,” Byrd says. He starts fidgeting with his hands, tapping the table, his voice and energy rising. “I wish I could. I wish I could flip a switch and take it all in. There are a lot of people that would trade places with me in a second to get that kind of an opportunity. But it was hard. He was such a good coach and they were so good, and I felt like we were always being compared with them.”

For good reason. It was a sign of Byrd’s growing success that his teams were getting measured against a Lipscomb program coming off an NAIA national championship in 1986. Meyer’s brand of defense, fundamentals and motion set the benchmark for small-college basketball. To match them was an accomplishment.

And Meyer made a formidable, even imposing adversary. As he shuffled down the sidelines in a defensive stance, his bald head, booming voice and permanent scowl intimidated any number of people: referees, opposing players, fans. Adding to the intensity, the games were played in sweltering heat in tiny Striplin and McQuiddy gymnasiums filled to fire-marshal capacity. And the fierceness of the rivalry tended to level out any advantage either team had on talent.

“I don’t know — it seems like everything is more . . . it’s at a frenzied pace,” Byrd says, leaning forward a little bit. “It seems like things are moving faster and quicker, and I don’t know that I’ve got any control over what goes on now, but it just seems like you had very little then.

“And I don’t know if I can describe that very good, but it just seemed like that the people were this close to players” — he holds up his hands about a foot apart — “hardly room to take the ball out of bounds. Coach Meyer was on the floor the entire game — on the actual playing floor — and our guys would bump into him. And I’m sure I’ve had my share of times, but he was out there.”

It didn’t help Byrd’s anxiety that the games got so big for a time that the schools moved the rivalry to Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium for three different “Battle of the Boulevard” contests.

“I had trouble even getting a parking spot,” Don Meyer says, laughing, in a recent phone interview. “I came over to Vanderbilt and somebody told me, ‘Coach, why don’t you pull over here by this tree. That’s the best I can do.’ ”

As Belmont, and then Lipscomb, jumped to the NCAA Division 1, Meyer left for Northern State and Division II, unwilling to put up with the non-basketball stuff — the fundraising and the boosters, the ticket requests and the media — that comes with the territory. But he remains a Byrd fan.

“He’s a great coach and he’s a better guy,” Meyer said. “He’s a very good thinker. He doesn’t make rash decisions. He studied Davidson and different programs that he thought would fit the Belmont mold. He’s hired good assistant coaches and stuck with them.”

Byrd explains that, as much as he hated it, the Meyer rivalry pushed him and his program to another level.

“We wouldn’t be here today if their program hadn’t been that good. They made us — if they had been decent, a little better than average and Trevecca had been a little better than average, then we might have become a little better than average. But I don’t think we would have become an NAIA Final Four team two years in a row and a long run of Top 25 appearances and four straight appearances in the tournament and all the stuff that ended up happening.”

 

 

Byrd led Belmont out of the NAIA in a blaze. Starting with the 1992-93 season, the Bruins averaged almost 32 wins a year and finished with back-to-back appearances in the Final Four. The next four years, though, were like driving a sports car into a wall at high speed.

Their new NCAA schedule became a function of whatever teams would play them. Byrd’s squads would play weeks or months at a time without a home game. Without a conference, they had no clear path to getting into the tournament, which affected recruiting. The recruiting pitch was tough: Come play for us — oh, and by the way, there’s little hope of a postseason.

But in many ways it was liberating. Byrd was able to focus on coaching without looking down the street at Lipscomb and being involved in a 30-wins-per-season arms race year after year.

“We made the move to Division I, and the pressure actually went down,” Byrd said. “Again, all of this is personal feeling because expectations weren’t high, and you could go back to focusing on building something and not worry as much about the results. I knew we were going to lose games.

“In both cases I knew we were going to lose early when we got here, [and] hoped we could change that. And I knew we would lose more than I would like in the Division I early era, and didn’t know whether we could change that. That’s a tall order, and it’s a little bit scary to look back on.”

Byrd did it, in part, by adding Casey Alexander — the best point guard of his NAIA teams — to his coaching staff. And true to his overachieving playing form, Alexander spurred Byrd as an assistant.

“He would push me to go from NAIA mentality to Division I mentality — from individual workouts and weight-room work and recruiting stuff,” Byrd said. “That comes with being young and a coach that’s young and wanting to get out there.”

