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Could the Belmont Bruins be the NCAA’s next Gonzaga? Here’s the argument.

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Everybody has a role model, the pinnacle of all aspiration. For the Nashville rapper selling mixtapes out of his car trunk on Dickerson Pike, maybe it's homegrown hip-hop hero Young Buck. For the kid shooting hoops on the blacktop near Maplewood High, it might be LeBron James. But for upstart college basketball programs seeking a springboard onto the national stage, that role model is as clear as its name is distinctive.

Before the mid-1990s, Gonzaga University was barely a blip on the basketball radar. A private Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., Gonzaga hadn't fielded a football program since prior to Pearl Harbor. Its most famous alumnus was Bing Crosby. Who would have thought? But in 1999, the Gonzaga men's hoops program—the Bulldogs, or as fans know them, the Zags—seized the national spotlight, advancing all the way to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. Every March since, they've been in the Big Dance.

The reasons why are numerous. An appearance in the NCAA tourney doesn't just imprint itself upon the collective mindset of fans and ESPN. It also attracts big-time prep prospects who want the boost of association with a winning team. The well-funded Gonzaga has another magnet in its esteemed coach for the past 10 years, Mark Few. Plus, the Zags, by a wide margin, are the standout program in the West Coast Conference.

Hmmm. Small private school with no football team. A talented, respected coach who's staying put. A conference it can dominate. Some local hoops fans look at those elements, and they think of another team that might answer that description. Its name: the Belmont Bruins.

To be sure, no one is comparing Belmont with the Gonzaga team of 1999 and the program the decade hence. "I don't think there ever could be such a thing as a 'Gonzaga of the South,' " says Mike DeCourcy, a senior writer for Sporting News. "What has happened for Gonzaga is as much a product of its geography as it is its vision, ambition and competence."

But the Gonzaga that started picking up momentum in the mid-1990s and made its NCAA Tournament entrance in 1995—that may be a goal within closer reach than you might think.

Gradually and somewhat quietly, the Bruin program under coach Rick Byrd has developed a reputation much like the one Gonzaga began establishing in the 1993-94 season. In the past five seasons, Byrd's Bruins have managed to upset big-name Division I teams seemingly out of Belmont's league, such as Alabama, Cincinnati and Missouri.

That alone is impressive. But by the down-is-up standards of college ball, the bigger deal may be the close calls Belmont has given some of the NCAA's most feared powerhouses. Who would have thought that in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the Bruins would give No. 2-seeded Duke a nailbiter settled in the last minute of play?

And yet there was Belmont driving the mighty Blue Devils all the way to the wall, forcing them to scratch out a one-point victory, 71-70.

In addition, Belmont has battled high-profile Division I teams at Kansas State, Memphis and Tennessee to the wire, while putting up respectable games against Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Michigan State. And it's worth pointing out that all those contests were played at the opponents' arenas—except for the Duke game, played before the nation at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

This Friday, the Belmont Bruins men's basketball team opens its season against Portland State. Of note, the game is in Seattle, practically Gonzaga's backyard. Some argue that Belmont's chance of achieving Gonzaga-like status is no more likely than conservative dresser Byrd ditching his ubiquitous sweater vest for a flashy Italian suit. Mike DeCourcy, for one, says respectable but less buzz-heavy schools such as Butler and Davidson make better models to compare with Belmont.

"Every school in America seems to want to be the Gonzaga of where they are," DeCourcy says.

Right—because Gonzaga is perceived as superior to the Butlers and Davidsons of the hoops world. True, Belmont could also aspire to match what the College of Charleston and Valparaiso have accomplished in the past 15 years or so. But who would care?

No, the kind of success that would put the Bruins within hailing distance of Gonzaga would be measured in Top 25 teams and annual appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including some wins. Not to mention producing the occasional NBA player. But if Gonzaga could reach an Elite Eight after only relatively recent success, why couldn't Belmont win two games in an NCAA tourney—the rough equivalent of a national championship for a "mid-major program"?

"I've heard coaches around the country talk like that," says Ron Bargatze, a Nashville-based college basketball expert, ex-coach and former Belmont student-athlete.

But for Byrd to elevate his program to a national presence—despite its affiliation with the oft-dismissed Atlantic Sun Conference—he and Belmont will have to face some looming questions. Are the Bruin coaches and the school's administration willing to tackle the expense, pressure and expectations that come with being in the majors? Can Nashville provide the kind of fan base, corporate support and media profile that gets a team to the dance?

Those are tough issues, to be sure. But the toughest involves landing the caliber of players required to build a legacy. To put it bluntly, Belmont must figure out a way to attract the African-American players who typically lead basketball teams to glory. More specifically, Byrd and his staff must consistently recruit—for the first time in the program's history—power forwards and centers, black or white, who are tall and talented enough to compete against the elite.

