- Abraham Lincoln
CHARLESTON, Ill. - In an alternate universe where the Mid-majority is king - and not the evil one where we root for the biggest schools with the humongous athletic budgets - Rick Byrd would be a Hall of Famer and household name. He would have all the endorsement deals
, all the name recognition, television announcers would fawn over him like he was curing cancer or thwarting terrorism.
To be fair, there are enough college basketball fans who know Byrd, including us
, these days and know what he's accomplished. To start with a mediocre NAIA team nearly three decades ago, driving the bus among other duties, to becoming one of the most consistent Division I programs in the country
- all at the same school
- is nothing short of remarkable.
Even worse than the NAIA days may have been the four years of Independent status in Division I, culminating in the 2000-01 campaign: no championships to play
for and impossible to make a schedule (the 2000-01 season ended on Feb. 21). But after a tough transition season into the Atlantic Sun, Belmont had not posted a losing mark since, either overall or in conference. This season, Byrd and the Bruins have 20 wins for the seventh time in eight seasons (and eight in 10). They've been to the NCAA Tournament five of the last seven years.
But they haven't won there yet. And so they and their coach's staggering record stay under the radar of most. It almost wasn't that way. Five years ago, as a No. 15 seed, they had Duke just about down and out, but couldn't quite finish it off
. Even for Rick Byrd, this game will hurt you sometimes.
Alas, in the alternate universe, Belmont and Byrd would also be a huge draw on the road, but attendance was announced at only 795 Wednesday night at Eastern Illinois' Lantz Arena. The Panthers - under first-year coach Jay Spoonhour were in the midst of a 12-game losing streak the last time I saw them in Nashville
, but had managed to (miraculously based on the performance I saw Wednesday) win
five of eight in conference, including an upset of Murray State four days prior (which drew 2,500 people to Lantz).
Spoonhour instituted an interesting Senior Night policy: With three seniors, he gave them each one of the last
three home games. So even though there was a game left, this was Malcolm Herron's night.
With the price difference only $5 this time, I decided to splurge for a floor seat, ending up in the third row near center court. My seat was two in from the aisle, but it being 45 minutes before the game, I sat next to the walkway because I was soon going to get up and tour the place.
"Can I see your ticket, sir?"
There was one other person in the entire section, and there was really no way to sneak down to the lower seats without jumping a railing and going down 10 feet. "Sure, I guess."
"I know the guy who sits in that seat. He'll be here, just so you know."
"Well, I'll scoot over. Don't worry."
"Well, just so you know, don't get too comfortable."
He never came, of course.
If he skipped out on the penultimate home game of the season because he figured the Murray State might be the apex of the campaign, it might have been a good call.
Although Danny Hurley has a more high-profile job at Rhode Island, there are some comparisons to be made between him and Jay Spoonhour this season. Both have famous coaching fathers, and both took over programs this spring that they felt needed just about a complete overhaul, meaning this season was going to be a struggle no matter how you sliced it. Both also, however, have reasonably high-profile transfers sitting on their benches all season looking to make an impact next season
To compensate this year, Hurley and Spoonhour have employed a somewhat deliberate offense, and each has had some success in the latter portions of the campaign (ironically, Hurley's biggest upset was at Saint Louis, while Jay's father Charlie is best known and probably best loved).
A record of 8-20 is normally one that makes people ask questions, but judging by the two times I saw the Panthers this season, they may have overachieved a little. Wednesday, the Panthers trailed only 7-6 at the first media time out after a superhoop by freshman Alex Austin. And it was all downhill from there.
It was a joy to watch Belmont's offense (currently 17th in the nation in scoring) go to work. The Bruins don't have a regular over 6-foot-7 (sophomore Chad Lang played sparingly and is listed at 6-foot-11, 275 pounds, although I think the 2 was meant to be a 3, although Chad got up and down the floor pretty well in his limited time and took the heckling from the crowd with aplomb as well), but as you see with another tremendous shooting team like Lehigh, generally have five players who can shoot. With the perimeter having to be guarded, the middle was wide open for senior Trevor Noack. When they tried to double him, he would just kick the ball out for an open superhoop or drive.
