Basketball Hall of Fame honors Rick Byrd

Marvin Westwestwords

Rick Byrd learned a lot of basketball sitting on the floor at his father’s feet, just under press row at Stokely Center, watching Ray Mears’ Volunteers do their thing.


His sports-writing dad, Ben Byrd, Mears and the old arena are gone but Rick has again honored their memory. Another star has been attached to his spectacular coaching career. He has been elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Rick Byrd (from Belmont University sports)

The National Association of Basketball Coaches announced the class that includes coach Tom Penders and former players Len Bias of Maryland, Hersey Hawkins of Bradley, David Greenwood of UCLA, Antawn Jamison of North Carolina, Paul Pierce of Kansas and Jim Jackson of Ohio State. They will be enshrined next November in Kansas City.

Rick Byrd won 805 games as a college coach – at Maryville, Lincoln Memorial and Belmont. He coached for 42 years. Most of it, 33, was at Belmont. He and the Nashville school sort of grew up together in basketball. He retired last year.

In his last 14 seasons, his Bruins did some remarkable things. They defeated North Carolina, UCLA, Marquette, Cincinnati, Alabama, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Stanford, Butler and Temple.

Byrd’s teams won a whole bunch of conference championships. Eight times he took Belmont to the NCAA tournament.

There was a historic loss: Duke 71, Belmont 70, in 2008. That was the one that turned Mike Krzyzewski’s hair grey.

The coaching profession recognized Byrd for who and what he was. In 2012, he received an NCAA award for lifelong commitment to sportsmanship, ethical conduct and fair play. He served two years as chairman of the NCAA basketball rules committee.

Through the years, larger schools tried to buy Byrd. Belmont asked him to stay. He became a legend. Belmont said thanks. His salary eventually went past a million a year. The court is named in his honor.

Considering his accomplishments and a thousand pats on the back, Rick Byrd remained refreshingly unaffected.

I thought he was a perfect fit for Belmont. He respected academics. His players posted a team grade-point average of 3.0 or higher for three decades.

He was comfortable in the big leagues but never forgot his roots. He was not flamboyant. He was poised and polite, more like John Wooden than Dick Vitale.

Rick and Vince Gill are close friends but neither brags about knowing the other.

In response to the Hall of Fame news, Byrd, as usual, said a lot of right things.

“Coaching basketball was all I ever wanted to do, and coaching college basketball was all I did for 42 years. It was my life-long work to coach young men, and to be honored by my peers for doing something I loved is more than I could have dared to hope for. The game of basketball has given me far more than I could ever give back.”

Pardon me, but this gets personal.

Rick’s father and I were friends for 65 years. He was a sports writer and sports editor for the old Knoxville Journal. I knew Rick’s mother, Jo Ann, from the time Rick was 8, when he started playing biddy basketball at the old Knox High gym. I was the referee.

There was always a warm spot in my heart for the Byrd family. They never yelled at me.

Because I liked the Byrds, I watched with interest as Rick grew up. I remember him playing Little League baseball at Mary Vestal Park. He sold basketball programs at Stokely. He chased a golf ball at Bays Mountain. He played high school baskets at Doyle when Pat Robinette was coach. He saw every sports event that he could work into his schedule.

He became a walk-on junior varsity basketball player at Tennessee. He practiced against the likes of Ernie Grunfeld, Bernard King, Mike Jackson and Rodney Woods.

Rick spent a week as counselor at John Wooden’s camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. It was not an ego trip. He was in awe of the famous names.

He became a graduate assistant coach for Mears. He scouted opponents. No less an authority than Stu Aberdeen once told me “young Byrd is smart.”

I told Stu: “I know him better than you do.”

At age 23, Rick went to Maryville College as assistant coach. At 25, he moved up to head coach. He worked three seasons as an assistant at Tennessee Tech. He became head coach at LMU in 1983. He stayed three seasons and had a surprising record of 69-28.

He went to Belmont before Belmont was big in baskets. There was a time when he drove the team van to road games. When the athletics department was short-staffed, he sold popcorn and soft drinks at the concession stand during women’s games.

Belmont eventually switched from NAIA competition to the NCAA. There were painful growing lessons. Byrd never flinched. He adjusted. He improved as a recruiter. He won.

Now and then I wrote a sentence or two about something he did. Every time, every time, he said thank you.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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