Rick Byrd and Kevin Stallings haven’t been frequenting Las Palmas or Pancake Pantry for lunch lately.
Actually, the two close friends aren’t even talking much right now.
No, there isn’t a spat between them – there is a game in the way.
When Byrd’s Belmont Bruins travel to Vanderbilt to take on Stallings’ Commodores at 1 p.m. Saturday, the friendship will be put aside – for at least a couple hours.
“This is a game that everybody else enjoys except for the two guys coaching it,” Stallings said. “It is not fun to beat your friend and it is not fun to lose to your friend.”
The two head coaches have developed their relationship since Stallings took over at Vanderbilt 12 years ago. Byrd, who is in his 25th year at Belmont, called up Stallings when the latter came to town and the two quickly built a friendship.
It is one that is very unique, considering they are Division I coaches in the same city. They often grab lunch and talk on the phone regularly. They bond over, among over things, their children, music – both enjoy traditional country – and golf.
“He is certainly one of the count-them-on-one-hand best friends that I’ve got,” Byrd said.
For the time being, basketball isn’t being discussed. Usually the two offer up advice about common opponents, offensive and defensive schemes are even ask about possible recruits.
“He is great resource for me and that is what we lose – that is what I lose – when we play one another until that game is over,” Byrd said. I can’t bounce something off of him. He can’t bounce something off me if he is inclined to do so.”
The two schools have played just three times – all Byrd-Stallings matchups – and last played in 2003 in the first game of the Curb Event Center at Belmont.
But they decided to put that aside in order to get a “guaranteed” game on the schedule and appeal to the community.
“He knows that if he and I never play because of our friendship it is a little selfish on my part because it is a good game for Belmont,” Byrd said. “Whether it is a good game for Vanderbilt, they’ve got to decide that. So they played Lipscomb several times and I think he knew that I was probably getting a lot of questions: ‘Why are they playing Lipscomb and not playing you? If you guys are such good friends how come they are playing Lipscomb?’”
Vanderbilt played Lipscomb, Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee State last year. The Commodores just played nearby Western Kentucky on Wednesday and will play MTSU again on Dec. 21 in Murfreesboro.
“I don’t know if we have anything to gain. We have been very liberal in scheduling the local teams,” Stallings, whose first game at Vanderbilt was against Belmont, said. “We realize being in the league that we are in that a lot of what happens from a college basketball landscape around here evolves around us. It is probably our responsibility at times to play these games.”
When the game wraps up, the two will be able to resume the friendship. It is a game they both want to get through – but a game they aren’t any less competitive about.
“Believe me, I don’t want anybody to think I don’t want to win badly and he does too,” Byrd said. “If we felt differently we wouldn’t be very good friends because we wouldn’t respect the other guy.”
• Belmont defeated Mercer 89-67 in the Atlantic Sun Conference opener for both teams on Thursday night. It was also the first home game for the Bruins (5-1, 1-0), who have won five straight.
Belmont never trailed and pulled away midway through the first half. Tied at 20-20, Belmont went on a 13-4 run, which was capped off by a two-handed slam from Blake Jenkins with 4:43 to go in the first half. The Bruins led 44-30 at halftime and built the lead to 24 points.
They outscored the Bears (2-6, 0-1) 45-21 in the paint, behind Mick Hedgepeth’s 19 points.
“It was a big emphasis (to go inside) because even though their post players are good players they are a little bit undersized,” Byrd said. “We also knew that depth was an issue there for them or at least we felt like it was. We tried to throw the ball in.”
Ian Clark added 16 points and Kerron Johnson scored 10. Brandon Moore had a game-high 22 points for Mercer.
• Stallings sent a text message to Festus Ezeli late Wednesday night to apologize for questioning his center’s effort against Western Kentucky. Stallings later learned he was dealing with an injury in the game.
It turned out that the 6-foot-11 Ezeli was having back spasms all day Wednesday and was only at “60-70 percent,” though that was unknown to Stallings. Ezeli was 7-of-7 from the field for 14 points but had just three rebounds as Stallings called his performance “OK” after the game.
“For feeling the way he felt, that explained everything about his play that I was displeased with,” Stallings said. “Then to think that he did what he was able to do offensively in spite of how he felt is really miraculous. So he gave our team a great effort despite the fact that he was not close to 100 percent.”
• The Belmont women dropped its league opener, falling to Mercer 69-56. Belmont was up 25-23 at halftime before allowing 46 points in the second half. The Bruins (2-4, 0-1) committed 22 turnovers and were led by Cacy Burtnett’s 21 points.