Rinse, repeat. And add in getting open looks on kick-outs in transition.
With the game quickly spiraling out of control, the only thing Spoonhour (neither Spoonhour nor Byrd wore a tie, by the way, which must break some kind of coaching union dress code policy) could think to do was get a technical foul. Only the official nearest to him refused to grant him his wish, no matter how far he came onto the floor. Finally, with Spoonhour nearing the logo in the middle of the court, an official from the far side obliged.
It was 42-20 by halftime, which led to one of the more unique halftime acts I'd seen. Eastern Illinois (with a sponsorship) was giving $1,000 to its most talented student. But you only had 45 seconds to do it. There were five groups and a panel of judges.
Who do you think won? The dance group:
The Irish dancer (sorry, Irish dancing is tough to get in focus):
Or the rock band:
If you guessed Irish dancer, give yourself a hand:
The second half didn't get any better. It was 66-29 midway through before Byrd emptied his bench, settling for a 31-point final margin. Amazingly, one of the players I came to see, Ian Clark, one of the top scorers in the nation and recently shooting 50 percent from behind the arc this season, was only 2-of-11 from the field, 2-of-8 on superhoops and had just six points. Second-leading scorer Kerren Johnson had just a single point (but did have eight assists). Yet their team won in a rout on the road anyway.
We often decide whether we like someone by the impressions we get from limited contact with them, and having watched Spoonhour for two games now, he came off as a little arrogant, rarely smiling, constantly scowling at something or someone during the contest.
Because it is only an hour from Terre Haute to Charleston, I arrived early enough to check out the campus in the afternoon, walking in to see Belmont finish its shootaround. Spoonhour was there wandering around the EIU offices with his young son in tow, and it was a different Spoonhour.
After the game, Spoonhour went on EIU radio, staring at the stats for a second before looking out at his kids running around on the Lantz Arena floor and smiling. A loss like this was surely tempered by the Murray State win and the fact that this season is just about over and he can start to put a team of his players on the floor rather than one he inherited.
It's a long way from Las Vegas to Charleston, Ill., population 21,000, which is as about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Division I, but it will be interesting to watch whether he can make Eastern Illinois a contender in the coming years. I stumbled across two videos of Spoonhour, one from his introductory press conference at Eastern Illinois (best known, by the way, for its football alumni: Tony Romo, Sean Payton, and Mike Shanihan), another from the postgame against his dad's former team, Saint Louis.
In the first (where he's wearing a tie), you can get a feel for what almost every new coach deals with in Our Game. Normally, they're not getting the job because the team was in great shape before they took it. In the second, you see Jay answering questions about his dad with Jim Crews, currently leading Saint Louis to the top of the Atlantic-10.
Although most don't have relatively famous and beloved coaching fathers like Spoonhour, there are or will be probably dozens of coaches that will be looking to rebuild (or build) programs, all competing against one another for real estate that only a few can have.
Byrd doesn't have to worry about such things anymore. His name was mentioned when the Tennessee job opened last year (he's from Knoxville), but after 27 years, he's probably at Belmont until he retires.
This season's squad is hovering around the NCAA Tournament bubble (with a massive game against Ohio Saturday) should it not win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in its first year as a member. Should some kind of poetic justice get its way, with a senior-laden squad, this would be the year where Byrd finally breaks his NCAA drought, and Rick Byrd gets to grace everyone's television set for a couple of days.
Of course, as Byrd would probably be the first to tell you, he didn't take a job at NAIA Belmont back in 1986 to become famous or to gain national attention. He wanted to coach basketball and help young men prepare for life. With Belmont, he's been almost as successful in the latter category as he has the former.
Cancel that alternate universe, I guess. This one's just fine for Rick Byrd, thanks.
As Ian McCormick and a couple of others have pointed out, this is my 100th game recap for Mid-majority this season. Like Byrd, I'm not in it for the attention, I'm just having fun, but if you've read many or most of the recaps, thank you for your support. And Ian isn't too far behind, so he deserves a lot of credit as well, as do all the great writers this season on Mid-majority. It should be a fun final month.