Rick Byrd retiring with family in mind
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Rick Byrd retiring with family in mind

Grant.

He’s the 6-month-old who let out a wail during the post-game press conference of his grandfather’s biggest career win.

Rick Byrd — amidst all the questions from reporters and snapping of camera shutters — stopped listening just to catch another look at Grant in his mother’s arms.

Grant will be seeing a lot of his grandpa in the years to come.

On Monday, coach Rick Byrd announced his retirement to spend more time with his family and enjoy that quality time without worrying about the next win.

The birth of his first grandchild in October became one of the deciding factors in Byrd’s decision to retire.

“I don’t know if people tell you about grandkids, and until you have one you don’t really appreciate it,” said Byrd.

Byrd’s wife Cheryl, who’s traveled with him during every postseason since 2007, shared her excitement for him to step down as head coach.

“More time on the tennis court. He’s a good partner for me so we’re gonna make some plans to travel and play in some maybe mixed doubles tournaments,” she said.

Along with wanting to focus on his family, Byrd said he no longer feels the need to be on top.

“It’s just time, it’s just time. I am ready to not try to win the next game,” said Byrd.

And he’s won a lot. More than 800 games.

But Rick Byrd isn’t just one of basketball’s greats, he’s proven himself as an insightful and influential figure in the lives of his players and the many people he’s worked with.

Anyone can look up the statistics and the numbers in his win and loss column. But it’s the impact he’s had on young athletes and the people around him that will leave lasting impressions.

“Just off the court stuff — being a better man, a better person. You learn the intangible things when you play for him that you don’t get at other schools,” said Amanze Egekeze, a 2018 Belmont basketball graduate.

In retrospect, Egekeze came to realize just how important those lessons would be.

“I have a much greater appreciation for playing for him when I left his program than when I was actually there,” he said.

This sentiment is not uncommon for Byrd’s former athletes, who feel he taught them more than just on-court plays and pregame strategy.

Craig Bradshaw, a 2016 Belmont basketball graduate, said he was able to grow and enjoy his college experience because of Byrd’s emphasis on letting young men live their own lives.

“He let us do it on our own. It was nothing like we didn’t have study hours, there wasn’t a bunch of team obligations, he just kind of let us live our own lives. And I think that’s big, to let us live and learn, and not have someone over your back watching you all the time,” said Bradshaw.

Scott Corley, Byrd’s boss and director of athletics, was one of those who grew under Byrd.

Corley has known Byrd longer than almost anyone at Belmont. He was Byrd’s first ever recruit and still remembers the lessons Byrd taught him 33 years ago.

Byrd “taught me at a really young age, you know, that no one’s above the team. Everybody has a role,” Corley said. “Whether you’re the manager or you don’t get on the court or you’re a starter, we’re all in this together.”

“That’s helped guide me in my life, too, but you know, you need to take into account, particularly in a team sport, everybody is in it together so that’s a good memory,” Corley said.

It’s not just the young men Byrd coached that revere him, members of the media recognize his impact on basketball and themselves.

Mike Organ started his career at The Tennessean in 1986, the same year Byrd was named Belmont men’s basketball head coach.

“He’s the same today that he was 33 years ago. He has a savviness with the media that’s no different from the way he is with people,” said Organ. “When he’s on the bench, he is what you see. Just a pure, honest guy that did it the right way.”

Steve Cavendish, former editor of the Nashville Scene, spent many years covering Byrd as a writer and editor for the Belmont Vision during his time on campus.

“I saw everything big from the NAIA days. When I was at the Battle of the Boulevard that sold out Memorial Gym. I was there the first time that they qualified for the NAIA National Championship in Kansas City,” said Cavendish, who was a student from 1989 to 1993.

“It will be really weird to see a Belmont coach on the sideline not wearing a sweater vest.”

Buster Olney, ESPN’s top baseball reporter, began his journalism career at the Nashville Banner covering Belmont and Lipscomb during their days in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

“Coach Byrd, like Coach Myer at Lipscomb, was just so open with allowing me to go watch their practice,” Olney said.

Part of the reason Byrd was so open to letting a young journalist watch the team practice “was the fact that his dad was a sports writer and probably had an understanding of what I and others are trying to do,” said Olney.

Olney remembers Byrd giving players their space and independence, just as Bradshaw noted.

“I’d bump into some of those guys from time to time when I’m back in Nashville, and I think they really enjoyed their time playing for him,” said Olney. “They knew that when they were practicing or in a season that they were going to be going all out and be completely devoted to it. At the same time, they could be normal people and be able to seperate from it. I think that was an important message that he had for his players.”

Kevin Ingram, the play-by-play announcer of Belmont radio, has called some of Byrd’s greatest moments over the past 16 years. But it’s not just the players or the plays Ingram will remember. It’s Byrd’s way of doing the right thing all the time.

“I think just honesty and integrity as much as anything. They absolutely do everything the right way by the letter of the rules,” said Ingram. “Not every program would go to this extreme to play by the letter of the NCAA rule book. But Belmont and Coach Byrd — they do.”

Byrd’s accomplishments also extend into the classroom, graduating almost 100 percent of his athletes and achieving a team GPA of 3.0 or higher for 18 consecutive years, according to Belmont Athletics.

University President Dr. Robert Fisher praised Byrd for his dedication to student athletes, saying Byrd always put the emphasis on students first.

“I think in the whole time I’ve been here, which is 19 years, we have one guy that didn’t graduate,” Fisher said. “I think that guy may have come back and graduated just recently, and that was several years ago. That’s just unheard of in college basketball, so I’m really proud of that.”

While some may receive the news of Byrd’s retirement with sadness, another approach is to celebrate the man who guided the Belmont Rebels to the Belmont Bruins, went from the NAIA to the NCAA and coached players from Corley to current NBA champion Ian Clark.

Former assistant coach Tom Robinson chooses to take the later approach.

“I’ve been waiting for today since the season started,” said Robinson, who had a gut feeling that this season would be Byrd’s last.

“When somebody that’s your friend, you wish the best for them, and sometimes the best for them is just to go on and experience a new thing that’s beyond basketball.”

Now, Byrd will have plenty of time to practice his golf swing and attempt to finally beat his wife at tennis.

“I want some healthy years of retirement,” said Byrd, who started at Belmont when he was dark haired and 32. “I don’t want to coach until I’m 72 and I can’t carry my bag and walk up the second hole.”

Byrd looks forward to time spent with family, but laments the one he will leave on the court.

That is the hardest thing about leaving, he said — the team.

Byrd choked up when talking about his basketball family — the 15 players and three coaches he is walking away from.

But Byrd relishes the chance to walk with his wife of 12 years, his two daughters Andrea and Megan and his step-son Robert Duke.

And his grandson Grant.

While his little grandson may not know his grandpa left a legacy at Belmont, baby Grant was there to see his grandpa clinch his first NCAA win against Temple University.

Byrd has a photo of Grant in the stands.

“This is proof,” Byrd said chuckling, “that he actually got to see Belmont play.”

Rick Byrd Retirement Press Conference

Contributing reporting by Carina Eudy, Joe Bendekovic, Katie Knipper, Lydia Fletcher and Melissa Kriz

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