I finally got to meet the man that everyone in Athletics called “Coach”. As I walked into his office-which was covered with cut nets and trophies- Coach Byrd emerged from behind his large desk and extended his hand. He asked me to sit at a smaller table and chairs where we could relax. He didn’t want to be behind that large, executive desk. He wanted to sit closer, get on my level, and I could immediately feel a genuine warmth and welcome from one of the best minds in the NCAA. I wanted to get things rolling, to not waste his time, but he asked me about myself for about ten minutes. We spoke about what I studied at Belmont and what I’m doing now. I was a fan, with a little blog- but he treated me like a highly touted recruit or wealthy donor. I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one he did this to, and that this genuine quality is what kept him at Belmont- really caring about people. The interview that follows was full of honesty from a man that exudes quiet resolve, discipline, and a warmth that is infectious. What follows is my interview with the great man, Coach Rick Byrd.
Brett McReynolds: Coach Byrd, you are one of only five active NCAA coaches with over 500 wins at one school. You have clearly accomplished a lot at Belmont University. What would you call your greatest accomplishment?
Coach Rick Byrd: First off, you know that’s a legitimate stat, but not nearly all of them are division one wins. I think it’s a little… you know.. it’s not easy to win NAIA games- so I’m not saying it is less important. But you know, first of all, I’m not the least bit comfortable talking about my accomplishments, but I think the most difficult thing is that we really came in and kind of, um, rebuilt.. what’s the right word? It’s kind of like I had two jobs here at Belmont, one was an NAIA job, I came here the very March that Lipscomb won the [NAIA] National Championship. So, your rival, and what you are going to be compared with, is the best in the business and you got to find a way to be competitive. By the end of ten years we beat them six times in row and had our share of at least even success in the last five years against Lipscomb. But I think going from NAIA to Division 1, and having the success that we have now enjoyed, has got to be sort of the cumulative greatest accomplishment of this program. Because, a lot of people have tried it- I don’t mean people- a lot of schools have tried it- and it’s just not easy. Wofford has been to the Tournament the last two years from the Southern, and they started this five or six years before we did. There are many schools around, Tennessee Tech hasn’t been to the Tournament since 1963, there are a lot of schools around that don’t get to go at all. And certainly a lot that have tried to make this move. So, to make it to the tournament 5 times and win to win 5 regular season championships- in a relatively short time after going Division 1, is something we are proud of.
BM: There were some high expectations for the team this year. Starting off strong against Duke, the year seemed to begin on the right page, but some key losses against USC Upstate and Miami of Ohio, stopped the idea of a 30-win season. How would you compare this team versus last year’s team?
CRB: Well, i’ve spent most of this year trying to talk to our guys about not comparing it, because it’s, it’s a little unfair. 30-5 was a historic year. And, all you had to do was look around to see that hardly anyone else did that, that year. And hardly anybody ever does it. Even though a lot of guys were back, our schedule was pretty obviously tougher. Even though we started with Duke and Memphis on the road, the two games against MTSU and how good they were, and the two games against Marshall- the five game, ten day trip- four of them on the road was a challenge to say the least. So, we lost the two games, and I mean, you didn’t mention the Lipscomb game at home, that was our worst loss. The Upstate loss was bad because we were up 16, but anybody in the league who has tried to win at Upstate could tell you it was a tough one. We should have won the game. But you can look around the country and see the best programs, that’s why it’s impressive to see what Kentucky has done going 18-0 in the SEC, and what Syracuse has been able to do. Usually even the best teams stumble every now and then. And so, with what I think was a much more difficult schedule, I think 27-7 is not too far off from 30-4 this time a year ago.
BM: That being said about the Duke game, can you elaborate on what Coach K said to you after the game?
CRB: I remember the first time we played them in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t, I mean, recall. I may have even talked first. I don’t recall. I think I said to him, “I guess we just can’t beat ya,” or something like that. And certainly his comments in the media room about our team were, I think, honest. You always want to make people feel better, but I think they felt like they literally had not played bad, that they had to play good to beat a good team. I think we knew that night that we had the chance to be a really good team. And, I got a couple of texts after the game, one text that said you aren’t just good, you are “Sweet 16″ good. I think that night reflected that we could be that good, but I don’t think our play in the last six weeks tells us that we can’t be that good.
BM: Since Blake Jenkins started his first game against ETSU, the Bruins have gone on a 14 game winning streak. Talk a little about the 4 position’s evolution throughout this season if you would.
