Tennessee basketball: Now retired, Rick Byrd the best coach Vols never hired

DAYTON, OHIO - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Byrd of the Belmont Bruins reacts during the second half against the Temple Owls in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 19, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DAYTON, OHIO - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Byrd of the Belmont Bruins reacts during the second half against the Temple Owls in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 19, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Belmont Bruins head coach Rick Byrd is retiring. He was meant to coach Tennessee basketball, but the Volunteers never hired him.

Bruce Pearl taking the Auburn Tigers to the Final Four shows just how odd Tennessee basketball’s coaching situation has been this century. They ran off the first coach ever to win 20 or more games and make the NCAA Tournament four years in a row back in 2001 in Jerry Green.

A decade later, the Vols fired Pearl for lying about a violation that is no longer a violation. Three years after that, they lost Cuonzo Martin after a very rocky situation involving some fans wanting him gone in order to rehire Pearl. And then came the Donnie Tyndall fiasco.

Of course, there was the failed Buzz Peterson experiment. Now there is the always stable Rick Barnes. Amidst all of these good coaches, fans are more than happy to have Barnes at the helm right now, especially after their second 30-plus win season in school history and spending four weeks at No. 1.

But through all of this, there was a UT graduate slowly building a program at a small baptist college up the road in Nashville. And even when no candidate was available, they never made the call like they should have.

We’re talking, of course, about Rick Byrd. The Belmont Bruins coach announced his retirement Monday after 33 years on the job and on the heels of his eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years, just losing to the Maryland Terrapins. With over 700 wins at the school and 800 college wins total, Byrd coached Belmont from NAIA to Independent to Division I.

He led Belmont to nine straight NAIA playoff appearances and five conference tournament titles at that level along with two conference regular season titles. Then, when they joined Division I in 1996, a new rebuilding process began. By 2006, the rebuild had worked. Since then, Belmont has made eight NCAA Tournaments and won eight Atlantic Sun tournament championships along with five Atlantic Sun regular season championships. They also earned three NIT berths on top of that.

Through all of this success, Byrd received calls from larger schools everywhere. But he constantly rejected them. There was clearly only one school he would leave this private college in Nashville for, and it was his alma mater: Tennessee basketball.

Byrd graduated from Tennessee in the 1970s and began his career as an assistant there before starting his head coaching career in Division III at Maryville College in 1978. After two years there, he became an assistant at Tennessee Tech before spending three years at the NAIA school Lincoln Memorial, from 1983 to 1986. Three straight 20-win seasons and a conference title got him the job at Belmont, where he did the remarkable rebuild.

Early on, it made sense for Tennessee basketball to never call. Things never really lined up. The Vols couldn’t hire him as an NAIA coach over Wade Houston or Kevin O’Neill. Even when they hired Jerry Green, he had only spent two years in Division I. And at the time Green had left, Byrd had suffered three losing seasons in five years in Division I. So Buzz Peterson got the job.

The year Peterson got it, though, was Byrd’s first year in the Atlantic Sun. They won their division the next season. Still, it wasn’t enough by the time the Vols fired Peterson. So they went for Bruce Pearl. Tennessee basketball was such a surprise Pearl’s first year that nobody thought about what Byrd had done that same year, in 2005-2006. That was the first year Belmont made the Big Dance.

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In each of Pearl’s first three years with the Vols, Belmont was also making history by making the NCAA Tournament. They had made it four of the six seasons Pearl was on Rocky Top. Still, with Pearl, nobody would think about Byrd…until 2011, when Pearl was forced out. At that point, the stars seemed aligned.

Tennessee basketball was looking for a coach who had success, wouldn’t put the program in trouble, and would bring stability. What better candidate than the guy up the road who had, at the time, won over 500 games and taken Belmont to four NCAA Tournaments in six years? Well, that call was too obvious for Mike Hamilton, so he instead hired Cuonzo Martin.

Martin wasn’t a bad coach, but we all know about the disastrous relationship during those three years. During that time, Byrd made two more NCAA Tournament appearances. And after Pearl was hired at Auburn in 2014, Martin bolted a program he took to the Sweet 16 for Cal.

Again, though, Byrd was on the market. By this point, he had made seven NCAA Tournaments in five years and passed 600 wins. But Dave Hart passed him over for Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall was fired in a year after recruiting violations.

It’s easy to say now Tennessee basketball got it right with the Barnes hire. But what if they had hired Byrd in 2011? What if they did it in 2014? Could they have been further ahead as a program overall? Byrd had proven he was a masterful tactician and a great basketball mind.

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Now, whether or not he could recruit at that level would be a question. And it is true that he never got past the Round of 64. But what Byrd did do at Belmont was incredible. It would have been amazing to see what he could have done with Tennessee basketball. Because the timing was rarely right, though, and because of two athletic directors’ egos, we will never know what would have come of that match made in heaven.