SALT LAKE CITY -- This is the team that lets you down. This is the upset pick that never comes to be. This is the Belmont Bruins. And this is the man who coaches them, Rick Byrd.
He is a man who will easily win 700 games -- maybe 800 -- in his career. He has coached this program for 28 seasons -- in the NAIA and then when the team was essentially kicked out before it was ready or eligible for its transition to Division I. But in the decade-and-a-half since Belmont became a D-I school, Byrd's created a mid-major power out of the Nashville-based program.
He's a respected coach who's seemingly figured out the formula for dominant success at the mid-league level. Since the team's first NCAA tournament bid in 2006, it's won 20 games every year save the one where it won 19.
Six bids in eight seasons. A school-record No. 11 seed in 2013. Yet now Belmont's becoming associated with the negative, so Byrd gets stuck with that by proxy as well. The winless record in the tournament. They're now the team that can't get it done. Don't buy into Belmont. That's become the belief, now more than ever after the Bruins couldn't keep it close against Arizona this year, ultimately falling 81-64 in the Round of 64.
Byrd is now 0-6, tied with Oliver Purnell for second-most appearances without an NCAA tournament victory. Those two sit only behind Don Corbett (North Carolina A&T) and Mike Vining (Louisiana-Monroe), two men who you've probably never heard of who finished their careers with seven NCAA tournament visits and seven subsequent losses.
Many just see the Belmont name and the here-then-gone. Oh, that team. They don't see how different this team is, how many teams would've failed to really alter their system with an older but different group. But Belmont always has an older group. That's one of the key advantages. Byrd recruits from a much smaller pool. He has to bat .750 instead of .300 when it comes to signing kids, the right kids. Belmont kids. Byrd's assistants call him "non-negotiable" in the recruiting process. It's a big reason why Belmont's had no transfer trouble. That's part of how you get to six NCAA tournaments in eight years.
"He'd rather not be Gonzaga or Butler if it means comprising standards," assistant Mark Price said. Byrd doesn't allow cursing from his players, not around him -- ever. Practices, games, any time. He also cares about his players' appearance and wardrobe. He no longer likes headphones in team situations of any kind because they prevent communication.
When the team transitioned in the mid-'90s to the highest level, there were plenty of people who told Byrd taking junior-college players would be near-mandatory. The players with baggage would be a necessity in order to get the program off the ground. Byrd ignored that. To this day he doesn't go along with the things that should be mandated, like spring workouts, gym sessions or staying on campus in the summer to subversively coerce team to be together. A coach's quiet oppressive tactic. Byrd doesn't have that. He promotes variety of lifestyle. He wants young humans who are good men who happen to enjoy life and are good at basketball. It's why his players don't get sick of him. It's why Belmont's on your TV every March with seniors on the floor.
Instead of the one-and-out, see the team that's won seven out of the past eight possible conference championships (regular season and conference). It's graduated from the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley. That incredible Florida Gulf Coast story in this year's bracket? It probably doesn't happen if Belmont doesn't get tired of bullying the A-Sun (where FGCU plays) and opts to upgrade leagues.
One year in the OVC and there wasn't much difference. Belmont's lost five conference games the past three seasons -- total -- thanks to kids like Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, who are now men. The starting backcourt was randomly assigned as roommates four years ago and have become best friends. Clark, the school's all-time leading scorer, credits Byrd for changing his outlook and attitude. He was heralded as a freshman, got big minutes right away and scored 21 points in his first game. But he didn't want to listen to anybody when he got to the program. He kept a lot of his stubbornness to himself. In time, Byrd changed him, kind of like the way Byrd changed himself.
Johnson describes his relationship with Byrd for his freshman and sophomore years as a business one. Just coach and a player. Johnson talks as if that was his fault. And in the past two years, growth for him and love for coach.
"And he taught me more in becoming a better player than I could get in taking 1,000 shots a day," Johnson said.
When you learn these things you realize all the more impressive Belmont's success has been. But most don't care about that. March is here for winning and building an image. And Belmont is still the team that can't. It's long removed from the loveable, unknown group that scared Duke to death as a No. 15 and fell 71-70 during the 7 p.m. Friday window in 2008. That was the program's third straight NCAA tournament.
The second three-peat for a bid occurred this year.
"It's about this team, right now," Byrd says the day before the game.
This time, there's a four-year winning streak for the Ohio Valley on the line that Belmont's inherited.
"We are not just a get-to-the-tournament program anymore," Johnson says.
