— Avid college basketball fans can rattle off all the familiar names of coaches high on the victory charts. And they can do so without looking at any list or record book. Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Bob Huggins, Roy Williams, Bo Ryan and Rick Pitino are just a few of the household names who have become symbols of success during this high holiday known as March Madness.
How about Rick Byrd? His team is in the NCAA Tournament. He has 610 career victories, which ranks 12th among active Division I coaches. Only five head coaches have longer tenures at their respective schools than Byrd. And only six coaches in the NCAA Tournament have won more games than Byrd.
Byrd’s not alone on that list either. There are plenty of “good guy” coaches in the field who will be trying to take an extra step in their career. Ryan, who has a 12-9 NCAA record, is one of them.
Popular Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon might be the best active coach who still hasn’t reached a Final Four. There was plenty of heartache in 2009 when Pitt reached Elite Eight but lost to Villanova — sending Jay Wright to his first Final Four.
Staying in the Big East, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey is in his 16th season as a head coach. He has never won more than two games in a single NCAA Tournament but he has an experienced team that is playing some of the best ball in the nation. Brey, 5-8 in NCAA play, has worked hard for the game of basketball, chairing the rules committee and running a clean program. Many people would be ecstatic to see Brey reach his first Final Four.
BYU coach Dave Rose has Jimmer Fredette, considered by many to be the national Player of the Year. In 2010, Rose won the Most Courageous Award from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association for his triumph over pancreatic cancer. There would be a lot of fans, coaches and reporters inspired by Rose if he makes a deep run in the tournament.
But if you are looking for a Cinderella, one coach who has put in his time, done it the right way, and might have his best team yet … Byrd is your guy.
Never heard of him? Do you know which team he coaches? If you root for Wisconsin, it’s time to get educated.
Rick Byrd coaches the Belmont Bruins. And they are in the field this season to do some damage. The Bruins are the No. 13 seed in the Southeast and their top priority is to defeat No. 4 Wisconsin, out of the Big Ten.
Get used to this, Wisconsin fans: Belmont will be a popular pick to upset the Badgers.
Maybe it’s all coming back to you. Maybe you don’t remember Byrd’s name, but Belmont rings a bell. That’s because tiny Belmont, that Atlantic Sun Conference champion from Nashville, almost clocked Duke back in 2008. The Bruins were a No. 15 seed and Coach K’s team was a No. 2. Final score from the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.: Duke 71, Belmont 70. The Bruins used backdoor cuts and some real heady play to keep things close all the way to the finish.
“Watching them on tape, they looked really good,” Krzyzewski said after surviving that one. “Watching them in person, they’re even better.”
Credit that to outstanding coaching by Byrd. Krzyzewski knows. If there’s a coach in Division I who doesn’t know, well … bad on him.
Bo knows. Wisconsin’s Ryan has 623 career wins, just ahead of Byrd, but trailing Coach K (898), Boeheim, (855), Calhoun (849), Huggins (690) and Williams (640) in this NCAA field.
“If you’re looking for feel-good stories, what about a guy like Rick Byrd, who has done it for so many years down at Belmont,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “Rick Byrd won his 600th game this year. You’d like to see maybe a team like that go out and shock one of the Goliaths; seeing the little guy being able to stand up against the giants who are on TV and become soap opera stars.”
Wisconsin will be that giant, but the TV cameras probably will be focused on country singer Vince Gill sitting behind the Belmont bench. Gill and Amy Grant are high-profile fans of the Bruins. But this isn’t "Entertainment Tonight." Belmont has a serious basketball team and the coach is the real star.
Byrd is one of the consummate professionals in the coaching profession. By all accounts, he plays by the rules, graduates his players and simply runs an old-fashioned college program that wins consistently. He is well liked and respected by his peers. This is one of those guys they secretly pull for. They want Byrd to win in the NCAA because they know he works hard.
They just don’t want to say that on the record. What happens if you are Bo Ryan and you draw Belmont on your dance card? You don’t want the printed word to come back and bite you. You don’t want to be rooting for the guy on the other sideline.
Take Belmont lightly if you want. But the Bruins are 30-4 with two losses to Tennessee, a loss to Vanderbilt, and their last loss, Jan. 25 at Lipscomb. Since then they’ve won 12 straight, including an 87-46 destruction of North Florida in the conference championship game.
When the Bruins began preseason practice, Byrd and his staff saw very little difference between any of his scholarship players. So he tweaked his system and then let things evolve. No Belmont player averages 25 minutes and 11 play at least 10 minutes. According to the Nashville Tennessean, Byrd substituted 59 times in the final of the Atlantic Sun tournament.
Think about that. And I dare you to find another coach in the NCAA field who is using giving significant minutes to 11 players at this stage of the season. That is depth. And depth counts in the NCAA.
“I don't really know what to say about this team," Byrd said after the North Florida game. "Thirty wins was just not even thought about. For guys to agree and play as hard as they can for you in a new system, that we all just kind of fell into this year, is so unselfish. It takes a level of unselfishness for guys one through 12 or 13 to all do that and do it without complaint.
“I couldn't coach a better team.”
And Belmont couldn’t have a better coach.
Byrd is a throwback. He arrived at Belmont in 1986 — the same season Calhoun left Northeastern to turn things around at UConn. But until Belmont decided to join the NCAA, Byrd was focused on turning the program into an NAIA powerhouse. He led Belmont to five NAIA national tournament appearances. The NAIA tournament is wall-to-wall basketball, from early in the morning to late at night, and it can serve as a developmental playground for aspiring coaches. Byrd obviously learned a lot.
Byrd’s NAIA success allowed him to build respect around the nation. After five seasons as an NCAA independent, Belmont joined the Atlantic Sun in 2001. And now the Bruins are headed to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time.
Belmont’s dream season was 2005-06 when they made that first NCAA appearance and lost to eventual runner-up UCLA in the first round. Belmont rushed to an 18-12 lead, but managed only 21 second-half points on the way to a 78-44 loss. The next tournament brought a loss to Georgetown and the following season the Bruins threw that extreme scare into Duke, only to lose.
Gill told The New York Times recently he still remembers the ovation the crowd gave Belmont, for a game it lost. And Byrd told the newspaper the Duke game still keeps him awake at night. Byrd wishes he had made an adjustment, done something to put Belmont on that top that day.
And the Belmont Bruins might be one of the toughest first-round outs invited to this party. Hear that Wisconsin? You’ve been warned.