 

There's yet another factor to consider if Belmont wants to reach Gonzaga's scale of success. At high-profile programs, coaches often place unrealistic time demands on their players. The results often yield young men who are primarily athletes, not the ideal of the student-athlete—one area in which the Bruins cannot be faulted. Given that their every move is scrutinized, coaches at big-time programs are less likely to apply full penalties to star players who violate team rules.

Do Belmont and Rick Byrd want to play this game?

"I will not change the way we run our program in order to get any closer [to national status]," Byrd says.

But don't be fooled. Despite his understated demeanor and affable persona, Byrd relishes the chance to bring the Bruins out of regional hibernation and onto the national stage. So does Bob Fisher, the Belmont president who has overseen enviable improvements to the university in other areas. Mention Gonzaga to Fisher, and one suspects he's been waiting for the question.

"That really has been our vision for this," Fisher says. "The moment that defined this for me was when we went up and played Missouri [in 2003]. I'm standing in line to buy my tickets and some Missouri fans said, 'Are you from Belmont? You better hurry up because you're going to be greatly outnumbered.' I said every other team we play has five players."

Belmont proceeded to beat the Tigers 71–67. A few months later, Fisher and his wife found themselves in Spokane visiting the Gonzaga campus.

"We looked at their facility, the size of the university," he recalls. "All those things are similar [to what we have at Belmont]."

When asked if Belmont men's basketball could use the Gonzaga model, Fisher says simply, "I've had the conversation with both [Belmont athletics director Mike Strickland] and Rick." That chat likely touched on the fact that elevating BU hoops to Gonzaga-like heights will be no easier than convincing the Rolling Stones they are too old to rock.

No one knows better how tough that road will be than Mike Roth, the Gonzaga athletics director who hit a home run when the school replaced Dan Monson (who left for Minnesota in 1999) with Mark Few.

"I get calls from other athletics directors and university presidents," Roth tells the Scene. "They ask, 'How do you do it?' "

The short answer: money. Roth declines to say what Gonzaga pays Few, but the most recent media reports (from 2006) note an annual salary of $600,000. Today, that mark could easily be approximately $1 million. And that's only the start of the program's costs, from staff to travel.

Is "being Gonzaga" worth that kind of money? Roth says since 1999, the university has seen major increases in donations and the academic achievements of its incoming freshman classes. About 1,240 freshmen, the largest number in school history, enrolled this past fall.

"It's the '[Doug] Flutie Effect,' " says Roth, recalling a term used to describe what the former Boston College quarterback did for that school's fortunes in the 1980s.

Officials with an athletics program must show some intestinal fortitude if they want to play a high stakes game of hoops. Roth pooh-poohs that notion on Gonzaga's part, noting, "I don't think our president or board of trustees have viewed it as 'stomaching.' " Of course, when you've arrived at your destination, it's easy to say you felt confident before and during the trip.

Belmont officials have proved they are not averse to pumping money into the Bruin basketball program. Belmont spent $52.4 million on its Beaman Student Life Center, Curb Event Center and parking garage. The three facilities, which opened in 2003, serve various functions. But the Curb was constructed, in part, for basketball.

"My philosophy has been that we have to take this in stages," Strickland says. "When we started in 1996, we were at the lowest level [of NCAA Division I]. We've tried to build this brick by brick. That relates to better facilities, better players, more exposure."

Ask him Coach Byrd's salary, though, and Strickland declines to tell. Suffice to say it's not $1 million. Is Strickland prepared to eventually up the salaries of Byrd and his assistants, while simultaneously elevating the staff's recruiting budget?

"I always pictured us trying to be a Marquette, DePaul or Georgetown," Strickland says, noting that the three (all members of the Big East) are located in large cities with professional sports franchises. "Those are the role models. But those people had to pay dues. I don't expect us to be a Marquette overnight."

Strickland says Belmont has "enough money in the budget to do what we need to do at this stage" of the program's evolution. He estimates the budget for men's basketball has increased "three to four times" since Belmont went Division I 13 years ago.

"But I'm not necessarily sure if we doubled that budget tomorrow, that would be good," he says.

Money, in a sense, is the easiest of Belmont's challenges, or at least the easiest to pinpoint. A trickier matter is the makeup of its team. It is no secret that Belmont basketball is perceived as a "white program" that relies on undersized perimeter players who can shoot threes.

The numbers don't lie. This year's 15-man roster will likely have more tall players than any other in Bruin history. Yet only four of those players stand 6-8 or taller and play the power forward and/or center spot. Only five of the 15 are black, with slender 6-7 Blake Jenkins the tallest and 205-pound Jordan Campbell the heaviest.

