Sports, Thrill of Victory

Nashville Sports Legend Series: Belmont’s Rick Byrd

Sports-101-action1In a new series here on Sports & Entertainment Nashville, each month we will take a look at some of the legendary figures in Nashville sports history. Over time we willl look at pioneers of their sports, trendsetters and those who took their team or sport to whole new heights.

Often times when you think of someone as “legendary” you come to that conclusion after their career is finished and you begin to look back at their accomplishments compared to history. In rare instances though, you come across a figure that is able to exceed even the loftiest of expectations, reaches the rarest of career milestone moments and sets themselves apart from the rest of the crowd well before their career is finished.

One such Nashville sports figure is Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd.

If you are even just a casual sports fan, you have likely heard of Coach Byrd. The 29-year veteran of the Bruin’s sideline recently joined an elite coaching fraternity, the 700 win club. That made him one of only seven active Division I coaches to reach the milestone, joining Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Bob Huggins (West Virginia), Roy Williams (North Carolina), Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) and Rick Pitino (Louisville).

Byrd banner

Coach Byrd was honored with the game ball from win No. 700 prior to Belmont’s next home game against UT Martin Jan. 22.

With the exception of Byrd, each of the other active 700-win coaches has led major programs that come with the spoils of being a top team in a top BCS conference. What makes Byrd’s road to 700 different though is that he has managed to reach 700 wins, largely as an underdog while leading Belmont from the ranks of not even being the best NAIA team in Nashville three decades ago, through the transition up to elite Division I competition.

The wins and the championships are far from the only thing that makes Byrd a truly legendary Nashville sports figure. It is also the way he runs his program, the way he gives back to this community, and the way he teaches his players to not just be the best players they can but to also grow up and be the best men they can.

Coach Byrd’s Bruin program is frequently mentioned when commentators make their lists of the top programs in the country. Just recently Basketball Times ranked Belmont as the No. 11 program in the nation over the last decade based a wide list of factors both on the court and off. Included in that list of factors was graduation rate, where Belmont came in at No. 1.

rick-byrd-1The way he guides his program, producing not only great results on the court but also well rounded student-athletes who have become wonderful additions to communities around the country is why Rick Byrd is easily considered a “legendary” figure in Nashville sports.

Last year we chronicled Coach Byrd and his Belmont program’s rise in the basketball world, along with the method in which Byrd approaches teaching the game. If you are new to Nashville or new to Belmont basketball, the excerpt below sums up nicely how Byrd’s way of coaching stands out from the rest taking Belmont from a struggling NAIA team in 1986 to now one of the most dominate mid-major teams in the nation.

 Coaches are either moving up or down the career ladder. Few move down voluntarily, but you could argue that Byrd did when he went to Belmont in 1986. It had been through five coaches since Wayne Dobbs left there in 1966. Each finished under .500 in their BU careers. Belmont was light-years behind its Nashville neighbors Lipscomb (the defending NAIA national champion) and Trevecca in the Tennessee Collegiate Athletic Conference (TCAC).

Others saw obstacles – Byrd believes he was the only coach the school interviewed – but he saw opportunity. He knew a lot about the program from having played it three times at LMU.

“I thought Belmont had great potential as a school and had not enjoyed a lot of success in basketball, and I felt like that was a great combination,” Byrd says. “A good school with a lot of potential in a great city, and a basketball program that hadn’t won a lot of games.”

Rick Byrd vs UTM 1Byrd started chipping away at Lipscomb’s dominance, beating the Bisons in one of their match-ups in his second year. That was 1987-88, and Belmont went a remarkable 15-1 in the TCAC (22-9 overall). However, only one team from each conference made the NAIA national tournament, and that was 33-3 Lipscomb.

It was a sobering time for Byrd.

“At that point, I wondered if I’d ever get to coach in that tournament, because Lipscomb was here and Trevecca was here. I didn’t know if we’d ever win that game,” he said.

