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March 19, 2013

Longtime coach Byrd has Belmont in spotlight

"When I quit or they decide to fire me, there's going to be a lot of good coaches interested in this job," Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said.

Byrd might be off-base on one point. With 673 career wins - 571 of which have come at Belmont - he is one of the most successful coaches in the college game. It's difficult to envision any administrator or booster who would want a proven winner of his caliber ousted.

But the 27-year Bruins head coach is spot-on in another assessment. Belmont is an attractive program, among the nation's most consistent in recent years.

Whoever takes up the mantle - whenever that time comes - Byrd has set a high benchmark for a program that wasn't even an NCAA member 17 years ago.

"I was a small-college basketball," Byrd said of his hire to lead the then-National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) basketball team in 1986. "After 10, 11 years at the NAIA level and to think now we're playing UCLA, Duke, Georgetown and this year, we get to add Arizona to that list."

Byrd spoke with GOAZCATS.com following his team's practice on Monday, in preparation for Belmont's sixth NCAA tournament in the last eight seasons. The Bruins face UA in the Round of 64 on Thursday.

"Now we just need Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas and the [NCAA tournament] selection committee will have drawn nearly every traditional power," he chuckled.

The bright spotlight and national attention of Thursday's match-up won't catch Belmont off guard. The Ohio Valley Conference champion Bruins went 26-6 en route to their best seeding in school history, a No. 11.

The 2012-13 campaign has already been historic, but another win would mark a significant milestone in Belmont's meteoric rise. The Bruins have never won an NCAA tournament game, though have come close - as close as possible. In 2008, No. 15-seeded Belmont fell to No. 2 Duke, 71-70.

This year's Bruins come into the Big Dance equipped to make a run. Guard Ian Clark is a sharpshooter who has connected on 54.1 percent of his field goal attempts, and an astounding 46.3 percent from 3-point range.

A hot hand from Clark is a potential key to reaching the Round of 32. Another?

"We'll need as much luck as we can get," Byrd said.

With a backcourt as talented as Clark and Kerron Johnson, luck may not have too much to do with any fits the Bruins give the Wildcats. Each brings a distinct skill set to the hardwood, cultivated over four years of contribution.

Both Clark and Johnson are precisely the type of players on which Byrd built Belmont's success.

"As the conference [in which Belmont is a member] and school have grown, recruiting has gotten easier," Byrd said.

Belmont's profile grew in the past year when it switched leagues, leaving the only NCAA home it had known, the Atlantic Sun, for the OVC. The invitation was a reward for the basketball program's recent success.

The more prominent conference affiliation and the string of tournament appearances has put Belmont in competition with Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10 Conference recruits, Byrd said. But while much of college basketball has focused on winning with prospects who can contribute immediately before chasing NBA riches, Byrd develops players within his system.

"We recruit skill guys," he said. "We're doing it with four-year players."

Byrd is succeeding with a proven formula. In the move from NAIA, Belmont spent five seasons in what is essentially NCAA limbo.

"Those four or five years we were independent, we weren't eligible for the tournament," he said. "It felt like 20 years."

Belmont's last two NAIA teams reached the national semifinals, including a 37-2 team in 1994-95 that garnered Byrd National Coach of the Year honors.

However, the transition into NCAA Division I had its growing pains.

"It was like I had taken a new coaching job," Byrd said. "We played in a small-college gym that only sat about 2,000. We were playing with marginal Division I players."

Even so, the Bruins finished above .500 twice in their independent years and caught on with the A-Sun in 2001. In their second season, they won the conference's North division.

By Belmont's third year in the A-Sun, and eighth in the NCAA, it reached the postseason with a berth in the 2004 National Invitational Tournament. That season marked an important moment in Belmont basketball history. The 5,000-seat Curb Event Center opened that fall, giving Bruins basketball a modern, Division I home.

With a new facility and a national profile, Belmont could be the next program to cross that line - the intangible boundary that differentiates mid-majors from major college basketball programs.

Virginia Commonwealth, Butler and Gonzaga all traversed that imaginary border that pundits use to designate universities. And even those programs still face "mid-major" challenges.

"Scheduling is still a problem," Byrd said, but pointed out Gonzaga's continued success since the late 1990s has set a precedent for power conference teams traveling to up-and-coming programs' homes.

"Teams like Arizona will go play Gonzaga up there."

The Zags earned a No. 1 seed this season, scoring a landmark victory for mid-major conference programs. Reaching the level of Gonzaga, or two-time Final Four participant Butler, is the brass ring others now chase.

"It's a model of sustainability. Belmont has that kind of potential," Byrd said.

Such a step is the next logical one down the long path this program has taken behind Byrd. But even if Belmont does not become the so-called "next Gonzaga," Byrd has carved his own niche in college basketball history.

That will be one tough act for anyone to follow.

Kyle KensingKyle Kensing
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer

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