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It took more than 1,200 games over 43 years, between four schools, across three NCAA divisions and five conferences and five seasons as an independent. And on Tuesday night in Dayton, it took a 40-minute, back-and-forth battle. But finally, Belmont coach Rick Byrd has an NCAA tournament win.
His Bruins blew a double-digit second-half lead, but rebounded to beat Temple 81-70 in the First Four. The victory earned Belmont a Thursday date with sixth-seeded Maryland.
“This is an historic night for Belmont University and our basketball program,” Byrd said postgame. “Just 48 hours ago, we didn’t know if we were gonna be in this. And I didn’t know if [seniors Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain] were gonna ever get to play in the NCAA tournament. And now they’ve got Belmont’s first win.”
Just as significantly, they got Byrd the win that caps his winding, setback-filled journey to the mountaintops of March.
Rick Byrd’s coaching record gets its crown jewel
Byrd’s journey began making $5,000 per year as a Division III assistant. Ineligible to be a GA at Tennessee because he was in his sixth year of college rather than his fifth, Byrd followed a friend to Maryville College. He was given an assistant coaching role that often left him in charge of the team – because the head coach had to finish up a teaching job at a different small college in South Carolina.
Two years later, Byrd got an official promotion to the top job and a $3,000 pay bump. Two years – and a 23-27 record – after that, he was off to Tennessee Tech as an assistant. Then there was a stop at Lincoln Memorial University.
In 1986, Byrd moved to then-NAIA Belmont, a small, private Christian college in Nashville. In the 33 years since, he’s overseen its rise to Division I, and eventually to NCAA tournament regular.
At 65, last month, he became the sixth active college coach to reach 800 wins. Four of the other five have won national championships. But entering Tuesday, Byrd had not won a single March Madness game. He had come up empty in seven appearances. He was sick of questions about the 0-7 mark.
And after losing to Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference title game two weeks ago, he faced an agonizing wait to find out if he would get chance No. 8.
When he did, as the fourth-to-last at-large team in the field on Selection Sunday, he was moved to tears. And rather than enter the 2019 Big Dance as an underdog to a major-conference power, this time, the Bruins were sent to Dayton, as a favorite over Temple in the First Four. And Byrd’s kids came through.
Belmont moves on to play Maryland
At the final horn, after McClain’s 29-point performance propelled the Bruins, Byrd was as calm and businesslike as ever. He moved mechanically through handshake lines, first greeting Temple’s Fran Dunphy, another coaching legend who will now be retiring.
He never even cracked a smile until TruTV’s Dana Jacobson brought up the 0-7 NCAA tournament record – which he’ll now never have to hear about again.
“I get the question a lot, ‘What’s the missing piece?’” Byrd later said at his postgame news conference. The intimation, he explained was clear: “‘The missing piece is y’all had never won a game in the NCAA tournament.’”
“I don’t really care about the personal part,” he continued. “If we’d have lost this game, I’d have been proud of what we’ve accomplished. But I don’t have to answer that question anymore,” he concluded with a chuckle.
“It’ll mean something to me someday,” he said in his on-court interview. “But not right now.”
In the present, it means he and Belmont have another game to play. On Thursday at approximately 3:10 ET in Jacksonville. They’ll morph quickly from tourney virgins to a potential Cinderella, the Terrapins vulnerable, a four-team pod also featuring LSU and Yale there for the taking. So, as Byrd said to close out his postgame interview: “I guess, when I get to the hotel, I’ll have to download some video.”
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