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.


>>> Home Page









This article originally appeared in Basketball Times. CLICK HERE to get your subscription to BT.



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 to Valparaiso.

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.

Could they?

“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 enough.

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 introduced.

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 level.

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 equation.

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, 12-4).

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 that out.

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 York City.”

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 NCAA tournament.

“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.”


Copyright 2004. All rights reserved