To see a team and its coaches in the hours leading up to such a big game, it's then you see why storylines can live in the margins. Byrd goes over tape and the room is quiet. As well-behaved a group as you could expect to see. I've never been around a more prepared and older-acting group of young men than this.
"I can't tell you how important it is to show our jersey in the gap," Byrd says while scrolling through video prep. Belmont will not be able to show a lot of jersey 30 hours from now, against the athleticism of Arizona. The scouting report, compiled by associate head coach Brian Ayers, had 24 defensive and 13 offensive clips pulled from Synergy. The session takes 17 minutes. On game day it will be even more extensive and detailed.
"Rick Byrd is one of the great coaches in our game, and their style is a nightmare when you watch it," Arizona coach Sean Miller says.
The players go from the Hilton in downtown Salt Lake City to practice in the suburbs where, again, the players listen -- and look. Seeing Byrd out there on the floor, he's the smallest man and also the tallest man. He's not an inch above 5-8, but no player talks unless talked to. It's just understood. Byrd isn't domineering. He's just focused and direct in a kind way. Very clear. The team breezes through an hour-long, streamlined practice session.
At dinner that night, sitting with his coaches, wife, children and their significant others, Byrd is a man at ease because it's not game day yet. The night before, he's fine. And he'll sleep fine. But on game day, he's fidgety with existence, a blender in his stomach until the ball is tipped.
"I always see the ways other teams can beat us," he says.
He's a man with much more friends outside the coaching profession than in it. A man remarried around the time this team started making NCAA tournaments. He paces himself through his ziti and meatballs that he won't come close to finishing and talks about how this success (not his, the program's) has been possible, in part, because of his attitude change.
|Byrd has become a calmer figure in recent years. (AP)|
It used to be Byrd was an emotional cannon. He is no longer an angry man. He points to and admires Butler coach Brad Stevens (a common trait of most coaches) for this. He said in Stevens he's seen, learned, watched and been able to tone down his anger. In the past he's completely lost himself. It's a strange thing to see a man test his seams while wearing a sweat vest (a Byrd staple for game days).
"You're in your own world and don't even realize the things going on around you at that point, in that moment," Byrd says.
He wears that anger away now, as approaches his 60th birthday next month.
"It'll still come out occasionally, not as much," says Byrd, "and the players don't see it coming sometimes. Because I'm not that way in practice. But in practice, there's no win or lose."
The Arizona game played out to a boring butt-kicking. The Wildcats were just better and are just better. Byrd acknowledged that freely afterward. Sometimes basketball can be simple, and despite all the prep, Belmont did not have the size or the shots fall to keep pace. The lead-up to these games have so much around them. Anxiety, preparation, more than a thousands scenarios possible. And then the tip comes, two hours blur by and like that -- a season is done.
Belmont was a trendy upset pick again. Plenty of people wonder: If it doesn't happen for Belmont in this year, when will it? Is Byrd going to break the notorious record?
"I'd rather break the record than go 1-1 or never get back," Byrd said. "I do hope we break that record. And if [people] want to talk about that or be critical, then let's talk about the other 185 teams in that (six-year) span who haven't made the tournament."
It's a matter of perspective for Byrd. Most people commenting on his team don't see it for all but maybe two or three games in a year. When no one's looking, Belmont's winning.
"It's probably why I don't need to be coach at Arizona, Kentucky or Carolina," he said.
Byrd dealt with an operating budget near the bottom of the Atlantic Sun that amounted to about one-fifth as much as the average major conference team's spending allowances. He still won. He walked into a tradition-proud Ohio Valley Conference and didn't miss a beat. But come March, here we are again.
"We've gotta get over this," Clark says as he prepares to leave his last locker room as a player.
The locker room is filtering out at EnergySolutions Arena. It's not the scene of sorrow or tears or anger that pervades a lot of losing locker rooms come this time of year. There is plenty of self-respect. The way these players carry themselves is the reflection of Byrd, who insists everyone sees the big picture.
"If we don't win, it's not the end of your life," Byrd said.
Now it's getting late and the team has to go. Really, they've gotta rush because their plane will be taking off at 11 p.m., back to Nashville. That's how fast the season finishes. In Utah, ready to play at 5:15 p.m. and back on the ground at home less than eight hours later. Byrd's got plans to golf. He'll do a lot of that in the offseason.
And then he'll begin his third wave with a new class of Belmont kids, trying to figure out why winning one game has become so much harder than getting the 26, 27, 30 that came before it.