I was disappointed and saddened to learn that revered Belmont basketball coach Rick Byrd retired on April 1.
I wanted it to be an April Fools Day joke. It was not.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to hear Belmont University men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd speak to an early morning gathering of men in Franklin. I spoke with Coach Byrd afterwards and he graciously consented to an interview the following week. I came away from our conversation with an even greater respect for the man and a better understanding of the heart that beats beneath that iconic sweater vest.
The stats have increased since I conducted this interview. Rick Byrd stepped down after coaching Belmont for 33 years. He reached 800 wins back in February. There have been more conference championships, NCAA tourney births, more Academic All-Americans, and more Coach of the Year awards since then. But the important things, the things that really matter to Rick Byrd, have not changed. They’ve only grown in importance and priority.
Coach, you came to Belmont in 1986 so you’ve been coaching there for 28 years. Coaching five years in the same place is unusual now; 28 years is almost unheard of. What is it about Belmont University and the basketball program that has made for such a long-term and apparently pretty happy marriage?
Belmont and I have a number of shared core values and those shared values enable me to recruit and attract the kind of players who will represent the basketball team and the university in a positive way.
There’s also the issue of quality of life. Quality of life isn’t determined by how much money you make. I really love Nashville as a community and over the years we’ve developed some very close friendships here. I also think that as you mature your values change and ego become less important.
You led Belmont to the NAIA championship in your 3rd season, to 6 NCAA Division 1 tournaments. You are one of only 11 active coaches to have 600 career wins, and one of only 5 active coaches to have 500 wins at one school. Your teams have won multiple conference championships, and you’ve collected several Coach of the Year honors. But I’ve heard you say those stats, achievements, awards aren’t the ones that mean the most to you. Which ones do?
As far as achievements on the court, I’d say the conference championships stand out. We’ve won 12 out of the last 16 conference championships. Since 2000 Belmont has placed the most basketball players on the NCAA Division 1 Academic All-American Team. This year J.J. Mann was voted 1st team All-American. Here’s another thing: in the last 10 years not one Belmont player has been dismissed for academic reasons or because of trouble with the law. Those kind of statistics mean a lot to me because academics and character is ultimately more important and lasting than points and victories. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win. But I want to win the right way.
I understand that since 2004 not a single player has quit your program to transfer to another team.
There were 400 transfers in Division 1 basketball last year. According to the NCAA almost 40% of D-1 freshman players won’t be at their original school by the end of their sophomore year. Belmont hasn’t had a single player transfer in 10 years. I think that speaks not only to how special our basketball program is but how players feel about Belmont as a whole. Belmont is a special place.
Who are the coaches who have had the most influence on you — either as a game strategist or as a leader of young men?
John Wooden was a great teacher, not just of basketball fundamentals, he was a teacher about life. Dean Smith was hugely successful and a gentleman, a very humble man. Coach K at Duke is probably the best coach of his generation. I hated seeing Brad Stevens leave Butler for the NBA. College basketball needs more coaches like Brad.
Belmont is not known for having flashy players who make the ESPN highlight reel. In hearing you speak to an audience it is clear that team players, team work, and sportsmanship is a really big deal to you.
I don’t believe in calling a lot of attention to yourself, beating your chest, running down the court flapping your arms like a bird. As Jeff Fisher used to say, “When you get into the end zone act like you’ve been there before.” As a player your job is to make the team look good. The team’s job is to make the university look good. Again, I feel fortunate and blessed to be able to attract the kind of student athletes to our program who understand and uphold that.
Humility and sportsmanship doesn’t get you on SportsCenter. They’ll show a fight but they’re not going to show you a guy helping his opponent up after a collision.
You are competitive and passionate and yet you are respectful to players. I’ve heard you express concern about what you’ve observed in coaching behavior — not just on the college level, but in youth sports. As a coach and a recruiter you see a lot of high school basketball. What encourages you and what concerns you about you’re seeing?
The talent level and athleticism seem to just increase all the time. That’s encouraging. I’m disappointed in the prevalence of profanity used by players and coaches, and I mean coaches using profanity at players. Teachers and professors would get fired for screaming and cussing at a student in the classroom, but coaches get away with it. Principals allow it, athletic directors allow it, and parents allow it. I don’t allow our coaches or players to use profanity during the game, in practices, or in the locker room.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve crossed the line a few times and overreacted in the heat of the moment. Sometimes getting animated is necessary to motivate your team. But it’s almost never positive or productive to lose control.
I’m not sure a lot of coaches see their role as you do.
I work for a university, an institution of higher learning, so I see myself as an educator. I’m not just here to win basketball games. I’m here to educate and prepare young men for life after basketball.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at email@example.com. To read Presson’s previous columns go to www.franklinhomepage.com/?s=ramon+presson