Rick Byrd has coached at Belmont University since 1986, and brought his program to national prominence with three consecutive Atlantic Sun tourney championships. As a No. 15 seed in 2008, the Bruins suffered a near-miss against Duke, losing the lead in the final minute of a classic game. Despite returning a team full of seniors who had attended three NCAA Tournaments, Belmont disappeared off the national radar in 2008-09, falling short in the A-Sun semifinals; East Tennessee State won the league's auto-bid to bring a close to the Bruins' dynasty.Stocked with freshmen and sophomores, Belmont is off to a surprising 7-2 start in 2009-10. We caught up with Coach Byrd on Friday afternoon at practice at the Curb Events Center, as his team finished up a long free-throw drill. We talked about why a team full of seniors couldn't get it done last year, and about the team's first-ever postseason win last spring (at Evansville in the CIT). We discussed Keaton Belcher, the team's only senior and last link to the recent glory days. Belmont's blood rivalry with close neighbor Lipscomb also came up,a s it often does. Coach Byrd shared a few recollections of nearly a quarter-century, the days when both Lipscomb and Belmont battled for the Boulevard as NAIA members. And this very well could be the first interview with him ever published that does not mention Vince Gill.TMM: Thanks for the time, Coach. For someone like me, who comes around once a year or so, you're giving me a lot of new names to learn.RB:
For me, too. [laughs]TMM: So what do you see in these young guys?RB:
First of all, we have some very talented players. The reason we're able to win games with freshmen and sophomores starting -- especially in key positions like the post -- is that we're seeing the fruits of the three NCAA Tournament appearances. We go recruiting now, and we can talk about that with guys... they've seen us on TV, and they saw the Duke game. It seems like everyone in the world did. Any program with those plusses should be getting better players, and we are. The talent level of our young players is very good, especially for our league and whatever you want to call our level, mid-majors or whatnot. There are, of course, no low majors. With freshmen come an awful lot of youthful enthusiasm and energy. We didn't have that on our team last year. We had a bunch of old guys.TMM: You were very open about your frustration with the team last year -- you had all those seniors who had been to three NCAA Tournaments, and they didn't have the kind of motivation necessary to live up to the expectations that the fans and we sportswriters placed on the team. It only seemed logical that they'd want to finish their careers with a crowning achievement of some sort.RB:
It was nobody's fault, really. When you have five seniors, and four of them are fifth-year seniors, you've got a lot of guys whose priorities have changed since they came to school. Basketball has probably slid down the list a little bit. If it's for the right reasons, like finding a job and getting married and all those kinds of things, those are just natural human events. But our team suffered from the lack of energy and enthusiasm. We'd been to three straight Tournaments. We played like we were content with that.
Take Jacksonville, for example. Cliff Warren's had good teams down there, and they haven't made it to the Tournament, and they're all seniors this year. My guess is that they've got a real reason to go for it and leave everything out there. They're going to have a level of motivation that our guys didn't have last year. But this team that we have now, they have a hunger. That's why they've been able to win seven games. I honestly thought we'd be 2-7 by this point.TMM: What was your approach to scheduling this year? You've known for several years now that you'd have a very young team in 2009-10. A lot of coaches would... how should I put this... try to build confidence. But you didn't put a single non-Division I opponent on the slate. You also chose to start the season in a three-day, three-game tournament out in Seattle, and you have Kansas coming up. RB:
If you go back and look back at our schedules since we went Division I in 1997, and even back when I started here in the 1980's when Belmont was NAIA, our strategy has been to play as good of a schedule as we can play. I am a firm believer that you get better by playing better teams. We've had a few of those non-Division I games over the years, but not as many as we've been allowed.
Say you were to walk in to an open gym at the University of Tennessee, and there were a bunch of games going on, and one court had all the top-flight players and another had the average players. You could play with the average players and be the best player on that court, but you wouldn't learn much. You'd become a much better player if you played against the best. I think that's true across all athletic competition. It's even true in golf, even though you don't actually defend one another. You can be a winner by choosing opponents you know you can win against, but you become a better player if you go against people who are better than you are.TMM: Tell me about your only returning senior, 6-9 Keaton Belcher
[right, after the Duke game]. I got to spend some time with him at your game at Middle Tennessee earlier this week, and he calls himself the "old guy" now. RB:
Keaton is my favorite story about this team right now. When Keaton came here to visit, we told him that we'd recruited a big man all summer long, all junior year long, and that we were going to wait on him to make a decision. That player was Matthew Dotson. I saw Matthew play every game from the summer before his senior year all throughout that winter. We recruited him as hard as we could. But Tennessee lost a couple of kids late, and Buzz Peterson offered him a scholarship the last week before signing day in November. So we signed Keaton. And we told him everything. We were very upfront with Keaton... we told him who it was, we told him we were going to wait on Matthew, and if Matthew didn't come through that we'd offer him a scholarship. And that's what happened.
