ANAHEIM, Calif. – Chris Beard has done what was thought to be impossible: He is taking Texas Tech to the Final Four.
Before defeating No. 1 seed Gonzaga 75-69 Saturday night, Texas Tech was known as the hardest coaching job in the Big 12, and one of the harder high-major jobs in the country. You simply couldn't get elite talent to come to Lubbock, Texas, the small city in Texas' High Plains – that was the way of thinking. Go .500 in the Big 12? That's big-time success at Texas Tech. Make the NCAA Tournament? Wooooooo, boy, now we're cooking.
Bobby Knight, one of the greatest coaches of all time, made four NCAA tournaments at Texas Tech. The highest seed he got was a No. 6 seed. He made one Sweet Sixteen, and that was a big, big deal, because that's the furthest this program had ever gotten in its near-century-long history. Tubby Smith, who'd previously won a national title at Kentucky? He came to Texas Tech and put the Red Raiders back on the map, making an NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years. Impressive to do that in Lubbock. And that was always the addendum next to Texas Tech doing anything good in basketball: "And even more impressive is that this success came at…Texas Tech!"
What it took for Texas Tech to make its first Final Four was a coach who had none of the blueblood credentials and the myriad career stops of a lifetime grinder. Sure, Beard's first coaching job was as an assistant at Texas – pretty good gig! But after that: Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, North Texas, Fort Scott Community College (his first head-coaching gig), Seminole State Junior College, Texas Tech (where he was an associate head coach for Bobby Knight and his son Pat Knight for a decade), a semi-pro team in Myrtle Beach called the South Carolina Warriors, McMurry University (a Division III school in Texas), Angelo State (a Division II school in Texas), University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
And then, finally, Texas Tech. The toughest job in the Big 12. The place that neither coaches nor players wanted to go. The place where the idea of making a Final Four was laughable.
Until Saturday night.
On Saturday night, Texas Tech went up against Gonzaga and its frontcourt with two potential lottery picks in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. The Red Raiders didn't budge, especially not in the paint, the place where Gonzaga butters its bread. Gonzaga's offense is marked by two things: They don't turn the ball over, and they don't take bad shots. Against Texas Tech, they did both. Texas Tech forced Gonzaga into 16 turnovers, its second-highest total all season, and forced Gonzaga to shoot 42.4 percent from the field – 10 percentage points lower than its nation-leading field-goal percentage of 52.8 percent. (Gonzaga actually did pretty well by scoring that efficiently; on the season, teams made 36.7 percent of their shots against Texas Tech, the top defensive field-goal percentage in the nation.) It seemed like two or three Red Raiders contested every Gonzaga drive to the rim.
At halftime, Texas Tech was down only two despite their star player, Jarrett Culver, only making 3 of 10 shots. That felt like a victory. And then in the second half Texas Tech smothered Gonzaga, holding them to a stingy 36.4 percent shooting.
When it was over, Beard climbed the ladder and cut down the net. Nobody expected Beard to be doing this in March 2019 – especially since his team had lost five of their top six scorers from last year's Elite Eight squad, and especially since, well, this is Texas Tech, and Texas Tech shouldn't be able to reload its roster like a team like Kansas can.
"Man, it's just [undescribable]," Beard said. "It really is. Growing up my whole life watching these press conferences, games, and all that, and the guy that always gets there and says [undescribable]. And I'm like, 'Oh, give us something better than that. But I don't have anything better. It's [undescribable]."
Beard was asked what he'd rather have: This team of overachieving grinders, or a trio of McDonald's All-Americans?
"It's like when I go to Grandy's," he said, referring to the country-cooking chain restaurant that's all over Texas. "Do I want double mashed potatoes or mashed potatoes and corn? I want both. So we would love to have All-Americans and turn 'em into grinders. I think they could play more games like today…
"We don't mind the underdog, chip-on-the-shoulder part of our story, but I think you disrespect our players a little bit," he continued. "We got really good college players, and I think we're one of the best teams in the country this year."
It's true. I remember seeing Texas Tech give Duke a run for their money at Madison Square Garden in December, and I came away from that game not as impressed by the alien life form that is Zion Williamson as I was impressed by the grinding, knit-together defense that is Texas Tech. I also came out of there wondering how in the world Chris Beard was able to produce a second lottery pick in as many years at Texas Tech – last year was Zhaire Smith, and this year Jarrett Culver feels like a certainty to go in the lottery.
In sports, the chip-on-the-shoulder thing can be overblown and cliché. Coaches play that stuff up. I mean, the damn New England Patriots played that underdog stuff up before their most recent Super Bowl. When the world is against you, when no one else believes in you, sometimes, that encourages teams to believe in themselves. That's the way it seems with Texas Tech: That all those clichés are 100 percent true. When they preach the old Ben Hogan mantra, "The secret is in the dirt" – the only secret to success is outworking people – it feels true. When senior Brandon Francis talks about being overlooked – "When people ask where the motivation comes from, it comes from getting picked last in the league, or people saying we can't do this or that" – it feels authentic.
But when Chris Beard stands up from the podium at the postgame press conference and shouts out one final sentence – "Texas Tech is going to the Final Four!" – well, yeah, it still feels sort of unbelievable. It feels unlikely. Improbable.
But it no longer feels impossible.