Some of the seasons were brutal, though. While there were home and away series against independents like UT-Pan American and Centenary, Byrd scheduled mid-majors like Valparaiso, Butler and East Carolina that had tournament aspirations. The improvements were sometimes marked by season-win totals in the single-digits. Meyer’s decision to skip Division 1 looked like the right move.

In 2001, the Bruins finally found a home in the Atlantic Sun, a lower-tier conference composed mostly of schools, like Belmont, that had enjoyed success at lower levels. With a place to hang their hat, the progress picked up. A division title was followed by an NIT bid and two years later in 2006 by a game most program observers still call the most important in the school’s history. After defeating, of all teams, Lipscomb, Belmont advanced to its first NCAA tournament.

After the game, a hoarse, emotional Byrd had a hard time expressing to a national television audience just how far they had come. Troutt’s vision had finally been fulfilled.

Belmont President Bob Fisher, who succeeded Troutt in 2000, crystallized the value of the win.

“It means national exposure for your name,” Fisher said. “It means a lot of basketball fans say, ‘Who’s Belmont?’ I don’t believe people come to a school because their basketball team wins, but I believe they’ll look us up. And once they look us up . . . they see we’ve got this amazing music business program, or a top allied health science program.”

Fisher pointed toward another small school whose basketball success — propelled by its head coach — has led to instant recognition.

“We’re not Gonzaga yet,” Fisher says. “But that’s kind of the model.”

 

 

When the University of Tennessee called in the spring, it represented a lot of things. The position had come open a couple of times earlier in Byrd’s career, but he wasn’t ready. He didn’t have NCAA tournament experience back then, or decades of coaching success.

This time, though, he had the resume.

In the process, he tried hard not to consider what he would do if given the opportunity. Would he seize it? From the time he was 8, his heroes wore orange. His dad rode buses and planes with the team, covering its every move. And there’s something almost irresistible about the call to come home, accepting a position that would have been a validation of everything he had done.

Had he done enough? Look at this schedule progression: Twenty-five years ago, Belmont opened with Philander Smith and Lincoln Memorial. Ten years ago, it was Southern Illinois and Valparaiso. This year? At Cameron Indoor Stadium vs. No. 6 Duke and at FedEx Forum vs. No. 11 Memphis. If ambition can be measured in opponents, Byrd’s is undeniable.

In the end, though, it was only a call, not an offer. UT chose Cuonzo Martin instead.

It was unfortunate. Not because Byrd wanted to leave, but because he just wanted that opportunity — that chance to evaluate the position against what he already had. Just the offer would have been proof that the local boy made good.

“I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed,” Byrd says, looking back. “You always want to be the one to be picked. You always want to win. But I wasn’t disappointed in the sense that I didn’t get to go to Tennessee. At all.

“Part of my thought process — and you can’t ignore the fact that you’re gonna get paid pretty good — was that’s my school. Even more than it being where I went to school, it’s the school I grew up cheering for. Football. Basketball. Heck, I went to track and field meets. You name it. I was a big UT fan. Almost every kid was. I kinda thought, ‘This is a chance for me to do something good for my school.’ Maybe even if it wasn’t the thing I ‘wanted’ to do.”

Byrd’s face has a few more lines these days. It’s always had a certain boyishness, but the gray hair that crept into his picture the past few years has begun to give away his 58 years.

He never expected to be at Belmont this long. If you had asked him a couple of decades ago, he would have said it was because he’d be coaching at Kentucky or UCLA or some other big program that young coaches dream about running. If you had asked him a couple of years ago, he’d have told you that the stress of running a D-I program is too much for anyone to last very long.

And at least once a season, he tells his wife Cheryl that he’s getting out. But that’s normal for any top-flight coach these days. Given what he’s built, he now concedes he’ll be at Belmont into his 60s. He has a full knowledge of just how good he has it.

“The longer you coach, just the longer you live and work, I think you come to understand that there are things that money can’t buy and that quality of life is important. When you work in a place and you live in a place that you love — and that people are kind to you and you enjoy coming to work every day — then you’re very fortunate, and you’re in that [top] 10 percent of all jobs.”

It almost sounds like a fairy tale. Kind of like Cinderella.