Rick Byrd didn’t see Belmont as a steppingstone job when he took over as the Bruins’ head coach 25 years ago. He didn’t plan to use the job as a resume builder, but he probably could have.
Until 1997, Belmont athletics were still part of the NAIA. During that time, Byrd said there were “hundreds [of jobs] that opened up,” including several at Division I mid-major conference schools.
Certainly it would have been easy for him to look into those opportunities, especially since he had achieved success, reaching the NAIA national tournament five times. The Knoxville native didn’t apply for any.
“I didn’t pursue any of those because I was happy and my family was happy. There is just a lot more to be said for that than climbing the ladder,” he said. “Nashville and Belmont made it a lot easier for me to not really even look at some other opportunities that I would have had I been unhappy in Nashville.”
Byrd is not alone on his sentiments toward Music City.
When his Bruins make the short trip to Memorial Gym this Saturday to play Vanderbilt, two coaches who have been at their current schools for a total of almost 40 seasons will be on the same floor.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings is in his 12th season with the Commodores. In the Southeastern Conference, only Billy Donovan at Florida (15 seasons) and Rick Stansbury at Mississippi State (13) have been at their respective schools longer.
In fact, at Belmont, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt, five of the six men’s and women’s basketball head coaches have been at their current posts for more than nine years.
Lipscomb women’s basketball coach Frank Bennett tops the list, having spent 31 seasons with the Lady Bisons. His counterpart, Scott Sanderson, has coached the men’s basketball team at Lipscomb for 12 years. Melanie Balcomb has coached the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team since 2002.
Belmont women’s coach Brittany Ezell is the exception as she enters her first year at the helm. Still, it has been a while since Belmont had to hire a new basketball coach — Ezell’s predecessor, Tony Cross, had been at his alma mater for 26 years.
“I don’t think it is any question that it ends up being a commentary on Nashville and what a great place it is to live,” Byrd said. “I don’t know how you could look at it any other way, really.”
It helps to be successful.
All five aforementioned coaches have been able to string together winning seasons. The Vanderbilt men’s and women’s basketball teams are repeat contenders in the NCAA Tournament. Under Byrd, Belmont reached the NCAA Tournament from 2006 to 2008. The Lipscomb men are the preseason pick of many to get their first tournament bid after they won a share of the Atlantic Sun regular season championship last year.
While the Lipscomb women’s basketball team has struggled the last six seasons, averaging just nine wins, Bennett has won more than 570 games with the Lady Bisons. He also led them to the NCAA Midwest Regional in 2004, becoming the first Division I team to advance that far in its first year of eligibility.
“I think you got good coaches,” Lipscomb athletic director Philip Hutcheson said. “Just good hires at some point by the people who hired them.”
It is indeed a rarity to see that sort of longevity in Division I basketball, especially on the men’s side. According to the National Association of College Basketball coaches, 50 jobs (of 346) turned over last season. The organization also found a significant increase in turnover for Division I men’s basketball head coaches in the past several years.
Obviously, each university has different demands of its sports programs. At Kentucky, for example, there is no question men’s basketball is king and a huge source of revenue.
“Athletics is often the front porch of the school,” Hutcheson said. “I think there is more balance [at Lipscomb or Belmont] than perhaps than at a BCS school, where it is win at all costs.”
Byrd took it a step further, saying there is more patience in a city like Nashville compared to a bigger metropolis. He cited longtime Titans coach Jeff Fisher and Predators coach Barry Trotz as examples, pointing out the high turnover in their professions.
Bennett agreed that balance and patience have kept him at Lipscomb. The Nashville native knew the institution well, having attended David Lipscomb elementary and high schools before graduating from Lipscomb University. He also coached and taught at the high school before making the jump to college head coach.
He said the support of the administration and the Christian philosophy the school wanted to instill in its student-athletes have played huge roles in why he didn’t look elsewhere.
“I had both of those opportunities here, so I wasn’t really looking too much,” Bennett said. “I kind of bleed purple. I have been pretty happy here.”
Vanderbilt’s Balcomb can relate. Unlike Bennett, however, she has bounced around a little more. The New Jersey native has coached at Ashland and Xavier — both in Ohio — and said half the battle is finding the right city.
“If you have had to work your way up like I have — I can only speak on my behalf — I have been a lot of places where it is a great job but you don’t want to live there,” Balcomb said. “So when you get to a place where it is a great job and a great university, plus it is really nice to live in Nashville, I think people stay here a long time. It is an easy place to live. You can be from anywhere and live in Nashville.”