March 5, 2008

Belmont's Byrd recruited Bruins' famous fan

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NASHVILLE Rick Byrd introduced himself to Vince Gill at a charity golf tournament in 1987.

Byrd had just completed his second season as the men's basketball coach at Belmont University. Gill had his second country solo album under his belt. Still, essentially, they were two guys you wouldn't know without a program.

"He walked up to me and goes, 'Hey, I'm really a big music fan, and I understand you're a big sports fan,' " Gill said. "He said, 'I actually have heard of you' those were my years of really struggling and he said, 'I coach a small school here in Nashville, and if you ever want to make a game just let me know and I'll leave you some tickets.'


Name: Rick Byrd
Age: 54
School: Belmont
NCAA Tournament appearances: Two (2006, '07)
Cool fact: Only eight Division I coaches have been in place at their current schools longer than Byrd's 22-year tenure at Belmont. That includes three Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Arizona's Lute Olson who've won national championships.

"I liked him right away."

Thus began a unique friendship that continues to this day between a Hall of Fame coach (Byrd was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2003) and a Hall of Fame musician (Gill was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007). Of late, Byrd has guided Belmont to the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons and will try to make it three in a row in this week's Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. Gill won a Grammy in February for best country album.

Their friendship was cemented quickly those many years ago. Gill took up Byrd on his offer to attend a game, and both remember vividly his first appearance behind the Bruins' bench.

"We had an early season conference tournament, and we played on the first day at like 2 p.m.," Byrd said. "Now remember, Vince and I are not really friends, we've just met, and I didn't know his personality that well now, this doesn't surprise me, of course but he decided he was a Belmont fan. He's sitting behind the bench, and there's a call in front of us that doesn't go our way. Since there wasn't anybody in the gym, he ran the length of the floor in the bleachers yelling at the ref. You can hear the stands going boom! Boom! Boom!"

Even in an empty gym, it takes a certain kind of fan to run the length of the bleachers just to give an official an earful.

"The whole team turned around and said, 'Hey, Coach, who's the nut you invited to our game?' " Gill said.

Later that same season, with the Bruins ravaged by illness and injury, Byrd invited Gill to suit up for practice during December. Gill put on a jersey and put in a couple of weeks.

Byrd said Gill was big and tough and strong enough to hold his own on the defensive end. Gill remembers it differently.

"I got my head kicked in," Gill said. "Everybody was like, 'Set a pick on Vince, he'll run right into you.' It was a nightmare.

"I'm not any good, but I'm real enthusiastic."

The coach and the musician started hanging out frequently. They're a bit of an odd couple. Gill is tall, tousled and gregarious. Byrd is short, conservative and quiet. But they found common ground in basketball, golf and music.

Byrd is a huge country music fan and an avid golfer. Gill is a Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter and an avid golfer. They built a lot of trips around indulging their love for golf.


Name: Vince Gill
Age: 50
Albums sold: 26 million
Grammy awards: 19 (the most of any male country artist)
Cool fact: Gill turned down an offer from Mark Knopfler to join Dire Straits in 1990.

"We've played a ton of golf together," Gill said. "He'll always make a road trip with me and come out and ride the bus. We'll pick a long weekend where there's lots of good golf courses, and we'll go play golf all day long and I'll sing at night."

If golf is mentioned, both are at the ready.

"They'll play a gig in Indianapolis, drive all night and play golf at some great golf course in the morning, and then they'll drive to Columbus, Ohio, and we'll get up and play Muirfield Village (Jack Nicklaus' home course and the site of the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament) the next morning," Byrd said. "I've played the Colonial in Fort Worth, Kiawah Island in South Carolina, any number of great golf courses with Vince and because of Vince."

Gill led Byrd to break from character on an excursion to Orlando for VH1's first "Fairway to Heaven" charity golf event. They were staying at a condo at Walt Disney World, and out of their second-floor, lake-view window, they spotted a green across the lake.

"One of us looks out there and says if you open that sliding-glass door and get it up quick enough over the rail, we can get it on the green," Byrd said. "So we got 8-irons. It was probably about 100 yards, but you really didn't want to take a full swing. So we put pillows here's the glass door, opening wide, so we stacked pillows up against the door in case we hooded the shot too much.

"We had a contest to see who could hit the most balls on the green. You had to hit a low hook. You couldn't get it up too fast because of the balcony above, but you have to get it over the railing. I'm about as plain a guy as there is, and that's about the craziest thing I've ever done."

Golf can make a man do and say crazy things.

"I'd rather be playing golf than coaching basketball any day if I was good enough," Byrd said.

Fortunately for Belmont, Byrd hasn't achieved such a level on the links. But the guy is positively Nicklausian on the hardwood. He is in his 22nd season at the school and is 538-302. He guided the Bruins to two NAIA Final Four appearances, and since they made the move to Division I in 1997-98, he has taken them to the postseason three times, including two consecutive NCAA bids.

The Atlantic Sun Conference rises and sets with Belmont. Byrd's teams have won at least 20 games each of the past three seasons and are 41-15 in league play during that stretch.

"He has a brilliant mind for the game offensively," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, with whom Byrd has become friends. "He consistently gets his team to play at a level that is higher than their individual abilities."

Byrd and Gill have had front-row seats to watch each other's career arcs. Byrd was there the first time Gill played the Grand Ole Opry. Gill traveled to San Diego to watch Byrd coach in his first NCAA Tournament game. Byrd has been to dozens of concerts. Gill has been to hundreds of games. They've ridden buses together in both endeavors. Gill even hurried back from this year's Grammys so he wouldn't miss a Belmont game.

Anyone looking for Gill knows he can be found behind the bench at Belmont's Curb Event Center.

"We don't have any fans as adamant or engaged as Vince Gill," Bruins junior captain Will Peeples said. "He doesn't give an inch to any ref or opposing player. In fact, we sometimes have to keep from laughing during the huddle because the stuff he says is so funny.

"I think we all feel a little bit famous when we look in the crowd and see a multiple Grammy winner donning a Belmont sweatsuit and cheering us on."

As Gill and Byrd have become more successful, they haven't had as much time for each other.

"For the first couple of seasons, I didn't have a whole lot going on so I made a lot of games," Gill said. "But as I was working more and more, I didn't make as many games. But we always called each other and talked about how they did.

"It's a really important friendship to me, and I think for him, too. We got to operate a friendship with somebody in a totally different arena. I get to hang out with him and talk about ballplayers and golf and all kinds of things, and he'd come and hang out with us and get to talk about music and songs. He's a huge music fan, and he's really got good taste. He knows great songs and really has an ear for who's talented. It makes for a great friendship."

It certainly has given Byrd some cherished memories.

"Vince shot a Garrison Keillor special at the Ryman Auditorium one time, and Chet Atkins was there," Byrd said. "There was a delay in the shoot, like there is a lot of times in TV stuff, and we went back into a little room and Vince and Chet sat there and talked about guitar playing and sang songs for each other.

"I'm the only other guy in the room. I'm thinking, 'They can shoot whatever they want out there, but I'm in here with a guy who ends up being the entertainer of the year and a hall of fame member with one of the greatest guitar players and one of the pioneers of country music.' There's nothing like that."

Another memory is probably just a hooded 8-iron away.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for He can be reached at

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