Josh Cooper, USA TODAY Sports7:49p.m. EST January 9, 2013
Veteran coach has built Belmont’s men’s basketball program from the ground up
Belmont coach Rick Byrd has helped the Bruins get off to a 5-1 start.
•In a city with dozens of high-profile and elite coaches Rick Byrd has found his niche as the leader of one of the region’s most successful and respected teams
•He has built Belmont’s men’s basketball program from the ground up
•Byrd has been called the ‘Dean Smith’ of mid-major programs
Rick Byrd emerged from the locker room at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. The day was March 20, 2008 and his No. 15 seeded Belmont Bruins had just lost a close game to heavily-favored No. 2 Duke, 71-70, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
As the Belmont coach and his family searched for alumni, friends and well-wishers in the stands, the Bruins fans still in the arena stood up, put their hands together and gave Byrd an ovation.
MID-MAJOR COACH DIARY: Byrd pilots Belmont to success
Supporters of West Virginia and Arizona, the teams played in the next game in the building, also noticed Byrd and followed suit. The normally reserved Byrd looked around and thought, “Is this for me?”
On that night, the closeness of the game, and the humility of the Bruins players showed the people in the building, as well as a nationally televised audience, what Belmont already knew: That Byrd understands how to put together a winning program the “right” way.
Byrd does not have the outward personality of Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin. He doesn’t receive the media attention that Titans coach Mike Munchak and Predators coach Barry Trotz receive. Byrd’s teams do not play regularly in front of big home crowds like Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings’ teams.
Yet, in a city with dozens of high-profile and elite coaches, Byrd, 59, has found his niche as the leader of one of the region’s most successful and respected teams.
“He’s a guy of great character and tremendous character. If he can have character to a fault, he almost does,” country music star and good friend Vince Gill said. “It’s really inspiring to be around because you know he’s going to do the right thing. He’s going to do the fair thing at every turn.”
He has built Belmont’s men’s basketball program from the ground up, overseeing the state’s second-largest private liberal arts university’s move to Division-I and five NCAA tournament appearances.
Tonight, Byrd and the Bruins make another transition as they play their first home game in the Ohio Valley Conference (7 p.m. at the Curb Event Center against Southeast Missouri State).
“I think they’ve built an outstanding program and I think it goes to show what can happen when people make a commitment to something,” Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings said.
Stickler for the rules
Any conversation about Byrd often turns to golf. He has played at Augusta National and Pebble Beach amongst other historical courses. It was through the game, that he got one of his nicknames from Gill. On an outing, Byrd shanked his opening tee shot badly, but was given a mulligan by Gill. Byrd refused the offering, turned back to Gill and said, “Do you mind if somebody plays by the rules of golf?” At that point, Gill decided to call Byrd, “Frank Hannigan” after the former United States Golf Association Executive Director.
“He’s got his way he wants to do things and I admire every element of it,” Gill said. “He has the kind of qualities that I think over time has slipped in his profession and in sports in general.”
There’s an often-told story from those who know Byrd that when the Bruins decided to change athletic affiliations, moving from NAIA to NCAA Division-I in 1996-97, an associate told Byrd that he needed to lower his academic standards to get the type of player who could compete at that level.
Byrd turned to this person and said in response, “If I have to do that, I guess I’ll start digging ditches.”
To his credit, he has stuck by this creed. Five of the last seven years, the Bruins have had a perfect score of 1,000 in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report. In the last NCAA tournament, they had the third-highest grade-point average in the 68-team field. For 13 straight years, the Belmont men’s basketball team grade point average has been 3.0 or higher.
“If we’re one of those schools that gets their name in the paper because kids rob the Circle K across the street … if you read something like that every day, then I’m not enhancing our program. I’m not enhancing the university,” Byrd said. “I always felt it was a real charge of mine to bring in people that represent Belmont in a positive way.”
According to former Bruins basketball player Wes Burtner, who directs the Bruin Club, a booster group, there was a game several years ago in which a Belmont player elbowed the opposition. The play went unnoticed by the official, but Byrd later saw it on film, and suspended the player for the next game.
“I think again that gets to the integrity of who he is and that he was going to follow the rules whether they benifitted him or not,” Burtner said.
Talk to Byrd’s players, and they appreciate the structure their coach has put in place for them. Be it at practice, or walking through the airport, everyone involved in the program must have their shirts tucked in.