CRB: Yeah, you know that substitution was more about, “let’s find someone that can guard Adam Sollazzo”. He’s a big, penetrating point guard, and as we looked at video leading up to that game, he was totally the focus of their offense. And, he’d end up scoring a lot of points if you helped on him too quickly, then he’d pick you apart. I mean, we had clip after clip of guys getting dunks because their man helped too quick and he fouled the guy. And so, we wanted somebody that would make his scores tougher in one-on-one, and we wouldn’t have to help off those other guys. And Blake is long and athletic and a good defender on the ball, and he did a really good job that night. Adam Barnes came in that night when Blake got tired or in foul trouble and did a good job on him. And then later on, actually Ian did a good job in the tournament game on him. But that was the reason Blake started. If we had started- they were playing four guards and a post player- if we had started Mick and Scott both, which was our starting line-up at the time, neither of them can guard Sollazzo, so we would have had a hard time guarding Sollazzo with anybody. And it just didn’t make sense to even start the game- and I was struggling offensively with both bigs in the line-up. It’s not how we play. We play four out- one in. I was struggling with a way for us to play while they were together. And we did fine that way, but I think it has made us better. Partly it’s because Blake has played well most of the time, but just going back to the four guys that can shoot… Now, you ask about the four position. Brandon and Trevor pretty much shared that spot a year ago, and neither of them have had a decent shooting year, and when you play four out- one in, you’ve gotta have guys making shots. And they both contribute in different ways. This weekend Trevor came in against ETSU when they had two bigs in the lineup and did great, and Brandon didn’t play. And the next night, when Gulf Coast’s 4 was more of a shooter, Brandon came in and did a good job defensively. So we’ve used those guys more about match ups than who is playing better than the other one.
BM: Speaking of Blake, how do you react when a player dunks? Maybe it is just your general steely reserve on the court, but from a fan’s perspective it seems like you may think dunks are a nuisance. Am I wrong here?
CRB: I think, if you try to dunk it, and it’s a harder play than trying to score it with a layup or whatever the other option would be, if there is less chance of the ball going in, I don’t like it. I don’t. To me that’s a selfish play. The same way that throwing a pass behind the back would be if the other way is more effective. If I’ve got a great passer that can throw a behind the back pass in the right place at the right time, then that is okay. You know, my job as a coach is for us to be as effective as we can be. And I have no problem with he, or Scott, or Mick or anyone else that can dunk it. If it’s literally as easy or easier, I wouldn’t know [laughter]- whether its easier or not. But, look, we’ve all seen in our lifetime a whole lot of dunks missed. And who knows whether it is going to be a one-point game or not. That’s how we talk about every possession. If you foul up on defense because you’re not focused and you give up a three-point shot, that is a three-point mistake. If you’ve done the best you can and they run a good play and the kid makes a good shot, that’s one thing. If you’ve lost your focus out there and make a mistake that gives them points, then it is the same thing as missing that dunk, it’s the same thing as missing that pass. That’s what a coach does, he makes his team as effective as they can be. I’m not really interested, I mean, I think our team is an exciting team, but if it weren’t I wouldn’t worry about it if it was good. Does that make sense?
BM: Yeah, that makes complete sense.
BM: Do you think the Lipscomb game is an important event to hold on to as we leave the A-Sun?
CRB: Yes. I think it is. You know, if I could have my own personal way we would never play the game again and it would be alright with me. Because it is a game that creates a lot, at least for me, a lot of pressure. It’s the game that everyone shows up for, that everyone puts emphasis on, and I wish that people felt that way about every game here. I wish the students felt that way, I wish the alumni felt that way, I wish everybody wanted to come to every game we play in here. It almost becomes a little irritating [laugh], you know what I mean. Therefore, when we do have a bad game and lose to them, and our record has not been as good with them as it has been with anyone else in the league. And then, I guess, it’s like the Alabama/Auburn football game. So many people put so much emphasis on that, and you can go 10-0, they don’t really care. You lost to Alabama, or you lost to Auburn. There is some of that with this game that I don’t enjoy. But our plan is to play in both places, two games each year. I think if you have got a game that creates that much interest, a non-conference game that can fill your gym in both campuses it would be crazy not to play the game.
BM: Speaking of Lipscomb, what is up with “Bisons”? Do you think the grammatically incorrect mascot name is a reflection on the institution’s educational priorities, or was it just an initial slip by a really bad editor?
CRB: They’ve changed it though, didn’t they?
BM: Well, they are trying to change it.
CRB: They have, everything they use on their website is Bison. It’s no longer used as “Bisons”.
BM: Well, right. [laughter]
CRB: It sounded like their explanation was, was… kind of murky… “Well, we’re not really changing it.. but”. So I don’t know… [smirking] It’s certainly [laughter], it’s certainly not any of my business as a basketball coach, although my dad was a sportswriter, so it’s important to get things right. You know what, here is what I think; I think it is entirely up to them to call their team whatever they want to call it. We changed from the Rebels to the Bruins one time. So, you know, if they want to become the “Fighting Bison” they want to become the, you know, it’s up to them [laughter], I don’t know. But you know, one of the best signs that our student section ever had was, “Bisons Is Not A Word”. It’s something I’ll always remember seeing.
BM: March Madness is almost upon us. People are, of course, speculating on who Belmont would draw. Who would you rather play out of these four teams: Michigan, Marquette, Georgetown, or Baylor?
CRB: None of the above.
CRB: You know, it would be crazy for me to let you put that in there [smirking], because it is amazing what people find. I would literally, you know, we are so tied up in our own year… I try to watch games because i’m a voter in the USA Today/ESPN thing, is that what it is? So I try to follow up pretty closely, but in terms of trying to find time to watch those teams play, about all I can do is catch glimpses and watch their results. So, at this point I wouldn’t have a good idea who might, or might not, be a good match-up for us. And as soon as somebody thinks it is a good one for us, it usually isn’t and vice-versa. You know, it’s gonna be a top 15 or 16 team that we play, and it will be good.
BM: I really appreciate your time. Thank you.