BOSTON – Texas Tech coach Chris Beard couldn’t quite come up with the name. His team had just beaten Purdue to earn the final win of the Sweet 16 on Friday, and he made reference to the upcoming game on Sunday against Villanova.
“We just made the – what’s it called? The Great Eight?” Beard wondered.
Star guard Keenan Evans stepped in to help him: “Elite.”
“The Elite Eight,” an edified Beard repeated.
Whatever it’s called, it’s new territory. Sunday will mark the first time in school history that Tech will play for a spot in the Final Four, a remarkable feat for Beard in just his second season (27-9 and counting) with the Raiders.
But then, that’s been Beard’s history. He’s had five collegiate stops as a head coach, and every stop has brought a wild and quick turnaround in the standings. Back in 2000, he led Fort Scott to a 19-12 record, its first winning season in eight years. He still remembers the place fondly.
“Fort Scott Community College, Arnold Arena, our home arena, was a rodeo barn,” Beard recalled. “It was a metal building with a wall right down the middle and had one single door. Half of it was the rodeo arena, where we had a national championship rodeo team at Fort Scott in Kansas, and the other half was the basketball court. That’s certainly a pretty cool place.”
It lasted just one year, though. The next season, Beard was off to Seminole State in Oklahoma, where his team went 25-6. He later brought McMurry to a 19-10 record in its first year as a Div. II program, and over two seasons (2014-16) at Angelo State, went 47-15, after his predecessor had gone 60-75 in six years.
There was, most important, the whiplash turnaround that brought Beard to national prominence, when he took Arkansas-Little Rock to a 30-5 record in 2015-16, including an upset of fifth-seeded Purdue in the NCAA tournament. The Trojans were 13-18 the previous year, and went 15-17 when Beard bolted after just one season.
All told, Beard is now 185-71 as a college head coach, a record he has built over the years through a lot more thin than thick. He’s been a classic journeyman coach, and it took him a while to accept that about himself, especially as he has had more and more success. He spends his weeks game-planning against the likes of legends Bill Self and Bob Huggins, after all.
Beard has come to realize, though, how important his success is to coaches he’s gone against in the past, and those who are now at the lower levels of the game hoping to work their way up.
“I have the same feelings now that I had at Fort Scott when we were trying to beat Coffeyville or at Angelo State when we were trying to beat Tarleton,” Beard said. “It’s all the same to me. It's all basketball at the core. At first, I shied away from that, but now I embrace it because I feel, if I’m representing other coaches and other levels of basketball and the success we’ve had, I’ll gladly carry that torch because some of the best coaches I’ve coached against are guys you all haven’t heard of.”
Beard’s record of impressive turnarounds does have an asterisk, however. Two years ago, he had taken the job at UNLV on the strength of Arkansas-Little Rock’s performance. But after accepting that job, Tubby Smith left Tech to go to Memphis, and Beard bolted on the Running Rebels after just three weeks.
It was an easy move to understand—Beard had been an assistant at Texas Tech for 10 years and his three young daughters were going to stay in Texas—but it was an ugly situation that feeds the narrative of mercenary coaches, and one that still is cause for aggravation in Las Vegas.
Once he arrived at Texas Tech, though, Beard formed a quick bond with the players who have now led them to the school’s best finish. That, Beard says, has been critical.
“We try to get the relationship as quick as possible,” he said. “That's why we have a lot of things: Individual meetings, I meet with the guys all the time, small groups, team retreats, late nights at the gym, show up to the warmups, be a presence in the training room, be a presence at meals throughout the week. Certainly don't want to get in where they roll their eyes every time they see me. There's a fine line.”
Now, the trick for Beard will be to build on what his team has done this season, after it loses four seniors who rank among the team’s six top scorers, including star Keenan Evans. He will have to recruit players, and forge relationships with them. He will have to continue to hold his team’s place in the ultra-difficult Big 12. He’s trying to keep the focus on the small stuff.
“It’s just back to our day-to-day process, just continuing to do things every single day,” Beard said, “whether it’s nutrition, weight room, individual work, respecting the academic part of being a student-athlete, team practice, fueling the body, recovery, sleep, just do all the things. And as coaches continuing our process—recruiting every day, don't let up, keep grinding, have that balance in your life.”
However Sunday’s game against Villanova plays out, by next fall, Beard will be a coach in Year 3 of his program for the first time in his life. He’s been a master at turnarounds. How will he do at keeping that excellence going?
“That will be kind of the next challenge, can we maintain this?” he said. “And I look forward to that challenge.”