Belmont University’s Rick Byrd, who has some local ties in the tri-state area, has been coaching basketball for a long time and he sure knows how to win.
While his Bruins dropped to UK in a recent 93-80 setback at Rupp Arena, Byrd and his squad earlier managed to stun North Carolina 83-80 in November. They are doing pretty well this winter with a 10-6 record entering this week’s action.
And Belmont, a private institution in Nashville with about 6,600 students, is one of only three NCAA Division I schools to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament six of the last eight years (Kansas and Memphis are the other teams.)
Going into this season with 663 career victories, 60-year-old Byrd ranks No. 8 among all active Division I head coaches in wins. In addition, only three head coaches in the country have been at their respective institutions longer than Byrd, who is now in his 28th year as the Belmont boss.
His last coaching stop before Belmont?
Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate.
If you remember, he was the head basketball coach at LMU for three years during the mid-1980s, compiling an overall record of 69-28 for a winning percentage of 71.
A former student assistant coach under legendary Ray Mears at Tennessee, Byrd said he basically had no connections with LMU when he took the job in Harrogate in 1983.
“No one influenced me (to come to LMU),” Byrd recalled in an e-mail with this columnist. “I was an assistant at Tennessee Tech, had been a head coach at Maryville College, missed having my own team and applied for the job.
“(I) interviewed with (then-LMU AD) Elaine Minton at McDonald’s in Cookeville and got the job.”
Current LMU AD Roger Vannoy, who himself was also a successful longtime head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team with 463 career victories, praised Byrd and watched portions of the Kentucky-Belmont game, which was televised on ESPNU. Understandably, he had to cheer for Byrd to do well at Rupp Arena.
“He was very successful here at LMU in his three seasons from 1983-1986,” Vannoy said. “His teams went 22-10, 26-9 and 21-9. They won the VSAC (Volunteer State Athletic Conference) championship that last year.
“I remember Rick as an excellent teacher of the game and certainly a ‘class act’ person. I still remember watching his teams practice and how great he was as a teacher of the game. I always picked up things from my male coaching counterparts over my coaching career and Coach Byrd certainly was a great source of information.”
Byrd, whose father Ben Byrd was a well-respected Knoxville sportswriter, said he learned a lot from his early days at LMU, which now competes in NCAA Division II.
“In my time there, I was able to compete against some very good basketball coaches and that certainly helped me to grow as a young head basketball coach,” said Byrd, whose Belmont team is a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.
Byrd said he and his assistant Jeff Cheek were fortunate to inherit some excellent players when they arrived at LMU, and they were able to add some quality players to the program.
Byrd added that some of his favorite LMU memories included winning the conference title and playing David Lipscomb twice for the right to go to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City.
“Unfortunately, we lost both times, and in 1986 Lipscomb won the NAIA title,” he said. “I also remember defeating Cumberland (now the University of Cumberlands) in my last year there when they were ranked No. 1 in the nation.”
Over the years, Byrd’s graciousness and humility have endeared him to the fans and media members. And Vannoy certainly agrees with that assessment.
“I know he loved country music and so when Belmont called…. Well, he just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go the heart of country music. As they say, I guess the rest is history,” said Vannoy.
“There are not nearly enough men with his character in the coaching profession. I would summarize by saying, that if I had a son I would love for him to play for Coach Rick Byrd.”
In 2012, Byrd received the NCAA Bob Frederick Sportsmanship Award for his lifelong commitment to ethical conduct and fair play.
Byrd, who grew up in Knoxville, went to UT and was an honors student during the mid-1970s. As mentioned previously, he also served as a student assistant coach for the Vols.
“I learned a lot from observing Coach (Ray) Mears and while I was in school at UT I practiced with the Tennessee team for two years and really got to see how a program works up close,” commented Byrd.
“As a kid, I saw Adolph Rupp’s teams play, Roy Skinner’s teams at Vanderbilt play and was always impressed with the kind of man that C.M. Newton was as coach at both Alabama and Vanderbilt.”
Asked about his retired sportswriter/father, Ben Byrd, the younger Byrd said, “My dad is closing in on 90 years of age and both he and my mom are living in Knoxville. He really enjoys watching or listening to our games as well as following Brian Scott, a NASCAR driver who my brother Emmett works for.
“He was a great writer who reported on what happened on the court or on the field, and stayed away from the critical nature of today’s sports journalism. We could use a lot more like him.”
Moments after his Wildcats defeated Belmont in December, UK coach John Calipari took the time during his post-game news conference to laud Byrd, who currently serves as the chairman of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee.
“I’ve known him for a number of years now,” said the UK coach. “I can tell you he’s not a good coach; he is a great coach. (He) could coach wherever he’d want to coach. To build a program, to take it from where it was to the next step, to go in and beat North Carolina, (go to the) NCAA Tournament games, I just have the utmost respect for him. He knows that, and I’ve told him that many times.”
By the way, Byrd and Calipari have strong NCAA Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores to their credit. According to Belmont’s pre-game notes for the Kentucky contest, the Bruins have posted perfect 1,000 scores seven of the last eight years, while Calipari has been 975 or higher five of the last six years (at Memphis and UK).
Byrd and his Bruins will make a return trip to the state of Kentucky when they travel to Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond for a Thursday night date on Jan. 16 with the Colonels.
And you can watch them on ESPNU, beginning at 7:00 p.m.
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Meanwhile, on a personal note, you probably wouldn’t have seen this particular column written if an old friend hadn’t mentioned Byrd’s early days at LMU.
The person who reminded me was Neill Morgan, a former sports editor for the Middlesboro Daily News for nearly 20 years.
After the UK-Belmont contest, photographer Wayne Mason and I visited him at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore where he is a resident.
We briefly talked about the game and Morgan mentioned Byrd, pointing out the Belmont mentor had coached at LMU many years ago.