We lost to Jacksonville State in the semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference tourney a couple of weeks ago. For me and the others who are graduating this year — Taylor Barnette, Josh Lester and Nick Smith — it effectively ended our chances of making the NCAA Tournament … at making some magic happen in March. We didn’t plan on finishing our college basketball careers without making the tournament one last time, especially after how well we had played all season.
The thing is, if you would’ve asked me when I was a freshman if I would have been discouraged by the fact that my 22–6 team didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, I would’ve thought you were crazy for even asking the question. I probably would have told you that I wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed for days. That food would’ve tasted bad. That classes wouldn’t have seemed important. That I wouldn’t have picked up calls from my friends.
Yeah … I’d have told you that it would suck.
But today, after four years at Belmont, my answer is a little different. Of course, I’m frustrated — especially after one of our best seasons ever. We had to watch the tournament on TV … we knew the OVC tournament was it — automatic bid or bust.
But you know what? The morning after we lost in the OVC tournament, the sun still came up. Life went on. And despite not making the tourney, this team, this university — this student body, which supported us all year — has a lot to be proud of.
I don’t think I’d have that sort of perspective if not for Coach Byrd’s guidance the last four years.
Coach Byrd is a legend for so many reasons. People see how he’s taken a little Christian school in Nashville and put it on the national stage. They see how he’s been here longer than any of his players have been alive. His honors and awards aren’t a secret.
But I’d like to think that after four years at Belmont, I know him better than that.
When I was a sophomore, almost exactly two years ago, we played Murray State in the OVC championship game. In the first half, I remember this one play: I passed up a wide open jumper for an extra pass. I thought it was the right play at the time.
We went into halftime down by eight. Coach came into the locker room — and he was livid. Maybe we weren’t playing as hard as we should’ve been. But I think my decision to pass instead of shoot an open shot had been the breaking point for him — because when Coach stormed into the locker room and pointed right at me and said, “If you don’t want to score, you can be my assistant for the rest of the game!”
I looked around at my teammates. Everyone — myself included — was kind of taken aback like, Whoa, what just happened? We all knew that Coach wasn’t a yeller — he still isn’t. I mean, I can probably count on one hand the number of times he’s cursed in my four years here. It’s that rare. So when he does yell at you, he’s trying to get the most out of you.
But in the heat of the moment, I didn’t see it that way. I was embarrassed.
Coach kept piling on.
“I can’t even talk to you guys right now,” he said. “We either win today or we don’t play anymore.”
And that was it. He walked out.
Sam Simpkins/Belmont University
We didn’t really know what hit us. But Coach’s speech worked because we left the locker room pissed off. We played pissed off in the second half. I scored something like eight straight points to open the half. And we won 88–87 to earn an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
That’s the Coach Byrd I know.
The first time I spoke with Coach Byrd was over the phone during my junior year of high school. But it’s funny — I had no idea that he was going to call.
One day in May, I received a phone call from a 615 number. I’d been on enough phone calls with Belmont assistant coaches to know that it was a Nashville area code. I didn’t think much of it — I thought it was just somebody from the staff checking in on me. I liked Belmont, but I was being recruited by a few other schools and I still hadn’t decided where I wanted to go.
Little did I know, this phone call was going to change everything.
“Hey, Evan! Coach Byrd here!”
Coach was really chatty. He wanted to talk about everything — golf, country music, fishing, movies, you name it. The whole time I was wondering if he was going tie it all together to basketball, but he kept going on and on — about the Ryman Auditorium and Elvis and the best lakes around the city — but nothing about hoops at all.
We were about to hang up after around 45 minutes when he said, “Oh, and just one more thing.”
What else could we talk about?
“The reason I called is because I want to offer you a scholarship to come play basketball at Belmont.”
I guess that’s what they call burying the lede.
About a month later, my parents and I made the five-hour drive south to Nashville from our home in Ohio to visit the school. I come from a town of around 2,000 people. We have two traffic lights. There’s tons of farmland. My high school graduating class had 400 kids.
Nashville felt big.
I remember stepping onto campus and seeing pillars — these beautiful, massive, white pillars — on buildings twice the size of the biggest buildings in my hometown of Jamestown. I couldn’t get over how classically elegant the campus was. And the people … man, southern hospitality is a real thing — everyone was so friendly!
For a small-town boy like me, I believe in corny things like love at first sight. I signed my letter of intent a few days after I had visited Belmont for the first time.
I enrolled in classes in June 2013, the summer before my freshman year. Excited isn’t really the word to describe my emotions … you know, I felt like I could take on the world. Every freshman has that moment probably. I was eager to prove myself and dive into college.
I was so eager, in fact, that I thought it was a good idea to sign up for an introductory class in Statistics, which met at 7:30 a.m. every day. Every. Single. Day. Waking up that early is one thing, but trying to understand the relationships between two sets of mathematical data that early? A different animal.
Freshmen are supposed to make mistakes, though, right?
I always laugh at those memories. Those kinds of things shaped my time at Belmont. That’s why, when I look back on my four years here, I realize that I enjoyed it for so many more reasons than just basketball. I made friends that I will have for the rest of my life. When I wasn’t in class or on the court, we’d go on fishing trips or play golf. We’d often venture into downtown Nashville — to meet new people, hear new music and try different types of barbecue. After getting to know the city, it doesn’t feel like such a big place to me anymore. It has a small-town vibe that I really love.
Two years ago, our team was lucky enough to take a trip to England and Ireland. The whole thing was awesome. We went to museums, saw some live plays — and even had the chance to play against a basketball team from Dublin.
Maybe it was because we were jet lagged … or because we hadn’t run in a week or so … or because we had tried too hard to familiarize ourselves with Irish culture. But for some reason, in that game against the Irish team, we played some of the worst basketball I’d ever seen us play. Within the first three minutes, we were in a 15-point hole.
Coach Byrd called a timeout and lit us up in front of everybody in the gym. All those Irish fans must’ve thought he was the most intense guy ever. But Coach only reserves his anger for certain moments. Maybe he should do more of it, though, because we ended up bouncing back and winning by around 50 points.
Obviously I can’t speak for other programs, but I assume that Coach Byrd is one of the most prepared coaches in all of D-I basketball. And even after all these years, he’s more competitive than ever. And I love him for it. His tenacity — his desire to get better — is why I came to Belmont. We wanted to make all of Nashville proud.
Nothing compares to the experience of playing at a school like Belmont. My teammates, friends and classmates — they’re why I love this place.
And without Coach Byrd, none of that would have been possible.
I want to say thank you, Coach: Thank you for being a great role model, and thank you for giving me the gift of perspective. Thank you for giving me a home here at Belmont. Even though we didn’t get to the NCAA tournament this year, I know that one game can’t take away from what we’ve built here.
And to this university and our fans — there’s not much else I can say other than to tell you how grateful I am. When I first came to Belmont, I was a kid. You helped me to grow up. You helped me find a home away from home. That’s something special. These were the best four years of my life.
I don’t know what’s next for me, but I do know one thing: Belmont, you have my heart.