Every time Belmont plays Lipscomb, Rick Byrd becomes a nervous wreck.
With just three miles separating the rivals, Belmont's basketball coach knows the vested interest many connected to both schools — alumni, fans, administrators, coaches — have for the two men’s basketball games every season. He is also well aware that even when, on paper, his Bruins are the better team, that doesn’t mean the Bisons will just roll over.
From 2009-12, Lipscomb defeated Belmont five of six times. In 2011 and 2012, Belmont reached the NCAA Tournament and, in 2011, Lipscomb gave the Bruins their only conference loss of the season.
In fact, last year, when Belmont left the Atlantic Sun and the Battle of Boulevard rivalry was moved to November and December, Byrd joked that they ought to play both games as a doubleheader and knock it out in one day.
Now, adding to the discomfort of the situation, Byrd will be coach against one of his closest friends in the profession. On Sunday, Lipscomb introduced Casey Alexander as its next coach. Alexander starred as a point guard for Byrd from 1992-95 and spent the following 16 years on Byrd’s staff.
But, believe it or not, Byrd’s not sweating going head-to-head with Alexander twice a year.
“When a guy plays for you there is a bond there that can’t be replaced by anything — even brother and sister almost,” Byrd said. “When a special guy plays for you and is so competitive and has the qualities Casey had, he is one of a kind. He is a special guy. … It will be maybe a little awkward a couple nights a year but I enjoy coaching against people I admire and know are doing things the right way.
“And the games are early [in the season] so I can pull for him — I don’t know if he is going to pull for me — but I can pull for him the rest of the way. It will work out fine.”
The addition of Alexander should provide the rivalry with a dose of intensity that has been absent recently.
The Bruins won the last three meetings by an average of 29.6 points. Last year, Belmont swept the season series for the first time since 2008.
“Obviously the Battle of Boulevard is a unique game for everybody and it will have an interesting twist,” Alexander said. “I’m sure people will be excited about all that it means. All I can say is I’ll be coaching my team and trying like heck to win.”
This won’t be the first time the two have coached on opposite sidelines.
Alexander spent the last two years as head coach at Stetson. In Belmont’s last season in the A-Sun, 2011-12, Stetson played the Bruins twice. Belmont and Byrd emerged victorious both times, 84-71 and 106-93. The Hatters actually led at halftime in the first game and hung around until the final minutes of the second contest — one of the highest-scoring college basketball games of the season.
For Byrd, he looked on the court and saw two Belmont teams — at least in terms of strategy and coaching philosophy.
“They were doing our four-out [on the perimeter], one-in stuff,” Byrd said laughing. “I knew what he was doing, too. We are both going to tweak things and do things differently. The great thing for me is when we’re through [with the series], we can talk to one another and help each other, talk about what we saw, how can you get better and then pull from each other the rest of the year. So that part is going to be fun.”
Alexander, 40, said already coaching against his former mentor twice will make the future matchups a little less emotional. Byrd expects to continue get Lipscomb’s best shot every time.
And both coaches will move on and remain close friends after the final whistle, regardless of the outcome. After all, Lipscomb and athletic director Philip Hutcheson didn’t let the rivalry get in the way when hiring a coach.
“No one was thinking Casey,” Byrd said. “The rivalry is such that you don’t think that way. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with [the hire]. I think it is great Lipscomb or Belmont can freely hire someone from the other school because they think they’re the best person for the job. But it was a surprise at the moment. But like Casey said it quickly becomes about what do you want? What do you think is best for your life? I was ecstatic when Lipscomb made their choice.”