The next year, legendary Lipscomb coach Don Meyer had one of his best teams ever in the winter of ’89. The Bisons had beaten Belmont thrice and had home-court advantage in the TCAC Tournament final, with Byrd’s 23-9 team standing in its way.

“We went over there, and they were 38-1 in one of the great collegiate seasons of all time in the making,” Byrd recalls, “Joe Behling got 58 points. I think it was 103-98 or something like that. Still one of the best wins Belmont has ever had.”

A rivalry was born. The intensity of the rivalry rivaled just about any in college hoops. It grew so large that one of the games moved to Vanderbilt in 1990 (Lipscomb won, 124-105), and each of the 15,399 seats was full. Even in defeat, Byrd regards that night as one of the best memories of his career.

But it was still one-sided. Lipscomb got the national tournament bid the next three years, and Belmont (which lost its debut NAIA Tournament game in ’89) wouldn’t return until the NAIA gave at-large bids in 1993.

“We didn’t really sort of turn the tables at all until 93-94 and 94-95. We beat them six straight games, but until then, they had the upper hand. We would win occasionally, but they won a much higher percentage,” Byrd says.

Sports-101-action4Success was a mixed blessing, as it put more pressure on Byrd. Between ’94 and ’96, the Bruins made the national semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once, but they got no further.

“We weren’t going to get better where we were, with expectations that you’ve got to keep doing better than you’ve done when there’s very little room to get better,” Byrd recalls.

Behind the scenes, Belmont was quietly building a pressure release.

It was president William Trout’s decision: starting with the 1996 season, BU moved to the NCAA’s Division I. “It was almost like getting a new job. You get to start from the ground floor and you don’t have to worry about expectations,” he said.

With no conference affiliation and a 2,500-seat gym for the next five seasons, recruiting was difficult. Consequently, the Bruins went 58-77 in that time. But changes were on the horizon – a new president in Dr. Robert Fisher, a new gym by the name of the Curb Event Center, and membership in the Atlantic Sun conference.

The new gym was dedicated in 2003, complete with an opening-night visit from Vanderbilt. Belmont lost, but a VU visit gave the program a sense of legitimacy. So did the ensuing 21-9 season and a trip to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).

Two years later, after sharing the regular-season A-Sun crown, BU won the conference tournament and made its first NCAA Tournament. Another tourney title followed the next year, but Belmont got whipped by UCLA (78-44) and Georgetown (80-55) in the first rounds of each.

Still, Byrd kept the program at that level. The next year, Belmont won both league titles and faced Duke in the first round of the NCAAs. On March 20, 2008, Byrd nearly pulled off the unthinkable upset of the second-seeded Blue Devils. But Duke’s Gerald Henderson – one of five Blue Devils who’d later make the NBA – hit a shot with 12 seconds left to give Duke a 1-point win. A couple of his last-minute decisions still haunt Byrd, but he still remembers the evening fondly.

“It put us on the map, no question about that. It helped us recruit Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson and the group that just went through this run that we’ve just finished,” he said.

rick-byrd-3That run was special: NCAA appearances in each of the last three seasons, and a 76-25 record over that span, even though Belmont moved to the tougher Ohio Valley Conference last season. The Bruins still lack that elusive NCAA Tournament victory, and having lost Clark, Johnson and two more key seniors, Belmont could take a small step back this winter. Even so, it’s the bigger picture he’s created of which Byrd is most proud.

“(Belmont’s) such an easy place to recruit to. I think our staff has done a really good job of finding the kind of guys who will flourish when they get here. … So many people will try to recruit basketball players to a school where they don’t fit academically or socially or anything else, and they’re not happy. The things that are a bigger deal to me are that we haven’t had anybody leave our program since 2003 for any reason. I think we have identified the kind of people that’ll help us be successful. That’s a whole lot different approach than a lot of other people.”

With 663 career wins, which ranks him seventh among active NCAA coaches, Rick Byrd has been more successful than most of those “other people” as well. We’re just glad Nashville and Belmont were top recruiters when it came to coaches.

You can find the full article on ‘’ from November of 2013 here.