Since Rick Byrd's tenure began in 1986, no individual Bruin team has included more than five African-American players. Only one black player 6-7 or taller, Omari Booker, has been a part of the program since it began Division I play in 1996-97, and he participated a mere one season. Perhaps most tellingly, Byrd has the loyalty of three white longtime assistants who seemingly have no desire to leave. That leaves little room for the veteran coach to hire an African-American assistant.

Has this made it harder for Belmont to draw top-notch African-American prospects? The Scene asked William Jenkins, a longtime follower of Middle Tennessee basketball who moves easily among the city's various ethnic groups. A black man and a member of the Church of Christ, he keeps tabs on the Nashville college and prep hoops scene with coaches, fans and former players in the African-American community.

"They always say, 'If Rick Byrd could get some African-American players, Belmont could be even better. For [the personnel] he has, he does a great job,' " Jenkins says.

This is not to contend that to be high profile, a men's college basketball program must have African-American assistants or players who are predominantly black, big or both. For example, Duke is a national power and is as white as Idaho after a major snowfall. In 1998, Utah started only one black player, Andre Miller, and had just one other on the roster when Coach Rick Majerus led the Utes to the national title game. Utah remains very competitive, and very white. Many Big Ten programs each year feature racially mixed rosters, with at least one (and often two or three) contributing white players.

The reality, however, is that the white interior players at Duke, Utah and the Big Ten will always be collectively longer and stronger than the Bruins' whites. Recruiting is a numbers game, and there are fewer quality post players than perimeter players. The best interior talents sign with the elite programs.

In general, the average Belmont player, regardless of race, stands about 6-4 and is not particularly chiseled—not the prototypical body type for players found on the rosters of Top 25 programs. Assuming Byrd and his assistants fail to successfully recruit a few tall and talented African-American players, Belmont will not challenge for a Sweet 16 spot—much less be annually competitive nationally like Gonzaga—unless it signs the next Larry Bird or stocks up, a la the Big Ten programs, on white bruisers 6-8 or taller with decent skills.

Since 1996-97, Belmont has featured only two interior players—the bullish yet skilled Adam Sonn, and the slender but hard-nosed Adam Mark—who could have been major contributors in the paint had they played at Memphis, Tennessee or Vanderbilt. Former big men Boomer Herndon and Andrew Preston were solid Division I players, while this year's team will feature 6-10 Scott Saunders, a transfer from Conference USA-affiliated Rice.

"I would agree with you 100 percent," Strickland says when asked if mid-major programs face challenges signing quality big men. Still, Strickland likes the program's interior player situation, citing Saunders specifically.

Mark, who finished his career in 2003-04 with a final season average of about 18 points and eight rebounds, admits it's a challenge for Belmont to land quality interior players.

"The coaches do a great job of finding players who can fit into that environment," Mark says.

To complicate matters, Belmont players must thrive in the classroom, too. Last year's team boasted a collective GPA of 3.22, the ninth consecutive year of the program's GPA being 3.0 or higher. Obviously, there are only so many tall, talented and academically oriented prospects available. In the Class of 2010, Belmont coveted Chattanooga's 6-9 Michael Bradley. Instead, he recently committed to Connecticut.

So what can Byrd do to attract taller and more talented athletes? Asking a dedicated Bruin assistant coach to step aside so that a top-notch recruiter could be hired would be painful, if not unethical. If the replacement, hypothetically, were black, the situation could prove quite unseemly.

The Belmont staff, perhaps Division I's longest tenured group, includes Associate Head Coach Casey Alexander, who played for Byrd and enters his 15th year as a coach in the program. Assistant Coach Brian Ayers begins his 12th season with Byrd, while Roger Idstrom is ready for Season 10 with the Bruins. All are fine men and competent coaches — yet each brings to the recruiting table a background that suggests modest chances of his landing a skilled 6-8 African-American power player who could help carry the team to the brink of an Elite Eight appearance.

"It's an unusual staff configuration, but Rick surrounds himself with people he's comfortable with," says Chris Dortch, editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and a national expert on college hoops. "A coach should always do that."

Sporting News' DeCourcy says the issue should not be framed along racial lines.

"I think basketball has reached the point where it's no longer an important issue," he says. "No one talks about how many African-American head basketball coaches there are, because there are a lot of them. I'm proud to cover a sport where that is not a problem."

Most coaches, if questioned about the fact that their program lacks an African-American presence, might react defensively. Byrd, to his credit, handles the topic forthrightly.

"If I was going to get 'sociological,' skin color should not make a difference," Byrd says, while simultaneously acknowledging the major contributions African-American players and coaches have made to the game. "Saying that, three of our four incoming class players are black. That wasn't by design."

