DALLAS – Most successful organizations adopt a slogan, catchphrase or a buzz word to help define their mission and goals. Some are corny and cheesy like the inspirational wall posters (“Team Work Makes The Dream Work”) available at any office supplies store.
Texas Tech, the No. 3 seed in the East Regional, is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005 when Bob Knight was the coach (and he was only on duty in order to become Division I’s winningest coach until protégé Mike Krzyzewski roared past him into four-digit territory). One of Knight’s favorite phrases has become the mantra/motto for the Red Raiders (26-9), who take on No. 2 seed Purdue Friday in Boston.
Second-year coach Chris Beard, a native of Irving, Texas (a Dallas suburb) is a vagabond/toiler. His career path resembles a tumbleweed in a strong wind, moving from place to place and job to job. But he spent 10 years in Lubbock as an assistant for Knight and then his son Pat.
And while Beards honed his coaching style at various way stations in the lower levels of the sport, a Hall of Famer’s favorite saying has helped Beard and Texas Tech forge a special season.
“One thing coach Knight would always says is that in basketball, the mental is to physical as four is to one. It’s our culture,” Beard says. “A lot of coaches will have sayings they put on t-shirts or bracelets. But it’s just a saying. We mean this, we embrace it.
“Our plan is to win the Big 12 or to win that last game on Monday night,” he continued. “And that isn’t about having the best players, or being more athletic or shooting better. The teams that are mentally tough enough to endure the grind, to handle adversity are going to be the successful teams. And in the Big 12, it’s not a question of if you’ll face adversity, it’s when. We take a lot of pride in it.”
You’ll see “4-1” around the Red Raiders and first think of a baseball score. Then you watch them play and realize that Knight’s philosophy has taken hold. Texas Tech overcame an injury to its most athletic post player (6-8 senior Zach Smith); he missed most of the Big 12 schedule.
The Red Raiders were poised to unseat Kansas, possessing a two-game lead with three weeks to play.
However, senior point guard and leading scorer Keenan Evans suffered a sprained toe that precipitated a four-game losing streak. Evans missed only one game but was hobbled in two of the losses. He’s played through the injury and in his last five games is averaging 21.2 a game.
The adversity even struck the coach. In early February, Beard jumped in a practice to show freshman Zhaire Smith to set a screen. Beard’s knee popped. His torn ACL will be repaired after the season.
Beard’s coaching resume includes stops at Fort Scott Community College, Seminole State College, McMurry University and Angelo State. He says, unprompted, that some of the best coaches in the nation toil at those outposts.
When Pat Knight was dismissed at Texas Tech, Beard’s contract precluded him from taking another college gig. He needed the money so he coached for a season in the (not the ABA you’re thinking of) American Basketball Association.
His first head coaching job was at Arkansas-Little Rock and in one season (30-2), Beard cobbled together a misfit roster for a school-record 30 victories and an NCAA Tournament first-round upset of … wait for it … Purdue.
Beard was suddenly a hot commodity but winding up at Texas Tech was equal parts kismet and crazy. UNLV had a coaching opening and hired Beard on March 27, 2016. The Runnin’ Rebels faithful, though, were complaining with “Chris who?” comments.
Two weeks later, Tubby Smith stunned Texas Tech by leaving for Memphis after three seasons in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were just coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance with a sophomore-laden team. Beard, whose three young daughters live near Lubbock, had always considered Texas Tech as his dream job. And UNLV was shaping up as a nightmare.
Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt had Beard on his “ready list” of coaching candidates. Hocutt also was hearing the chatter that the UNLV situation was shaky. He asked and was granted permission to call Beard.
“When I talked to Chris it was obvious he was interested,” Hocutt recalled. “I asked if he could meet the following morning. He said, ‘Can you come right now?’ It was about 5:30, we got a jet and met with Chris for about an hour.”
The Beard-UNLV deal dissolved as quickly as Vegas wedding vows and in just over two weeks, Beard was hired by Texas Tech. When he got to Lubbock, though, the core of his team that had been recruited by Smith wondered what the eff had happened.
Justin Gray, a 6-foot-5 senior with a Swiss Army knife skill set, considered transferring but was willing to be convinced otherwise.
“I wanted to give coach Beard a chance,” Gray says. “When he came in, he said you have to earn trust. You have to show people you’re for real, sincere, genuine. He started out building relationships.”
Beard re-recruited the players and their parents, visiting each player’s home.
“He met with us all one-on-one but meeting all of our families, letting our folks getting to know him. That was big,” says Evans, who in his final season has become an All-American candidate. “Us seniors, we decided to stay because we wanted to win a Big 12 championship.”
In Year One, the Red Raiders’ post-season chances disappeared when they lost 10 of their last 14 games. Year Two’s mini-fade had more to do with the grind of the 18-game Big 12 season and Evans’ injury. The 26 victories are second in school history to the 1996 team that went 30-2 and lost to Georgetown and Allen Iverson in the Sweet 16.
Beard, as he proved at Arkansas-Little Rock, is a mixologist. He credits Smith for recruiting the core foursome of Evans, Gray, Smith and center Norense Odiase (he sat out one season as redshirt and is a junior in eligibility). Seniors Niem Stevenson (junior-college) and Tommy Hamilton IV (transfer from DePaul) have blended with Brandone Francis (transfer from Florida) plus freshmen Smith, Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti (Italy).
With everyone healthy, Texas Tech has 10 players averaging 12 or more minutes a game.
Evans, a 6-foot-3 senior, is the closer. He specializes in late-game possessions. Beard’s motion offense has allowed him to flourish. Before his injury while the Red Raiders were on a seven-game winning streak, Evans was averaging nearly 25 a game, making 52.6 percent from the field, 44.1 percent of his threes and 86.3 percent from the line. His ability to finish at the rim or be fouled makes him a perfect March Madness guard.
“The Keenan Evans story is not me or Tubby. It is Keenan Evans,” Beard said during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. “This guy self-made himself into one of the best players in college basketball, and I can tell you how he’s done it. He’s done it with a lot of work. He’s in the gym every day. He’s in the film room a lot. He’s a guy that’s changed his body in the weight room. To me, he’s everything good about basketball college when you think about four-year players staying and grinding.”
Beard, who recently signed a contract extension through 2024 at over $3.1 million a year, is a grinder with a roster full of grinders. Perhaps a different way of understanding the Red Raiders is this: “the mental is to physical as the grinding is to winning.”