For as long as he lives, Casey Alexander will root for Belmont — except this Saturday and again on Feb. 13.
On those days, it’s his job to beat the Bruins.
Alexander returns home to the Curb Event Center this weekend and for the first time he’ll be sitting on the opposite bench. The 39-year-old is in his first year as the head men’s basketball coach of Stetson, which tips off against Atlantic Sun Conference rival Belmont at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday.
“Awkward is the exact word I’ve used,” Alexander said of the matchup. “To be coaching against a great friend and mentor [in Belmont coach Rick Byrd] and against players I care about and want to see do well it will be awkward. But 100 percent I want Stetson to win the game.”
Alexander spent the previous 16 seasons as an assistant — he was named associate head coach in 2002 — for Byrd and the Bruins. Before his coaching career began, he spent four years as a point guard for Belmont. As a senior during the 1994-95 season, he led the Bruins to a No. 1 ranking in the NAIA and a appearance in the national semifinals.
He didn’t veer far from home when he went off to college either. The Brentwood native attended Brentwood Academy, where he was a three-sport athlete.
Thus, when he took the job at Stetson in DeLand, Fla., last April, Alexander wasn’t just leaving Belmont — he was saying goodbye to the only home he knew. He and his wife, Sunni, raised their three young children in Nashville and both of their parents still live here.
“That has been the greatest difficulty in the transition is simply that Nashville is home,” Alexander said. “It was literally the only place that I ever lived prior to this move. I told a lot of people it didn’t really matter where we moved, it probably wasn’t going to be as good or feel as much like home as Nashville did. We’re in a great place now. We’re making the adjustment and things have been rolling along as they are supposed to.”
With 58-year-old Byrd entering his 26th season and not showing signs of slowing down, Alexander jumped at the chance to be a head coach elsewhere.
Joining him on his staff at Stetson are two guys who have long ties to Belmont — Roger Idstrom and Steve Drabyn. Idstrom spent 11 years on Byrd’s staff and Drabyn scored 1,237 points for the Bruins from 2000-04.
Alexander still turns to Byrd for advice as the two talk after nearly every game via phone or text.
From afar, Byrd admires the job Alexander’s crew has done so far. The Hatters are 7-9 record but 4-2 in conference, tied for second in the A-Sun. Stetson, which features six newcomers, is coming off arguably its biggest win of the season. The Hatters picked up a road victory on Monday at North Florida, which was considered a contender for the A-Sun title prior to the season.
“I’m really impressed with their team,” said Byrd, whose squad is 11-6 and 4-1 in the A-Sun. “I don’t think anybody would have picked Stetson to be playing for the league lead seven games into the year before they started. They lost a bunch of guys. ... He’s had to piece things together. He has some good players and you can see they are responding to him.
“It takes a while when you are brand new and everything is brand new. They are playing with a lot of discipline. You can tell by scouting them that they are doing what their coach is asking them to do.”
For Byrd, it will be the first time in his 31 years of coaching that he has matched up against a former player or coach.
Unlike his former pupil, Byrd doesn’t look at Saturday’s meeting — nor the next one in Florida in February — as weird.
“Personally I enjoy coaching against guys that I like and admire and that certainly is the case here,” Byrd said. “You don’t pick players out but he is as much of a coach’s favorite player as I’ve ever had. He was just that kind of player. He was such a great competitor. He had so much to do with our success in Division I NCAA.”