“He demands we’re always on time, or early,” point guard Kerron Johnson said. “Everything we do is concise and precise and carries on over to the court where you want to do every little thing right.”
Byrd has been called the “Dean Smith” of mid-major programs, after the legendary North Carolina coach, and his aw-shucks East Tennessee demeanor comes out.
“I don’t write books or do videos or try to tell anybody how to coach because there are a whole lot of guys out there who are better than I am,” he says.
Byrd didn’t get into coaching to win NCAA championships. In fact, this never seemed like an option when he arrived at Belmont in 1986.
Byrd came to the Bruins from Lincoln Memorial University, in Harrogate, simply with hopes of turning the Belmont into a solid NAIA team. And he did this quickly, making five NAIA national tournament appearances.
“I was fine with being an NAIA coach the rest of my life. I was totally fine with it,” Byrd said.
But Belmont got too good to stay on the periphery of college athletics. In 1996-97, the Bruins made the jump to the NCAA and Division I athletics, the highest collegiate level of competition. Though they took their lumps – they finished over .500 just twice through 2000-01 – Byrd never felt out of place. And those around him saw his confidence as a coach grow each year.
“I watched Rick as we went through those early years, I could see in his eyes, ‘I could coach with these guys,'” athletics director Mike Strickland said.
In 2003, two years after it joined the Atlantic Sun Conference, Belmont opened a sparkling new building, the 90,000 square foot Curb Event Center. And from that year on, Belmont has consistently improved. In 2005-06, the Bruins made their first of three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
“They got in a league they had success with. I think there are a lot of things that have happened that have been reasons as to why the status of their program has elevated,” Stallings said. “But I think the singular most important reason has been Rick’s leadership and his coaching ability.”
Known primarily as an offensive coach, Byrd’s formula for success has stayed constant throughout the years. He recruits players who can handle the ball and shoot 3-point baskets with a high efficiency. But he doesn’t rely on dogmatic beliefs like some in his profession. His tailors his gameplans to his team’s strengths.
For example, this season he doesn’t have a dominant post player, so he has made 6-foot-7 athletic wing forward Blake Jenkins play with his back to the basket.
“You have to decide, in my case, how you want to win and then you have to stick to it,” Byrd said.
For most of his career, Byrd has been happy staying at Belmont. But there was one job outside of Nashville that perked his interest. When Tennessee called him to interview for its vacancy in 2011, Byrd, who is from Knoxville, felt the need to explore the opportunity. A UT grad, Byrd had always considered the Vols his top choice. Except the interest wasn’t quite as mutual with Tennessee, who went with Cuonzo Martin instead.
“I’m glad he’s still with us,” Strickland said. “But I would have been supportive of him doing that and think he would have done a great job without question.”
Respect around town
Before the Bruins’ near miss against the Blue Devils, Byrd was known as a well-liked, hardworking coach with a famous superfan in Gill. Now his local reach delves into other sports.
“Rick is one of those strong professionals who has built a winning program,” Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “I can’t speak for every other coach but I know I have a lot of respect for people who’ve had longevity and built programs from the ground up, who treat people right.”
Still, there’s sort of an anonymity that surrounds Byrd. His office at the Curb Center has cut down nets and trophies – but doesn’t have the sheen and cache of a major Division-I coach’s office. According to Belmont students, he goes from building to building with little fanfare.
“You see him walking around campus going in for meetings and practice, and he always has just a nice presence with him,” Belmont senior L.T. Moody said. “I’ve never heard him say a bad word or mistreat a player or fan or anyone of that nature.
Off campus, Byrd says he sometimes gets recognized. He mentioned a time in December when he picked up chicken soup for his daughter at a local drug store, the clerk wished him good luck in the next game.
“I just kind of live my own little quiet life here,” Byrd said.
If there is one mark against Byrd, it’s the fact that he has yet to win an NCAA tournament game. Would that make him a bigger name around Nashville? Maybe yes, maybe no. But that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone who knows him. It would simply be a fitting salute, but it certainly wouldn’t define him.
“I think nobody deserves to win more than he does, and I’m so partial in saying that, but you want to see the good guy win,” Byrd’s daughter Megan said. “You want to see the underdog win. Before he retires, whenever that is, I don’t know when that is, but I want to see him win an NCAA tournament game because he has poured so much of his life into this program. He deserves that.”
Cooper writes The Tennessean