Edward Pratt: How to blend athletic, academic success _lowres

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd directs his team against Virginia during the first half of an NCAA college tournament basketball game in the Round of 64 in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

I’m in the middle of a conversation when my cellphone rings. “Hello, I’m coach Rick Byrd. I’m returning your call.”

Rick Byrd is probably one of the best college basketball coaches you’ve never heard of. He’s so good that none of his Belmont University Bruin teams will ever win the NCAA basketball championship. None of his teams has ever won an NCAA game during March Madness.

(Belmont once took mighty Duke University to the brink only to lose by one point to the Blue Devils.)

Byrd was returning my call because I wanted to know how a college basketball coach graduates every player that has entered his program for 10 consecutive years.

I heard about this amazing feat on a national radio show, the same day that Belmont lost to the University of Virginia 79-67 in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“The young men that come here know it’s a good school, and that’s why they choose Belmont. … They come here not just to play basketball,” Byrd said.

Belmont is a private, liberal arts Christian college with about 7,200 students in Nashville, Tennessee. Most of its students and players do not come from the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods that fill the rosters of many major college programs. Some may see that as giving Belmont’s basketball team an advantage in the area of academics.

Byrd said he can appreciate college teams loaded with high school all-stars and NBA-destined players, but he believes that some of those players may not be on campus to be both an athlete and a student.

“I just like having real students playing basketball,” Byrd said.

At 61 years old, Byrd has been coaching at Belmont for 29 years. For the past 14 years, his players have averaged a 3.0 grade-point average. And in that time, they have managed to grow from being average to being one of only six NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs to win 26 or more games each of the past four seasons.

And, the Bruins have won six automatic bids to the NCAA tournament in the last nine years.

Over those nearly three decades, “our teams just kept getting better,” he said. And none of his players has left the team for any reason other than graduation. Not one has transferred out or been kicked off the team.

While the bigger schools recruit from the pool of high school All-Americans and traveling high school-age summer league basketball teams, Byrd said, “We just don’t get into that world.”

About the basketball team, Byrd said the bottom line is that, “It is important that our team academically enhances the overall image of the university.”

Here are more stats that Byrd brags about. He has coached 12 academic All-Americans since 2001. His teams have made the Academic Progress Rate Honor Roll for 10 consecutive years. Only two other NCAA schools can match that.

When he is recruiting a Belmont player, Byrd said, he looks for a student-athlete with skills who plays hard all of the time, is tough, doesn’t talk back to the coach or to players on the other team, cheers for his teammates when he is not playing and wants to excel in academics.

Probably all coaches are seeking those qualities, but Byrd and a few others seem to make it work more often.

Lastly, Byrd said he has no need for players “that you have to walk them to their classes. … I don’t want them here.”

On his current 15-man roster, Byrd said there are three players who are below the 3.0 gpa. “If the academic counselors tell me that the players are doing the best they can, I can live with that.”

But those players who fall below the 3.0 gpa might get an encouraging nudge from teammates. “You know it’s kind of cool on our team to make good grades,” Byrd said.

I like that. I’m glad we talked.

Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.