Belmont making waves in college hoops
NASHVILLE – From his Curb Event Center office, Rick Byrd has a bird's-eye view of the goings-on in the hip neighborhood that starts Belmont Boulevard.
Photos and plaques and things of personal importance line the walls and dot the desk. Here and there are this and that from country music star Vince Gill, a huge Belmont men's basketball supporter and Byrd confidante and golfing buddy.
Just down the tree-lined and stately boulevard from Belmont University, where Byrd is men's basketball coach, nestles Lipscomb University. The "Battle of the Boulevard" between the schools over the years as NAIA college basketball powers, and later as NCAA Division I converts, are of local legend and an insider's tip then and now from those who know the sport nationally.
Back then, Byrd was the rising coaching star; now-legendary Don Meyer was still holding court at Lipscomb, both on and off it. They would borrow nearby Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym every once and a while and sell it out. Lots of folks still brag about being there those nights.
Now, fast forward two decades. Belmont not only has successfully navigated the transition into NCAA Division I status and brought that basketball tradition with it, but emerged as a mid-major program that continues to turn heads nationally.
"I doubt that I thought it would get to the point where we're talking about what Belmont's RPI is in terms of it being good enough for at-large bids," said Byrd, whose team last week was 21st in the national RPI, according to NCAA.com, before dropping to 32nd this week despite two Ohio Valley Conference blowout victories.
This week, the Bruins (14-4, 5-0 in OVC) already has beaten league contender Eastern Kentucky (14-4, 4-1) Thursday night in an early test to prove its move from the Atlantic Sun Conference would work. Saturday night, Belmont plays host to crosstown OVC opponent Tennessee State (12-7, 6-0), winner of seven straight games. On the horizon is a Feb. 7 showdown at OVC strongboy Murray State, a team that usually does enough to garner NCAA tournament at-large invitee status, should it not get the automatic bid by not winning the league tourney.
That might well be where Belmont has arrived. But thinking about all that now against the backdrop of way back when is a far cry for Byrd, who took over Belmont in 1986 after head coaching stints at Maryville College and Lincoln Memorial. He is the son of legendary sports editor Ben Byrd of the Knoxville Journal.
"We started from scratch (at Belmont) — you're not even (NCAA) Division II, but you're NAIA and you have a waiting period before you can get into the tournament, so therefore you can't recruit good players," Byrd said of the many mutations of Belmont basketball.
"And how do you get good if you don't recruit good players or Division I caliber players where you can win games? It just looked like a long road and a tough one. And there are a lot of coaches who have fallen by the wayside in that process."
Byrd did not only fade way, but kept elevating his program without compromising philosophies that always had worked, especially the emphasis on academics in balance with athletics at a faith-based private institution of academic repute. He sees the models out there to follow.
"The closest two programs doing it like the way we are doing it are Butler and Davidson," said Byrd, who has won 651 games — seventh-most among active Division I coaches — and has guided Belmont to five NCAA tourney appearances in the last seven years.
"They are both strong academic schools that have not tossed their academic excellence aside and tried to fit square pegs into round holes," he added.
It is working at Belmont, which had a breakout 30-win season in 2010-11. But the national acclaim actually started in the 2008 NCAA tourney, when the 15th-seeded Bruins dropped a one-point heartbreaker to Duke in the opening round of the NCAA tourney.
Personally, Byrd is a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame and is a recent inductee into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, where he joined his father in enshrinement.
"Let me just say that I don't think about that stuff a lot," Byrd said. "I am sure when I quit coaching I will have time to reflect.
"You just have a good practice the next practice or a good game the next game. And you let it go where it goes. If you get too farsighted past that, then you are not going to be as effective."
Which brings it back to this year's Bruins, who feature one of the more underrated backcourts in the country in seniors Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson. Their stellar play this year has helped overcome the graduation of all three frontcourt starters.
They each pointed to Byrd and the opportunity to continue the growth of something special as the reason they picked Belmont over other suitors that some might consider more worthy of consideration.
"It was Coach Byrd and the university doing good things and making it to the NCAA Tournament," Clark said of choosing Belmont four years ago out of Germantown High School in Memphis.
He is tops in the OVC in 3-point field goal percentage (.504) and 3-pointers made per game (3.5), while third in scoring (18.9 points per game), 3-point field goal percentage (.577) and assists (4.9).
"The players before us at Belmont laid the foundation," Clark added. "We're just adding on to it. A lot of people might not understand who Belmont is and what we can do. We have shown we can play with anybody in the country."
That includes impressive non-conference wins this season at Stanford, at home against Sun Belt Conference favorite Middle Tennessee and at Central Florida.
Ditto Clark's sentiments for Johnson, a product of Huntsville (Ala.) Madison Academy who is averaging 13.1 points per game.
"Winning has become an expectation," he said. "That's something that we want to instill in the guys that follow us, that expectation of winning and excellence and preparation and dedication not just to us, but the whole Belmont community.
"More people are becoming Belmont fans every day and who love to come see us play."
Then again, Vince Gill — and a growing number of basketball pundits — already has that figured out about Belmont basketball. For Byrd, who might be too close to the forest to see the trees, that notion of national resonance among his peers hit home last summer while attending an AAU tournament in Orlando, Fla.
That's when hall-of-fame coach Larry Brown engaged Byrd in conversation and acknowledged through casual conversation what Byrd and Belmont had done and could do.
Byrd felt it most likely was cemented with that 30-win season.
"It was then that I sensed a whole different level of respect for our program," Byrd said. " … I now have people calling me out of the blue and asking me this or that or the other."
Byrd admits gratification from the recognition, but expresses the usual humility nonetheless.
"I am a human being, sure," Byrd said. "But I have great admiration for humility. I think that's the way we all ought to act. But honestly, you feel good when people say good things about the work you do or the kind of person you have been."