Kansas, Memphis, and… Belmont? In the context of a discussion on college basketball, one of these things is most definitely not like the other – at least if you’d been discussing college basketball a decade ago.
How times have changed. What do the three programs have in common? They’re the only three NCAA basketball teams to have received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament six times over the past six years.
To those of us who have watched Belmont’s college hoops journey, it still seems a bit surreal to see the Bruins on the big stage every March. But due to the guidance of coach Rick Byrd, it’s reality. Here’s the story of how BU became one of the NCAA’s top mid-major programs.
He could have been a sportswriter like his father, Ben, whom Rick Byrd accompanied to numerous to University of Tennessee basketball games. “When they tipped the ball up, I got to run down and sit underneath the press table, underneath him, and watch games from the edge of the court,” Byrd remembers.
Writing, though, didn’t suit Rick Byrd’s temperament.
“I want to make a game out of everything, and if you’re in sportswriting, you tell the tale of the game and you write your opinion, but you don’t necessarily have a winner and a loser every time out,” Rick says now.
So he tried playing. After one year of riding the pine at a Florida junior college, he quit hoops and transferred home to Tennessee. In a stroke of good fortune, UT started a junior varsity squad his senior season and asked him to join.
“(It was) probably the best thing I ever did, because it got me back in the game. Trying to get a (coaching) job as a normal student without being on a team is very difficult,” Byrd says.
He soon became a student assistant with the varsity squad. The next year, he was a graduate assistant for two months until UT discovered a technicality in the NCAA’s rule book: to be a GA, you had to be in your fifth year of school, and Byrd was in his sixth.
However, a friend soon took a coaching job at nearby Division III Maryville and asked Byrd to be an assistant. Byrd was paid $5,000 for the year (it was 1976), and almost immediately, the job became more than advertised.
“(The head coach) had to finish teaching at Baptist College, which is now Charleston Southern in South Carolina, through December. So I’d coach the team during the week, he’d come up during the weekends, and we’d practice. I even coached a couple of games by myself because he couldn’t make it. … You can’t imagine (North Carolina coach) Roy Williams not showing up for a couple of games! But at any rate, that was great experience,” he remembers.
By 1978, he was in charge and making $8,000 a year. Maryville won two of its first 15 games that first season, but they finished by winning six of the last nine. The next year, it went 15-11; that tied for the most wins at Maryville in 31 years. Byrd spent three years at Tennessee Tech as an assistant. He then returned to head coaching at Lincoln Memorial, where he went 69-28 in three seasons until opportunity knocked again.
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.”
Byrd 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.
Success 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.
That 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.
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of CCA