Opinion: A perfect fit at Texas Tech, Chris Beard will face choices after his fast rise

MINNEAPOLIS — As natural as it might be to attach words like “breakthrough” or “life-changing” to a coach when they make a Final Four for the first time, it’s rarely true.

Just think about 46-year old Chris Beard, whose coaching résumé sounds more like a Robert Earl Keen tour through Texas music halls than a path to competing against Tom Izzo for national titles. You want to talk about the kind of breakthrough that matters? How about going from a Division II job at Angelo State to making $260,000 at Arkansas-Little Rock, then getting a million-dollar rise to coach at Texas Tech. That’ll really change your life.

But it’s fair to say this about Beard, whose debut news conference here dripped with charming stories about how he’d come to the Final Four years earlier trying to crash on someone else’s hotel room floor and movie-theater bonding with assistant Mark Adams years ago at the late showing of “Sex and the City”: He’s now a legitimate coaching star.

And as with all new coaching stars, Beard’s emergence has started a growing conversation across college athletics about what someone who has built a nouveau powerhouse out of the West Texas dust might be capable of at a place like UCLA or Arkansas, whose jobs are open right now, or perhaps even his alma mater Texas someday down the road.

But as much as there’s wide agreement that Beard is one heck of a basketball coach who could probably win anywhere, there will also be a fundamental question if and when he decides he wants to try something else: Is a bigger stage really suited for the kind of program that suits him?

CLEAN LIVING:Beard gave up beer, dessert, candy during season.

GETTING DEFENSIVE:Historically good defense has powered Texas Tech into its first Final Four.

At a blue blood, the expected path to success requires collecting McDonald’s All-Americans, coddling egos and placating handlers whose only motivation is protecting their players’ NBA ambitions.

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At Texas Tech under Beard, the formula has been about stitching together a roster of overlooked recruits and well-traveled transfers, a reflection of the journey he’s taken himself.

“I tell the guys to never forget where they come from and be you,” Beard said. “I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t trade my path for anything.”.

In short four years as a Division I head coach, Beard’s formula of attracting basketball nomads and getting them to buy into a dogged defensive mentality has produced undeniable results. At Arkansas-Little Rock, he completely remade the roster in one summer, went 30-5 and knocked off Purdue in an NCAA tournament upset. This year, his rotation at Texas Tech includes three transfers, a former junior college player a guard he plucked out of Italy and a future NBA lottery pick who was ranked in the 300s coming out of high school.

At some point, that’s not a fluke. It’s merely who you are as a coach.

“I mean, it’s not arrogance. It’s just the truth: We’re really good at coaching one-year guys,” Beard said. “(John Calipari) at Kentucky is pretty good at it too, it just goes back to different backgrounds. In junior college, (Division)-II, low major, your roster is always changing. My experience in professional basketball, the rosters always change. Guys come in on contract and just leave. I think there’s an art to it.”.

MAKING THE CASE: Auburn | Michigan State | Texas Tech | Virginia.

MOTIVATIONAL LOSS:How Virginia embraced defeat to reach Final Four.

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TIME FOR TITLE:Tom Izzo is overdue for second title at Michigan State.

Guard Matt Mooney, whose career took him from Air Force to South Dakota and eventually to Texas Tech as a graduate transfer, said Beard’s track record of rebuilding his roster on the fly was a major factor in deciding to spend final year in Lubbock.

“I knew he had success at Little Rock with 10 new players and grad transfers, transfers, redshirt guys, whatever,” Mooney said. “And when I got there, I got to see why first-hand because he put me in a position right away where he told the guys that I was going to be a key piece. He put that confidence in me and had a vision for me even when I wasn’t playing my best.”.

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But it’s also true that for many athletics directors and search firms, projecting him at a higher-profile program will require some guessing about how he’d fit. Maybe he’ll be a future Hall of Famer. Or maybe he’ll be the second coming of Billy Gillispie.

Though fans now only remember Gillispie’s implosion once he got to the big stage — his inability to recruit top prospects to Kentucky, the allegations of verbal abuse, the alcoholism — it’s easy to forget that he came out of the Hill Country backwaters just like Beard and was the hottest coaching prospect in the country for a time in 2006 and 2007 while leading Texas A&M from nowhere to the Sweet 16.

His style didn’t translate to Kentucky, where the spotlight ate him up and the difference between how high-rated players and last-chance vagabonds respond to old-school coaching tactics sent him into a spiral.

Texas Tech assistant Glynn Cyprien, who worked under Gillispie for those two disastrous seasons at Kentucky, acknowledged that Beard is Texas tough but suggested without naming Gillispie specifically that there are clear differences in style.

“You’ve got to want to be coached,” Cyprien said. “You have to want to be told the truth. I’ve worked for some guys who were probably demeaning on the players, may say some things that aren’t acceptable, but he doesn’t cuss at guys. It’s not personal. That’s what separates him. We call it truth-telling, and if you’re a good player, that’s what you want to hear.”.

The admiration Texas Tech players have for Beard was obvious Thursday as they attended his news conference for winning the Associated Press national coach of the year award, one of them grabbing a microphone and playfully asking “if you were to consider yourself to be a dog, what kind of dog would you be?”.

Still, senior Brandone Francis, a transfer from Florida, acknowledged that Beard’s style might not be for everyone.

“You have to take coaching,” Francis said. “You have to put that in your mind way before (you decide to play for him). You have to do some research. I think he’s an unbelievable coach. He demands a lot of his players, but at the same time he makes you reach for something that isn’t there until you find it.”.

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Tariq Owens, whose career took him from Tennessee to St. John’s and then Texas Tech, said Beard’s authenticity was why the Red Raiders play hard. When he visited Lubbock last year shortly after Texas Tech’s Elite Eight appearance, Owens was struck by how players were coming into the practice facility to work on their own multiple times a day.

“I’ve been in the gym a lot more than I’ve ever been in the gym because I know how much he demands from us and he’s someone I don’t ever want to let down,” Owens said. “He coaches us hard but at the end of the day we know how much he cares. He’d do anything for his players.”.

In that sense, Beard’s performance thus far at the Final Four can only help his national image. He’s been witty, charming and willing to tell stories, including how he gave up beer and desserts this year as part of a team-building exercise to sacrifice something during the season (he considers Pop-Tarts breakfast and not dessert, thus making them exempt).

He’s talked about wanting his team to “smell the roses” from this experience and being able to honor all the small-school guys just like him who know how to coach but never got a chance to do it at this level.

And pretty soon, no matter what happens this weekend, Chris Beard will probably have some decisions to make. Is he more comfortable at an off-brand like Texas Tech, where he can keep thriving with ragged rosters who embrace his style, or will he try to go mainstream where there may be more complications to go along with greater talent?

“Don’t tell Kirby Hocutt, my AD, this, but I would do this job for free,” he said.

Whether he stays at Texas Tech forever or eventually takes a chance on a blue blood, he’s in no danger of that ever again being an option.

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