Well, Bruce Pearl came in, and he and Matthew didn't mesh. It didn't work out for whatever reason. So Matthew paid his own way to come here to Belmont because we were out of scholarships. Keaton decided to redshirt that year because I told him Matthew was a little bit ahead of him. Keaton played, and he contributed, but he's always had a good player in front of him for three years. Now, he knows he's the man. And he's playing better because he knows that he doesn't have to go out there and play well in three-minute stints to impress me. He's relaxed, he's effective, and he plays 30 minutes a game and is leading our team in scoring [13.4 ppg]. He's been a great leader, and he was here all summer to guide the incoming players. Keaton is such a decent young, good, wholesome young man.TMM: I seriously don't know why he calls me "sir." I didn't get a chance to talk to you about this after it happened, but you guys won a postseason game last year, going to Evansville and winning big in the first round of the new CIT tourney. It wasn't getting those last few seconds against Duke back, but it was Belmont's first postseason win at the Division I level. What did that mean to the program?RB:
Kyle, I don't know if I've thought about it in those terms. We certainly put it in our media guide and our various propaganda. We should talk about it. But it was a new tournament, and a chance to keep playing. You know what meant more to me that night? It gave us a chance to win our 20th game for the fifth time in the last six years. I don't know about historical significance, it was an opportunity to play a good team.
And we beat a good Evansville team on their home floor, and very few teams in the Missouri Valley were able to do that last year. Roberts Stadium is a great home court for them, there were a lot of people there that night, and they were jacked up because it was the first time in years that they
were in the postseason with a chance at a win. It was a big deal to them, and we'd been in the NCAA three years in a row. Honestly, I was worried that our guys wouldn't show up to play. We were in spring break, and they had to come back early to practice and prepare. I still don't know how they felt internally about ending their careers that way.
But they responded, and we were still able to win that game by 16 points... and then we led at Old Dominion for about 33 minutes. And to me it was the significance of the Evansville win itself. We appreciated being invited to the CIT, it was good for us. It wouldn't have been possible the year before. But the more of these things crop up, to tell you the truth, the phrase "postseason team" becomes a little less significant. It's like all these bowl games on TV in December. Who cares who wins most of those?TMM: So I was at Lipscomb last night, just three miles up Belmont Boulevard. That's such a great rivalry between you two, and I'll never forget that great winner-takes-all overtime game you two played for the NCAA bid back in 2006. You've been a part of this rivalry as it's played out at different levels, ever since the 1980's. What are some of your recollections of battling over the Boulevard with those Bisons?RB:
When I leave coaching, it'll be the one thing that I remember about being the coach at Belmont, for the rest of my life. That rivalry is Duke and Carolina, Auburn-Alabama football, but at a smaller level. It's passionate. I don't know if it's as quote-unquote "hateful"...TMM: After what I've seen on my website for the past five years, I can tell you that it is. Trust me. Lipscomb fans and Belmont fans really go after each other.RB:
I know there is. There's some legitimate hate, sure. I think that between people who aren't fanatic fans, there's a real mutual respect. I've got a lot of friends over there. But those are always our most important two games of the year, and we find ourselves struggling to downplay it. Players on both teams are always going to be totally jacked up. The student bodies are going to fill the Curb Center and Allen Arena. We both struggle in a city like Nashville, where there's always so much going on, to get crowds to watch our games. But on those two nights every year, we have no trouble finding interested parties to come watch us play.
In 1989, with Don Meyer coaching, they were 38-1 and we beat them in the playoffs so they couldn't go to the national tournament. We both had senior teams coming back, and Belmont played our home game in 1990 at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym. There were over 16,000 people there, and the ticket funds went to Shriners Hospital. It was the largest attendance for an NAIA game ever, and I think that record might still be intact. They were turning people away, people who had tickets in their hands! People outside an NAIA game, trying to get inside... unbelievable. They beat us that night, though, so they got their revenge for the year before. They beat us a lot in those days.
