ANAHEIM, CALIF. – Your Minnesota Golden Gophers are right in the middle of the Elite Eight, or at least in the middle of the melodramas that led to the coaching moves that brought the hottest coach in college basketball to the strangest of hoops hotbeds.
If the Gophers hadn’t fired Tubby Smith, Texas Tech might today still be known mostly for residing in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
Disgraced Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague fired Smith after he won an NCAA tournament game in 2013. Texas Tech hired Smith. He had two losing seasons, then won 19 games and went to the NCAA tournament.
Smith loved living in Lubbock so much he turned his 46-50 record at Tech into a job offer at Memphis. He accepted, leaving Tech’s bland basketball legacy in desperate need of a spice.
Chris Beard has become the Red Raiders’ Tabasco. Tech had never made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Bobby Knight didn’t take the Red Raiders there, nor did his son, Pat, nor Smith, nor a former hotshot named Billy Gillispie.
Gillispie was supposed to be the magic coach who would put Tech on the map, but coaching there knocked him out of Division I. He’s coaching at “Ranger College” since Tech fired him three years ago.
After Smith fled Lubbock, a former Tech assistant named Chris Beard signed a contract to coach UNLV, which thought it had found the next Jerry Tarkanian. Beard had attended the University of Texas, had coached there under Tom Penders, and had been an assistant at Tech under Bobby and Pat Knight.
UNLV’s hiring process included having Beard justify his salary in an open meeting before the board of regents. When Tech made him a big offer, he accepted on one condition — that he could fly that night to Lubbock to begin work.
In his first season at Tech, Beard went 18-14 and finished seventh in the Big 12. Last season, he went 27-10 and finished second. This season, he is 29-6 and Tech tied for the regular-season conference title.
Tech had never qualified for the Elite Eight before Beard arrived. He has taken the Red Raiders there in consecutive seasons, and will face top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday with a berth at the Final Four in Minneapolis on the line.
Did Beard really think he could win big in Lubbock?
“Yes, I did,” he said Friday. “With Coach Knight, we had three tournament runs, the NIT, had a great game against Gonzaga once in Arizona … and then Coach Smith, Tubby Smith, can’t speak enough of him, the foundation we inherited. The discipline, the defense, the character in the program.
“Absolutely, we believed that Texas Tech could be a part of the fight every year.”
Beard has bags under the bags under his eyes. He’s known for staying up early in the morning watching video and strategizing, and his game plan against Michigan held the Wolverines to 16 first-half points in Tech’s 63-44 victory on Thursday.
Forward Tariq Owens, who is majoring in sports management, was asked if he would hire Beard.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, everything he told me would happen has been true. As the person I am, how I was raised, I really like people who tell the truth. Coach Beard lives by that, and also how hard he works. His work ethic is unmatched.”
Before he belatedly became an overnight success, Beard was a head coach at Fort Scott Community College, Seminole State Junior College, South Carolina (the Warriors, a semi-pro team), McMurry, Angelo State and Arkansas-Little Rock.
He remembered driving all night with his small-school teams, and having to scrounge food on the road. One time, broadcaster Jim Rome let Beard and his team eat in the hotel’s concierge lounge. “Prime rib sliders, those little bottles of water,” Beard said with a smile. “We killed it.”
Now when he travels he said he gets to eat his Lucky Charms “with a silver spoon.”
None of this would have been possible if Tubby Smith hadn’t taken a liking to Memphis.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: email@example.com