|Ian Clark has been a consistent performer since arriving at Belmont in 2009. (US Presswire)|
You want an exercise in visual fatigue? Click this link. That's our ongoing, ever-updating, not-yet-fully-bloated list of college basketball players who have transferred out of their programs this year. The list is more than 300 names deep.
It's expected to easily blow past the 400 mark in the coming weeks. If it encroaches on 500, that will most certainly be a record, and endemic to the over-arching hoops pandemic: the transfer rate has reached a virus-like level at every level in Division I.
Yet one particular coach and program remain as healthy as ever: Rick Byrd's Belmont Bruins. The program hasn't had a guy on scholarship leave to play elsewhere in almost nine years. College basketball has seen more than 350 head-coaching changes and God knows how many more player transfers (it's easily more than 2,000) in that time frame. The last Bruins transfer, his name was John Morningstar, and he parted ways with the program in December of 2003.
Since then? Byrd's taken Belmont to every NCAA tournament in program history (there's been five trips, all since 2006), won more than 20 games seven times and never finished worse than third in the Atlantic Sun. Outside of an obvious choice like Butler (and Brad Stevens has a similar low retention rate, naturally) Belmont is the model for achievement and consistency in college basketball. Not merely mid-major college basketball, but every tier within the sport.
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The national champions in the past decade haven't been able to dodge the recall on roll call that's increased in recent years. Kentucky's had a whopping 17 guys sign waivers to get away from the program since 2003. UConn's had 14 players ditch. Duke's number is now at seven in the wake of freshman forward Mike Gbinije's goodbye. Syracuse has had two transfers and a few others who've left the program as nomads (Billy Edelin, hello). UNC's had four (all from California) transfer out.
That's the big boys. You might think it unfair to compare Belmont to UConn. Fine, look at like-minded schools. Peruse that transfer list again. Look at how many tiny teams are on it, teams located in places you couldn't find on a map. Just as many, if not more, players want to bolt on tiny towns as the big boys want to hopscotch from one BCS program to another.
Then there's Belmont with a bagel. It's a program that continues to win, doesn't recruit misfits, avoids personnel problems and suspensions, and has a coach that's almost universally respected in his profession. How does Byrd pull this off?
"There's a lot of reasons, but one of them is, you're just fortunate and lucky -- or some might not say it's even lucky, because I think there are good reasons for kids to transfer," Byrd said. "Most of the time that would fall under the category where they went to play, their opportunity to play wasn't what they wanted or expected, or they may not like the food in the cafeteria, the housing, the city the school is located in."
Expectations. Byrd manages them as well as any coach in college basketball. Considering transferring is trendy in just about every intercollegiate scholarship sport now, the argument could be made Byrd's among the best coaches in college sports at keeping his kids in check. He hasn't let his smaller program be frayed by transfers like others because the machine he's built positively feeds off itself with each year. The upperclassmen never stop showing up.
Byrd's recruits aren't promised the world, and so Belmont has continual, cyclical, better on-the-floor leadership. That leads to more mini-coaches-by-proxy and fewer problems on the team. No problems? No transfers. Upperclassmen let the players know what Belmont is about and police it with expectations as much as the coaching staff.
Another reason why little festers for Byrd's program: he recruits players without egos, who weren't necessarily huge go-to guys in high school or AAU, and truly fit perfectly within Byrd's system. Byrd's made a habit of recruiting players who are excellent 2-point scorers; the long-distance shooters have been there, but not in bunches, and certainly not with trigger-happy tendencies. There are no ball hogs and me-first guys on his teams.
Within the A-Sun (note: Belmont moves to the Ohio Valley this summer), Belmont's been the Poobah because the types of players Byrd's been getting aren't dreaming of playing for high-major programs. What do high-major programs bring? Yes, high-major expectations, but also high-major promises. Top-150 guys want playing time. When they don't get it, frustration ensues. Locker rooms become tenser. Upperclassmen lose a grip on the floor. Transferring seems, unfortunately, inevitable. Even if a coach at a big-time school does everything else right, the one thing he can't do is change human nature: players want to play, especially after they're promised playing time.
Byrd avoids getting into this coaching quagmire of juggling egos by slow-boiling his recruitment. He doesn't chase fast and hard. He doesn't need to be the first guy to get to know a recruit. He doesn't offer a recruit after seeing him play once or twice. He's diligent, but also patient. Basically, he's not ready to marry after the first or second date. It's a philosophy that may cost him a player now, but will not cost him one later, after that player has earned and worn a Belmont jersey. In Byrd's mind, that's when it's most important to hold on to your recruits.
"There have been three or four kids in that time that I think might make that decision [to transfer]," Byrd said. "I will help a player transfer if thinks it's best for him — in a heartbeat."
But it's never happened because Byrd's teams are consistently, almost boringly, complete. They're really fun to watch, but Belmont's void of any drama. We'll see what the OVC brings, but in recent years, Belmont's just blowtorched the A-Sun and been the nation's best-kept secret in terms of efficient, predictable basketball. The coaches aren't profane to players in public or in practice. Suspensions are seldom and almost always related to a grade/test in a class. Byrd said he's almost never had a player sit out due to a disciplinary issue, and a technical foul is called on one of his players about as often as one of them transfers out of the program.
Byrd is as proud of this track record as he is of the five NCAA tournament appearances in the past seven years. It's a big part of his recruiting pitch: we win league titles and guys don't leave our program. There aren't four coaches in the country who can claim that.
"It tells you as much about the program as anything else," Byrd said. "But I think that measures a lot more than Belmont basketball. It measures the overall experience of going to school there. It measures the city of Nashville, which is a huge plus."
The transfer issue is something we're going to get more and more into this spring and summer on CBSSports.com. Coaches have varying opinions on how bad it is (or if it's even bad at all). Byrd's not happy with what he sees. What he sees is more and more coaches sacrificing their time and the futures of players to recruit by any means necessary, consequences be damned.
"I think coaches should do a better job of that," Byrd said. "I think there are too many coaches that make a decision based entirely upon what a young man can do to help you win a basketball game, regardless of what's in the best interest of that young man or the university as a whole. I believe we have a responsibility to Belmont to recruit a young man of character that will enhance Belmont University by their performance and behavior. I don't know if you can say what we've done proves anything, but it has given us a chance to be really successful on the floor."
Successful on the floor and on the recruiting trail. Respect on and off both of those terrains as well. You want to know why the style of play in college basketball isn't as good now as it was 20 years ago? It's not the early exits to the NBA. It's the ever-increasing transfer rates. Teams aren't teams; they're changing groups of guys accounting for incoming freshmen nearly as frequently as incoming redshirt sophomores or juniors, looking to get theirs as much as they ever have before. There is continual shift on almost every team, at every level, of college basketball. It has inhibited the jelling process and created more consternation than cohesiveness.
Then you see Belmont, the beacon of basketball harmony, and wonder why more coaches haven't blatantly tried to emulate or copy Byrd's blueprint.