As Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd watched the game film, he spotted something that disturbed him. One of his players threw an elbow at an opposing player.
He hadn’t noticed the act during the Bruins’ road game at Campbell the night before. Neither had the opposing players or the referees.
That didn’t matter. Byrd suspended the player for one game and even delivered an apology to the opposing coach, who was also unaware of the elbow.
“Character, sportsmanship is what you do when nobody is watching. I think that’s what you can say about Rick,” Belmont athletic director Mike Strickland said. “He’s going to do the right thing whether anybody else knows it or not. He has his standard and he is going to live up to it in every situation.”
On Tuesday, the NCAA named Byrd the recipient of the Bob Frederick Award, which is selected by the NCAA Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct and given annually since 2009 to a NCAA coach or administrator who demonstrates a history of sportsmanship.
The award honors the late Bob Frederick, who was an athletic director at Illinois State and Kansas. Frederick’s son, Brad, is a longtime assistant at Vanderbilt.
“It is almost rare when you hear the word sportsmanship anymore,” said Byrd, who received the Dr. James Naismith National Sportsmanship Award in 1994. “The people with great sportsmanship, they don’t get on SportsCenter. It is the other end of it that gets on more often than not. So I appreciate [the award] because I think it is overlooked. It certainly represents Belmont and the kind of young men Belmont can attract. I happen to be the face of the program but it is a cumulative effort in the way our team has been.”
In 31 years of coaching — 26 at Belmont — Byrd has amassed 637 wins, which ranks eighth among active NCAA Division I coaches. But the 59-year-old has also had 10 Capitol One Academic All-Americans since 2001 — the most in the nation. Plus, Belmont is just one of six teams to make the Academic Progress Rate (APR) Public Recognition list every year since the program started in 2006.
Byrd contributes his high character to the examples set by his father, Ben, a former Knoxville sportswriter, whom he’ll join in the Greater Knoxville Hall of Fame when he is enshrined on Aug. 23.
He also drew from an unlikely source.
Legendary coach Clair Bee, who led Long Island University to two undefeated seasons in the late 1930s, wrote a series of children books. The main character was Chip Hilton, a pure three-sport athlete who wouldn’t accept a college scholarship.
“Those books, I am positive, had a significant influence on the way I looked at sportsmanship,” Byrd said. “They were fiction but they were written by a man that knew what he was talking about.”
Byrd was nominated for the Frederick Award by administrators at Belmont, including a written testimony by former player and current director of athletic fundraising Wes Burtner.
In a letter to the committee, Burtner describes an instance when he went to the student food court with Byrd. As Byrd paid for his meal, he realized he was 37 cents short. The cashier told him not to worry about the difference but the next day, Burtner wrote, “here he was with his quarter, dime and two pennies on his way to repay what he owed.”
“It was the principle of the matter. It was a debt he owed so he was going to satisfy it,” Burtner said. “Little things like that that don’t get told and would have no reason to get out in the community but it just sort of shows the character he has and the integrity that he has. Just doing things the right way.”