It is that time of year for me to be conflicted again, and it looks as if I had better get used to it. Yes, every time the OVC men’s basketball tournament rolls around in March, my loyalties will be tested. For as everyone who knows me well understands, I am a die-hard Racers fan. I love the Murray State Racer tradition and history with Jumping Joe Fulks and Bennie Purcell and Howie Crittenden.
Two of my basketball coaches at Webster County High School – Eddie Ford and Gene Pendleton – played at Murray State in the 1960s under Coach Cal Luther, and when I played basketball at Webster County, each year Coach Ford – you will know his son, Travis, the University of Kentucky point guard and now the Oklahoma State head coach who, with Marcus Smart, won a big game over Kansas last Saturday night – would bring our team to Racer Arena to see Murray State play. Les Taylor, a sharpshooting forward, was the star in the early 1970s, and he taught me that a scorer could also play unrelenting defense. Cal Luther demanded it.
In those days there was no better place in the world to watch a basketball game than old Racer Arena. We sat right down on the floor on one baseline. Coach Ford took us into the dressing room after the games. Cal Luther held a basketball clinic at our high school. I always felt at home at Murray State, so when a position opened up in the department of history here in 1996, I was elated when I got the job. I naturally followed the Racers closely, first at Racer Arena, and then in the new arena, now the CFSB Center.
I love Coach Steve Prohm and everything that he stands for – his commitment to the welfare of his players, his determination to cultivate scholar/athletes and his faith. When the time comes, I will retire from the department of history at Murray State, but Evelyn and I will buy season tickets and we will continue to follow the Racers and their winning ways.
In the 2012-2013 season, something terrible happened. At least something happened that caused me to have conflicted loyalties come every March. Belmont joined the OVC. Belmont was one of six schools that gave me a chance to play college basketball. At Belmont, I played basketball for four years, and co-captained the team my senior year. In those years, Belmont competed in the small college NAIA; the university did not make the jump to NCAA Division I until 1996, the year my family and I moved to Murray State.
I did not play for Coach Rick Byrd, although he has become my friend. My coach, Dick Campbell, won the NAIA National Coach of the Year when he was with Carson-Newman in the 1960s. Coach Campbell had jumped to the NCAA, first to The Citadel and then to Xavier where he had not been as successful, before coming to Belmont. Rick Byrd did not come to Belmont until 1986. Coach Byrd displays those same traits as Steve Prohm. Both Byrd and Prohm are gracious in victory or defeat; other coaches should follow their example.
I am finishing up “The Belmont Story, 1890-2015: From Here to Anywhere,” a history of Belmont which will appear later this year in time for the school’s 125th anniversary in 2015. I have interviewed Rick Byrd several times, along with his good friend, Vince Gill. For those of you going to the OVC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., this week, you will find Gill sitting somewhere near the Belmont bench at every Belmont game.
Perhaps one of the most famous and visible FOBs – Friends of Belmont – Gill has won 18 Country Music Association awards, 20 Grammy awards and sold more than 26 million albums. He has won the Male Vocalist of the Year award five times, was named Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994 and ranks third in accumulating the most CMA awards in history. Yet, despite all these accolades, when Belmont bestowed on the music legend an honorary doctorate of humanities degree on May 14, 2011, he said “I have never been more honored to receive anything in my life because it came strictly from a friendship.”
Gill spoke of his friendship with Belmont’s coach Rick Byrd. “I met Rick on a golf course (in 1987). I was making records at that point but couldn’t prove it because no one owned them,” Gill said. At the same time, Byrd “was coaching basketball, but he couldn’t prove it then because no one came to the games. It’s easily been one of the best friendships I ever had.”
I interviewed Gill behind the Belmont bench in the Curb Special Events Center after the Bruins beat Lipscomb November 20, 2013. Gill was talking to my brother Steve; he was so nice. I asked him about Coach Byrd. Among the leaders in the nation in number of wins, so highly successful in leading teams in two different conferences to the NCAA tournament, what has been the source of Rick Byrd’s success as a coach, I asked him? According to his friend, Byrd’s success “goes to the core of who he is as a man.” “He’s the same man on that floor as he is in line at a restaurant or on a vacation or on a golf trip,” Gill said. “I love how he treats these kids. You know, you never see a kid leave here and say bad things about Rick.” According to Gill, Byrd “has always put the kid first; he’s always recruited maybe not the best player, but always the best kid.” Gill went on to discuss the Belmont tradition of graduating athletes, the GPA of athletes, “all those things are unmatched.”
At Belmont I played basketball and majored in history. I fell in love with the college environment and the life of the mind. At Murray State, I have been given the opportunity to practice my calling, to teach and to research and write. I love both schools. I owe so much to both institutions, debts that I can never repay. So you can see why I will remain conflicted at this time of the year. I have a feeling it will be like this for a long time.
Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history