In fairness, it's not that any of the three assistants, or Byrd himself, is possessed of any character flaw or lack of respect for African-American hoops culture. But when Belmont has what might be the only all-white staff among NCAA Division I men's basketball programs in the South, it potentially operates from a disadvantage in recruiting black student-athletes. In addition, Byrd, Alexander and Ayers are longtime Nashvillians, while Idstrom is originally from Indiana. Beyond race, this clearly is not a geographically diverse staff.

In 2000, Idstrom joined the program replacing Howard Pride, who left after 1998. Pride, a former Vanderbilt star, remains the only black assistant Byrd has worked with since Belmont went Division I.

"The obvious answer [to the lack of a black assistant coach] is that we haven't had any turnover," Strickland says. "It's a reflection of continuity. I would be shocked if our kids didn't tell you there is no race factor. We go after people who are Belmont basketball players."

Mark, the former Bruin, politely declines to comment on the race issue.

When asked if the lack of an African-American coaching presence is unusual, Strickland responds, "It is." Interestingly enough, the Gonzaga staff is all white. But somehow, Bulldog coaches have been able to lure black kids into the program, recruiting both nationally and internationally.

"Maybe Belmont could recruit nationally, but I don't see that happening," says Jerry Meyer, recruiting director of rivals.com and a former student-athlete at Belmont rival Lipscomb University. "There is not enough brand power or resources."

When asked about the race issue, Meyer did not hesitate.

"In general, I've always thought Belmont's recruitment has been awfully white," says Meyer, who nevertheless praises Byrd's coaching acumen. "It's a component to this [topic]."

In truth, Blue Ribbon's Dortch says, recruiting is a numbers game. The reality is that there are more talented shorter players than those who stand 6-8 or taller.

"I'm sure Rick would take big-time athletes if he could get them," Dortch said. "But they'd also have to have a high IQ, basketball and otherwise, so they could run Rick's system and get in Belmont academically. Most of those kinds of kids are going to the SEC. It's just such a small pool of talent that Rick can realistically compete for. I think he's done very well by recruiting jump shooters. He realizes the great equalizer is the three-ball."

But if being effective from beyond the arc is the "great equalizer," having a muscle-ripped, athletic enforcer or two in the paint can surely help when the three-pointer isn't falling.

"If Rick had a strong beast-type player down low..." Ron Bargatze muses—then stops, as if he already knows what the result would be.

Beyond the student-athletes signed and the dollars spent, the key difference between Belmont and Gonzaga might be local competition for fans, media and corporate sponsors. Belmont battles, in theory, the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators. In addition, three local universities—Lipscomb, TSU and Vanderbilt—offer a NCAA Division I men's basketball program.

Gonzaga? It's the only game in Spokane. Last season, Belmont averaged about 1,900 fans per game—not the type of attendance figure that might spur the local media to cover the Bruins extensively this season. Gonzaga, by contrast, typically packs its 6,000-seat arena.

"It is sometimes frustrating, but I don't get as frustrated as some people," Strickland says of the modest local media attention Belmont basketball traditionally garners. "You have to create that demand."

To counter, Belmont officials are courting corporate sponsors and advertising (including in publications owned by Scene parent company SouthComm). Jimmy Frush, Belmont's new director of athletics marketing, says Belmont athletics has 27 corporate sponsors (most centered on basketball) for the 2009-10 sports season.

"We've got to get the person with disposable income to attend," Strickland says. "I wouldn't say Nashville is not big enough to support this."

The fact is, though, that until Belmont can land membership in a more high-profile conference, it may continue to struggle signing top-tier players. Belmont officials realize the Atlantic Sun is no SEC, much less a West Coast Conference (Gonzaga's home).

"The conference is somewhat of a handicap," DeCourcy says. The irony is that Belmont can possibly dominate the A-Sun—and conference superiority has, in part, helped Gonzaga reach a level of national notoriety.

"Does [Atlantic Sun affiliation] mean we can't recruit good players and win big games?" Byrd asks, before answering his own question. "How do you get people to go to Spokane? We don't have that [challenge]. We've got a great city. Nashville is a huge reason we've been able to be successful."

Belmont finished last year 20–13, uncharacteristically so-so for the program. But given Byrd's 561 career victories, Belmont's proven ability to compete with the nation's best teams, and the school's high-profile backers—including Mike Curb, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Melinda Doolittle and Darrell Waltrip—there's no reason to think a national berth is beyond the Bruins' reach.

Eager to redeem themselves, the Bruins begin the 2009-10 season this week. If there is to be a Gonzaga of the South—unlikely as that may sound—may it rise on Belmont Boulevard.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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