Rick Byrd: Local boy makes good

Marvin WestSouth Knox, westwords

Nobody from Knoxville has been elected president of the United States. I looked it up.

Nobody from Knoxville has carried the Olympic torch at an opening ceremony.

Only one person from Knoxville has ever won 805 games as a college basketball coach. Rick Byrd could have had more but on April 1, at 65, he said “enough already” and hung up his Belmont whistle and picked up his golf clubs.

Eight-oh-five is no putdown of Pat Summitt. I know she won a thousand and more, but Pat was from Clarksville and Henrietta. Rick is from South Knoxville, born and raised across the bridge.

Rick’s dad brought him on Saturday mornings, at age 8, to play biddy baskets at old Knox High, then known as Lamar Street Center. Rick played Little League baseball at Mary Vestal Park. He chased a golf ball at Bays Mountain. He played baskets for Pat Robinette at Doyle High. His mind was a sponge. He saw every sports event that he could work into his schedule.

He had a junior college basketball fling but finished at the University of Tennessee. As a fifth-year senior, he was invited to play on the junior varsity – to practice against Ernie Grunfeld, Bernard King, Mike Jackson and Rodney Woods.

Rick often rubbed shoulders with greatness. He was a counselor at John Wooden’s camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He became a trusted scout for Ray Mears. No less an authority than Stu Aberdeen said “young Byrd is smart.”

Sure was, and doggedly determined and fiercely competitive and very successful. Nice guy, too. He said I wasn’t all that bad as a referee and OK as a sportswriter, almost as good as his dad.

In 1976, Rick became assistant coach at Maryville College at age 23. Pay was $5,000. In 1978, he earned $8,000 as head coach. Tennessee Tech offered more for him to be an assistant. He became head coach at Lincoln Memorial. His record was a very surprising 69-28.

Ambitious coaches fight, scratch and claw to get up the career ladder. Rick moved down, to Belmont in 1986. He and the school sort of grew up together in basketball. The coach drove the team van to road games. When the athletic department was short-staffed, the coach sold popcorn and soft drinks at the concession stand during women’s games.

The world changed. Belmont switched from NAIA competition to join the big boys in the NCAA. There were painful growing lessons, but progress was always obvious.

Several times the coach could have gone elsewhere, but he stayed 33 years. Rick Byrd became a legend. Belmont said thank you. His salary went past a million.

He led the Bruins to eight NCAA tournament appearances in the last 14 years. His teams got votes in national top 25 polls. The Bruins defeated such worthy foes as North Carolina, UCLA, Marquette, Cincinnati, Alabama, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Stanford, Butler and Temple.

He owns a framed newspaper story about a one-point loss to Duke. It never noticeably affected his personality.

The Belmont administration professes pride in Byrd doing his job the right way – no penalties, no investigations. It has applauded academic accomplishments. His players posted a team grade-point average of 3.0 or higher for 18 consecutive years.

You probably didn’t know that Byrd chaired the NCAA basketball rules committee in 2013-15. He received the 2012 NCAA Bob Frederick Award for lifelong commitment to sportsmanship, ethical conduct and fair play.

Byrd really is smart. Not long ago, Kentucky coach John Calipari was talking about what he had learned while watching basketball video with Rick during a Nashville visit.

“If you didn’t know, Rick was one of the best in our business,” Calipari said.

You’d never know Rick Byrd was famous, perhaps destined for the Hall of Fame. He is very much as he has always been.

“Integrity. Class. Kind,” said country music star Vince Gill, a golfing buddy and passionate fan. “Pretty good words to describe Coach. About as good a friend as I’ve ever met.”

Byrd, who turns 66 on April 30, finds it interesting that professional success occurred elsewhere “but more than 90 percent of what I learned about athletics came from growing up in Knoxville.”

He mentioned being the son of sportswriter Ben Byrd, access to sports events, meeting players and coaches, selling programs (25 cents each) before UT games, watching Danny Shultz, A.W. Davis, Ron Widby, Bill Justus, Jimmy England plus all the great opponents and even coach Adolph Rupp. Working for Mears was really big.

Rick’s roots are real. Maybe you can tell he is my kind of guy.

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

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