Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd has long been one of the most admired sports figures in not just Nashville, but in all of college basketball. He is held in such revere because of the way he runs his program, the type of players he recruits and the way he has led a program from the ranks of NAIA not so long ago, into a true national brand which over the last decade has seemingly had standing reservations for the NCAA Tournament each March.
Byrd is on the doorstep of another historic mark, joining the exclusive ranks of college basketball coaches who have amassed 700 wins in their career. Sitting at 699 career wins, Byrd and his Belmont Bruins will have the opportunity to pick up that historic win in a fitting fashion Thursday night, when they face off against Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse Murray State, in front of a national audience on ESPNU at the Racers’ CFSB Center, which many argue is the hardest venue in the OVC to leave with a win. Many also believe this to be a potential preview of the OVC Title game that will take place at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium three short months from now.
The 2014-15 version of the Belmont Bruins is not running away with the league as previous teams have done though. Be that because the Bruins don’t have the depth they’ve had in recent years, the OVC as a league is getting stronger top-to-bottom, or a more likely combination of the two, the Bruins still have one distinct advantage. They have Byrd pacing the sidelines in front of their bench.
If you have been caught up in football season, and haven’t paid close attention to college basketball or the Bruins yet, you’ll notice that despite losing stars Ian Clark two years ago to the NBA and JJ Mann last year to graduation, Belmont is not without star power. Craig Bradshaw is leading the OVC in scoring with 19.7 per game, and is capable of taking over any game like he did in scoring 42 on the road against Ohio. Bradshaw missed three games this year with injury though and the Bruins came up short in each, showing the vulnerability of Belmont if they have to rely on the bench heavily.
The Bruins opened the year 7-1; picking up a sweep in the Battle of the Boulevard, two close wins over Western Kentucky and MTSU, along with Bradshaw’s 42-point outburst to top Ohio. Bradshaw then suffered a calf injury and missed three games, all of which the Bruins dropped to Evansville, Wright State and VCU. When Bradshaw returned to the lineup, Belmont returned to the win column at Fairfield, before Belmont closed out the non-conference schedule with an 11-point loss to Butler at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.
To open OVC play, Belmont welcomed Southeast Missouri and SIU Edwardsville to the Curb Events Center and picked up two wins by a combined five points on the back of 22 ppg from Bradshaw and strong defense in the final moments. In their first road game of the conference season, Belmont ran into the OVC’s surprise team Eastern Illinois and its lack of depth was exposed. Bradshaw was contained by the Panthers and the Bruins fell on the road 84-73 in Byrd’s first attempt at picking up win No. 700.
This is generally when Byrd does his best coaching though. He has reached 699 career wins by getting the absolute most out of his teams, a lot of times more than even the players themselves think they can do. This started well back before Belmont was winning Division I conference championships year after year. It started in his days at Maryville College and Lincoln Memorial, and especially in his early days at Belmont when he had to find a way to overcome NAIA national powerhouse programs Lipscomb and Trevecca which were both in his backyard.
As the season continues, and Byrd eventually joins the ranks of those with 700 wins we will likely see a different look Belmont that has overcome its lack of depth when it comes tournament time. As Byrd has done countless times in his career, he always seems to have his teams ready for the postseason, using each step along the way of a long college basketball regular season as a stepping stone to the ultimate goal, a sixth consecutive regular season conference title and a seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament.
If the Bruins are not able to pick up Byrd’s historic win Thursday night in Murray, Ky., they’ll have another chance Saturday in Clarksville against Austin Peay and the dean of the OVC coaches, Dave Loos, before returning home to the Curb Events Center Thursday, January 22 to face the resurgent UT Martin Skyhawks.
In 2013 Sports & Entertainment Nashville writer Chris Lee looked into The Rise of Rick Byrd and Belmont Basketball, and showed in depth the story of how Rick Byrd came to be the Bruins basketball coach, and how he almost became a sportswriter instead. All of us in Nashville, and especially fans of the Bruins, are glad he decided to put down the pen and notepad and pick up his whistle.