I don't enjoy those games. I'm going to enjoy them a lot more when I'm retired and can reflect on them. They're always so intense. Those two games sometimes become more important than the season, and it's hard to get people focused on the bigger picture. The season should be more important.TMM: Tell me more about what the NAIA days were like, what you went through building the program in the late Eighties and early Nineties.RB:
I remember that when the job came up, and I had a chance for it, I thought that Belmont -- Belmont College at the time -- had so much potential. Mostly because of this city. Student populations in a lot of places were declining, but Belmont's was rising. The basketball team had not been particularly successful, and I thought it could be.
Before the first game I was here as a coach and athletic director, I don't know if somebody didn't show up or what, but I popped the popcorn in the concession stand. There wasn't anyone else around to do it. It was that kind of thing, when we had to do it all. But loving it.
A lot of people might set goals, and have grand ideas, but my way of working is to go at it day-by-day and do the best we can on this day. Then we try to improve the next. The first year, we were 15-15. The next year, we started out 7-7, so my first 44 games were .500. Then we won a huge first conference game against Traveca -- a top 10 NAIA team that year -- in old Strickland Gym, which used to sit right around here somewhere. A guy had to miss two free throws with one second to go in order for us to get into overtime. We won in OT, and we started believing we could win. We went 15-1 in conference.
And after a while, it was us and Lipscomb. They had the upper hand, they were a phenomenal NAIA powerhouse. But we challenged them, and by 1994-95 we beat them six times in a row. For the first 10 years, I was just trying to get us to the point when we were good enough for us to beat Lipscomb. At the beginning, everyone at the school was saying, "We've got to beat Lipscomb, we've got to beat Lipscomb." My thought was that we had to get good enough to beat the other teams in the league, and then
we could start thinking about beating the best. That's how good Lipscomb was, and that's the kind of respect that they demanded.
I had one assistant coach who was part-time, and he was hardly paid anything. Now we have a full staff. For the first time last year, I had an administrative assistant. We've got so much support, sometimes I don't know what to do. When you come from that level, and our staff all came from that small-college atmosphere, you appreciate things like being able to ride a bus. I drove a van everywhere when I first started here... I'd drive the team three hours to a game, we'd stop at McDonald's afterwards, and we'd get back to campus at 3 o'clock in the morning. So we really, really appreciate the luxuries of Division I. Even the ones at this level of Division I, which are somewhat more humble than others.TMM: You've been around Belmont so long -- ever since it was just a college -- and the school has quite the history. There's a very well-formed identity here at Belmont, a fiercely independent one. I mean, the team was called the Rebels once. There was a nasty break with the Baptists during your time here. And there are quite a few "only university in the nation" things here, like the music business program. What's Belmont all about, in your opinion?RB:
First of all, the city of Nashville is such a huge plus for us... just about everyone who lives in Nashville will tell you that they love living here. We've had leadership that's really pushed the envelope and paid attention to every detail. Take this building, the Curb Center, for example. We could have settled for less than this, but this is a phenomenal building with a lot of extras, and $50 million went into putting it together. They made sure it was done exactly right, and it's been a huge part of the reason we've had basketball success.
Belmont's had some tough decisions to make. When I came here, it was a Southern Baptist school, under the oversight of the Tennessee Baptist convention. There was chapel five times a month. Slowly, we gained so many students that we didn't have a big enough chapel to put them all in! Sometimes your greatest strengths are your greatest weaknesses. Lipscomb, for example, is affiliated with the Church of Christ. It's their greatest strength, and yet it also may keep them from growing as much as Belmont's grown. We had the same situation with the Baptists. But even when I came here, half our students weren't Baptists, it wasn't as if this was a "Baptist school." You don't start a music business program at a school that's limited to one religious affiliation. Music is going to bring in all kinds!
Music business was a great hook for us. We're literally at the end of Music Row, and that gave us an identity within Nashville. Now, we've got Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley and all the American Idol
contestants who've come through here. Melinda Doolittle was in the mascot suit here, she was Bruiser the Bruin. I didn't even know her until she became famous!
Then we had a Presidential debate in here last year. Everything's just doubling and quadrupling at Belmont. It's just quite a school. It's an exciting place to go to school, and we're in a great city. It's getting to be a very easy place to recruit to.The Bruins travel to Saint Louis next week for a Wednesday night game, return home for Eastern Illinois, and get to think about the December 29 date with Kansas all throughout Christmas break. The next two chapters of the Battle of the Boulevard are scheduled for January 11th (at Lipscomb) and 26th (at Belmont).