The search for Bruce Pearl’s successor as Tennessee’s men’s basketball coach has begun.
But does the hunt have to leave the state?
Here in Nashville is a Knoxville native and UT alumnus who has taken his program to the NCAA Tournament four times in the last six years, is coming off a 30-win season and is well respected in the coaching fraternity — Belmont’s Rick Byrd.
He might not have the far-reaching name recognition of Missouri’s Mike Anderson or be a young coach who has put his program on the map with a deep tournament run like Richmond’s Chris Mooney or Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart. But Byrd has proved to be just as successful at tiny Belmont.
In 25 years as head coach at the university, he has accumulated more than 500 wins, guided the program from the NAIA to NCAA Division I and has developed Belmont into a mid-major power in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
When asked on Tuesday, Byrd, 57, wouldn’t say if he had been contacted by school officials from Tennessee. Nor would he say if he would be interested if the Vols came calling.
“I am going to wait and see. ... I get up and I come in here to work every day. I let things take care of themselves and I always have. I don’t know whether I would leave or not,” Byrd, who graduated from Tennessee in 1976, said. “I have found in the past that you don’t really know how you are going to react to making a move until it is really right there in front of you. Then it is a gut call, not an intellectual call.
“There have been times in the past when I thought I was going to make a move and take a job. When it came time, I felt more comfortable remaining at Belmont. You don’t know. You really don’t know until it is reality, I don’t think.”
Byrd is just one of 12 active coaches with at least 600 career victories — he was also at Maryville College and Lincoln Memorial. He has built a reputation as not only a hard-worker, but a good all-around person.
“There is not a better guy in our profession,” Vanderbilt coach and longtime friend Kevin Stallings said a couple months ago. “He combines a unique quality of being a great guy and a great coach. There are a lot of great coaches and a lot of great guys but very few are both and he is.”
He has also proven he can recruit. He currently has two high-caliber guards in Ian Clark, a highly touted recruit out of Memphis, and Kerron Johnson, Alabama’s Mr. Basketball in 2009. Plus, he has another on the way in Spencer Turner, a shooting guard out of Bloomington, Ind., who signed a national letter of intent back in November.
This past season, Byrd rotated 12 players, and 11 averaged more than 10 minutes a game as Belmont’s depth overwhelmed A-Sun competition. Consequently, the Bruins grabbed a program-best 19 league wins. Along with their NCAA Tournament loss to Wisconsin last week, they also dropped close games to Vanderbilt (once) and Tennessee (twice).
In Belmont’s first meeting with the Volunteers this season, the Bruins had two chances to tie in the last 35 seconds. In the second game, Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson made a layup with 5.7 seconds left to lift the Vols to a one-point victory.
Belmont spent nine weeks among 'others receiving votes' in either the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll or Associated Press poll — firsts for the program. Byrd also was named the A-Sun Coach of the Year and on Tuesday was picked as the National Association of Basketball Coaches District 3 Coach of the Year.
Byrd’s accolades and track record could be enough for Tennessee to take a peak his way.
“I don’t think I deserve anything,” Byrd said. “That is for other people to decide, anyway. I probably didn’t deserve the Belmont job when I got it. ... It would be like saying, ‘Do you deserve to be in the basketball hall of fame?’ Well, somebody else has to decide that. I am sure not going to campaign for it. Those are things that come to you in the course of your career. Other people decide those things, you don’t. I just don’t think about it in those terms.”
Pearl took a similar path to Tennessee. He started at smaller school in Southern Indiana, led the Screaming Eagles to nine straight NCAA Division II tournaments and to the national championship in 1995. He moved up to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, took the Panthers to two NCAA Division I tournaments in four years. Their Sweet 16 appearance in 2005 helped land him the UT job.
Despite the off-the-court issues that ultimately got Pearl fired on Monday, he led the Volunteers to a school-record six straight NCAA Tournaments in his six years at the helm.
“There is no question that Bruce did a lot of great things for Tennessee basketball,” Byrd said. “There is no question he inspired a lot of fans. ... It was just a disappointing end to a guy who could have had a great, long career there.”
Byrd’s had a great, long career at Belmont. Maybe now could be the time he and that university part ways and he coaches into retirement in his hometown.
Asked if Tennessee would be the job he would be willing to leave Belmont for, Byrd said: “I can speculate on that all I want to. But until a particular job came open — Tennessee, Vanderbilt or Duke or Kentucky — and there was a reality to it, I wouldn’t know.
“I grew up there. I watched them play as a kid. ... It may be a tough few years, but it is a good job for somebody.”
Could that somebody be Byrd?