When a program has a head coach entering his 31st season at the helm, it seems a natural progression that the team itself begins to embody the personality of its head coach.
Rick Byrd has been the head coach of Belmont University in Nashville, TN since 1986. The 63 year-old speaks with patience and ease in his soft Tennessee twang and seems meticulous in the choice of each word. When you hear Byrd’s approach to communication, you can see how his players take a similar approach into their game planning.
"We may not have guys that look as good warming up as some of the other teams do," Byrd admitted. However, the end result is what matters and Belmont has won four straight regular season conference titles, has six consecutive 20-win seasons and have played in seven of the past 11 NCAA Tournaments.
With that type of success comes the burden of becoming a target.
"I’m not comparing us to Kentucky or Duke, but when they play, they get everybody’s best," Byrd said. "We do rarely beat somebody because they weren’t ready to play that night."
Last March in the Ohio Valley championship game, the Bruins got Austin Peay’s best and fell victim to the upset, sending them to the NIT. Losing as the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament will no doubt be a source of extra motivation for Byrd and his returning players throughout the season
"When we’re not playing well this year," he said, "I’m sure I’ll use Austin Peay as an example of what can happen if you stick with it."
Belmont returns a loaded lineup that is led by OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds, who despite his on-court prowess, is "pretty quiet and unassuming" off the court, according to Byrd. The coach also emphasized how well respected he is by his teammates.
Bradds has led the nation in field goal percentage two years in a row and should be in the conversation for pre-season All-American honors. The Bruins also return an excellent backcourt tandem in guards Taylor Barnette and Austin Luke, who can both shoot the lights out when called upon and helped Belmont average over 10 threes per game, which was good for fourth in the nation.
With some mid-major programs, fans begin to worry if the coach behind their success may bolt to a Power Five conference in search of a higher pay check. That’s something Byrd spoke of with candor. He says he’s had multiple suitors over the years, but that he is likely to continue to coach at Belmont for many years to come
"I was in my mid-50s before there was any significant interest," he said. "By that time, you look at quality of life and Belmont’s been a great place for me and it’s a place I believe in."
With that type of stability in place, the level of talent at Belmont has increased year after year. In 2013, Belmont had its first-ever NBA player in current Golden State Warrior Ian Clark.
Byrd spoke of his program’s recent run of success and noted that it has created a level of confidence for his incoming players.
"Even for incoming freshmen there is just an attitude and level of confidence, and I hope not cockiness of what Belmont has accomplished," he said. "And there’s a responsibility that goes with that success if not building on it."
The first step toward building on it in 2016-17 will come on Nov. 15 when the Bruins visit SEC foe Vanderbilt. That kicks off a challenging opening month for Belmont, who will also play at Florida, at Rhode Island and at home against Western Kentucky.