MINNEAPOLIS — Texas Tech coach Chris Beard once famously delivered a Shakespearean-level soliloquy about the essence of Whataburger after last call. “Sit in a corner booth and watch America,” he said of the famous fast-food chain. After leading Texas Tech to the national title game and achingly close to the school’s first men’s basketball title on Monday night, America is now sitting back and watching Beard.
Beard’s team finished the season with the No. 1-ranked defense in KenPom’s rankings. Now it’s going to be the Tech athletic department’s turn to get in its stance and protect a coach from potential poachers who has rapidly ascended into the highest echelon of college basketball.
An immediate threat to swiping Beard away from Lubbock emerged at halftime of Virginia’s 85-77 overtime victory over Texas Tech. The University of Tennessee released a statement that they were keeping coach Rick Barnes. There had been an extended flirtation with UCLA, which resulted in a hefty raise for Barnes. That bolstered the chances of UCLA administrators being awarded an economic stimulus award by the federal government for the number of coaches who’ve received raises because of their interest.
In the hallway outside the Texas Tech locker room after the game, Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt made his intention to fend off any potential interest by the Bruins clear.
“I think we have a better job,” Hocutt said. “I think we’re going to continue to invest into our program. We just broke ground on a $30 million practice center. It’s going to be state-of-the-art and one of the finest in the country.”
Beard is just quirky enough to be a Lubbock lifer. He spent 10 years there as an assistant coach before returning as the head man three years ago after an awkward two-week stint at UNLV. Beard is from Texas, and that area has always been his primary coaching footprint.
Westwood and Lubbock have about as much in common as Tony Bennett and Tony Soprano. Beard clearly fits in Lubbock, and he’s proven he can recruit and win there after an Elite Eight last season (27-10) and coming inches from the national title this season (31-6). But it’s just as clear that in a place like UCLA with a more fertile recruiting base, inferior league competition and richer history that he could likely win bigger.
Somewhere, somehow, there’s a potential bailout package to this smoldering dumpster fire of a UCLA search, which is unfolding as one of the most tortured, confusing and misguided in the last 15 years in college athletics. Could it have a Hollywood ending by blowing Beard away with an offer that he couldn’t refuse? Hiring a coach like Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin at this point would mean solid basketball and certain NCAA appearances.
But Beard represents all of UCLA’s failed ambition in this search — a coach with proven NCAA tournament chops who could help UCLA dream again of a Golden Era and realistically compete for national titles. Beard has all of Bob Knight’s tactical genius with none of the baggage. His story is fit for Hollywood, as his trips through JUCO, Division II and minor-league basketball would make his potential arrival at UCLA the coaching version of the Beverly Hillbillies. Beard’s NCAA run is his oil strike, it’ll be his choice whether he keeps building or uses the cache to move on.
But would he fit? Well, winners fit. And Beard learned how to win at Fort Scott, Seminole State, McMurry and Angelo State. A guy who has played home games in rodeo barnes could probably do just fine in Pauley Pavilion.
But Beard is a Texan by birth and that state’s flagship school could end up opening in the next year or two. The Texas job on paper may be better than in reality, as the arena in Austin has all the energy of a law library during final’s week and is about as modern as Peter Brady’s wardrobe.
One could make a strong argument that there’s more basketball buzz in Lubbock right now than there’s been at Texas for more than a decade. Speaking generally, Hocutt had this to say about Beard sticking around Lubbock.
“Our fan support is second to no one in this country,” he said. “We’re going to continue to invest in the program and in coach Beard. Ultimately, it’ll be his decision. But I think we have a better job [than UCLA] and we have the resources to continue to invest in him at the highest levels.”
Hocutt stressed that Beard and Tech may be one of the best pairings of coach and school, as Beard is an underdog at a school that thrives with a chip on its shoulder.
“There’s not a better fit,” Hocutt said. “It’s an ideal fit. He grew up in the state of Texas. He’s got friends in Lubbock who want him to be the best and get back to this stage. He’s got a university behind him.”
In the aftermath of the loss last night, Beard wasn’t asked about his immediate future. He overhauled the Tech roster and managed to upgrade it after the Elite Eight last year. He’s focused on doing the same this year, as he mentioned four seniors graduating and Jarrett Culver’s upcoming NBA decision. (Culver is widely expected to declare and be a top-10 pick.)
“This is life,” Beard said. “We’ll bounce back. In terms of Texas Tech basketball, we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back in this tournament sooner than later, we intend to be a part of college basketball as we build the program.”
With back-to-back star-kissed runs in the NCAA tournament, Beard, 46, has escalated himself into the conversation with the next great generation of coaches in college basketball. He’s earned the chance to trade his beloved Whataburger for In-N-Out in California, or perhaps stick around and continue in Lubbock in perpetuity. Beard’s vagabond career now finds itself on the highest plane, and America will be watching his every move. And no one is more aware of that than Tech’s brass.
“This is the position you want to be in,” Hocutt said. “You have one of the top, if not the top coach in the country. He’s ours and we’re going to continue to do all we can to continue to make Lubbock the only home for him and his family.”
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