This article originally appeared
in Basketball Times.
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MAKING MUSIC ON THE COURT IN
It was early January 1998. Rick
Byrd and his Belmont Bruins were in New York City.
Rather then travel back to Nashville, TN Byrd decided to
keep the team in the Manhattan for a week before heading
A team from Nashville on an extended stay in the Big
Apple? Talk about being out of your element.
It was nothing new for Byrd and company who had been
advised by virtually everyone in the community not to
make the move to Division I basketball. Why would an
NAIA powerhouse make such a bold move? After all, there
was no way they could succeed.
“It was almost inevitable, to a degree, that we would
fail,” says Byrd. “We were fortunate that we had an
administration that understood that patience would be a
key to our success. But there was still some question as
to whether or not we could compete.”
Among those who wondered was Byrd. By his own admission,
having spent the previous twelve seasons coaching in the
NAIA ranks, Byrd was so far removed from division I
basketball that he just did not know if Belmont was good
In their final four seasons at the NAIA level, Belmont
averaged 31 wins, highlighted by a 37-2 record during
the 1994-95 season. Bryd has built a small dynasty in
the shadow of the Grand Ole Opry.
But that was NAIA.
“A lot of people didn’t think it was a smart move,” says
Byrd. “The feeling was that we were so successful at the
NAIA level so why make the move? Sure there was a lot of
concern, but I thought that eventually we would be have
some level of success. I just felt that being located in
the city of Nashville gave us an advantage.”
But location alone wouldn’t be enough to make the
program even a moderate success.
Enter Dr. Bob Fisher.
Belmont’s move to Division I wasn’t the only transition.
There was a change in the administration. At the top.
In recent years the move by so many programs to the
division I level has included the removal of the coach.
Not immediately, but within a couple years of
transitioning a new coach is named. For the most part,
the move is a death sentence for the current coaches.
After a 14-13 finish in 1999, Belmont suffered through
one of its toughest seasons in school history. The
Bruins finished the 1999-2000 season with a 7-20 mark.
Not ideal when a new school president is being
Fisher had no connection to the glory days of the late
1980’s and early 90’s. Those records were just numbers
in a media guide. Lofty marks achieved at the NAIA
So Dr. Fisher decided to make a change. He committed to
changing the future of the Belmont basketball program
and bringing in a new coach was not part of the
First and foremost, Fisher finalized what had already
been put in motion. He was able to get Belmont inclusion
in the new-look Trans America Conference (the Atlantic
Sun). Step two was a new basketball facility and in 2003
the doors opened on the 52 million dollar,
state-of-the-art, Curb Event Center.
“We had to get into a conference,” says Byrd. “It’s
difficult enough to compete at this level, but it’s
nearly impossible to have long term success if you are
not affiliated with a conference. We also need an arena
that said we were a division I program. The Curb Event
Center gave us that. We felt like we could now compete
for a conference title.”
In just their second year in the league (2002-03), the
Bruins were the A-Sun North Division champions (17-12,
The process had finally produced the first of many goals
for the program, but when there wasn’t an arena and
there wasn’t a conference, it was still apparent that
Byrd’s program was on track for success.
During the first season of provisional status (1997-98),
Belmont won only nine games, but they did it with a
sophomore-dominated team. Wins over Liberty, UNC-Greensboro
and Radford highlighted a season that included a great
performance on the road at the University of South
Carolina, which was ranked in the top 10 at the time. A
year later, incredibly they finished 14-13 and four of
those losses were buzzer beaters.
“We had the lead in those four games when the buzzer
sounded,” says Byrd. “The only problem was that the ball
was already in the air before the buzzer went off. Those
were tough losses, but it told us a lot about where the
program was going. After two seasons we knew we weren’t
going to get blown out of every game and that we could
actually compete at this level.”
People in Nashville were realizing that their Bruins
could in fact have success, but it took a few more years
for the rest of the college basketball world to figure
On Dec. 30, 2003, Byrd’s team got everyone’s attention
with a 71-67 win at No. 23 Missouri. The Bruins went on
to win 21 games that season and were rewarded with an
invitation to the NIT.
“Beating Missouri made us ‘team of the day,’” says Byrd.
“That was a great season. We finished ranked in the top
100 of the RPI for the first time ever and we also
finished the season ranked in the Mid-Major Top 25. We
had come a long ways from that cold afternoon in New
Rick Byrd may not have understood that the ‘hawk was
out’ that day in New York, but it was pretty evident
that he and his program were not out of place on the
division I landscape.
And that was confirmed on March 4, 2006.
A come-from-behind, 74-69, win over Lipscomb in overtime
gave Belmont its first-ever Atlantic Sun conference
tournament championship and its first-ever ticket to the
“That made it all worth it,” says Byrd. “A lot of people
were concerned when we made the move from NAIA, but
there was never a lack of support. The entire community
wanted us to succeed. To see how happy everyone
associated with Belmont University was is something you
just can’t describe.”