Byrd’s legacy goes beyond basketball

Posted at 9:10 AM, Apr 04, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It’s been a great week for Rick Byrd as the legendary Belmont basketball coach retired after 38 years as a head coach. It’s been a sad week for college basketball because one of the sport’s all-time greats is walking away.

And that’s the weird juxtaposition about Byrd’s decision to retire. We have to celebrate a day we hoped would never come.

“Hey, congratulations coach! But, oh woe is us.”

At Byrd’s official announcement Belmont University President Dr. Robert Fisher started his remarks by saying it’s hard knowing he wouldn’t be able to “watch a genius coach anymore.” Athletic Director Scott Corley followed by calling it a sad day for the athletic department, for Belmont players and for college basketball as a whole.

Byrd has made everyone around him better for 33 years at Belmont. He’s made the sweater vest fashionable and turned Belmont into a household name with the school’s enrollment tripling during his tenure.

The numbers speak for themselves. There’s the 805 wins that rank 12th in Division One history, the nine conference championships, seven conference tournament titles and eight NCAA Tournament appearances capped off by his first tourney win over Temple three weeks ago. Something impossible to even imagine when Byrd was hired back in 1986 to just try to compete with NAIA rivals Lipscomb and Trevecca.

Byrd took the Bruins to two NAIA Final Fours and successfully navigated the school’s transition to NCAA Division One, a difficult task that has sacked nearly every coach at the other roughly 50 programs that have attempted to make that jump since Belmont did.

His ability to not just steer the Belmont bus into major college basketball, but put his foot down on the gas pedal and accelerate the program’s success is why Byrd will be in the Hall of Fame one day soon.

But it’s not his greatest impact. That comes in the hundreds of players he’s developed into great men, including Corley, who is charged with the unenviable task of finding Byrd’s replacement.

Byrd insisted on recruiting good kids first, making sure they went to school and graduated, playing by the rules, and then he tried to win along the way as well. That’s exceedingly rare in a sport where cheating is so rampant the FBI is running multiple investigations into crimes committed by various coaches and programs.

Byrd is not just what’s good about college basketball, he is what’s good about people. A caring husband, father and now grandfather. A great friend and man of faith, determined to do the right thing.

A man that never let the success go to his head or allowed the grind of coaching to prevent him from being the person he desired to be.

On a personal note, I will forever be grateful for the kindness Byrd has shown me, particularly following the 2015 car accident that left me with four broken vertebrae in my neck among various other injuries. I was in a neck brace for nearly four months, the first several weeks of which I spent with family back in Illinois. My first day back in Nashville was for my one month check up. On my second day back Byrd came and took me to lunch. A gesture that lifted my spirits and brought some normalcy to my life during a time that was anything but normal.

That's just who Rick Byrd is. A Hall of Fame coach, but an even better person.

We’ll miss seeing him on the sidelines, but Belmont, our city and the entire college basketball community is so blessed to have had him as long as we did because he is so much more than just a basketball coach.

It’s time for Byrd to enjoy the golf and tennis, traveling with his wife Cheryl and that adorable new grandson in Oklahoma.

And it’s time for us to celebrate a legendary career and the man who has more than earned his retirement.