MINNEAPOLIS — It was Thursday afternoon in the basement level of U.S. Bank Stadium and a representative from The Associated Press had just announced the organization’s choice for national Coach of the Year in college basketball.
It was Chris Beard.
Or, in the tormented world of UNLV basketball, the one that got away.
Beard would soon thank all those who had helped him reach this point, who offered opportunity and opened doors along the way, from presidents and athletic directors at places like Texas and Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian, at North Texas and Fort Sky Community College and Seminole State College, at Angelo State and McMurry University and Arkansas Little-Rock.
At, finally, Texas Tech.
He talked about everyone but the guy who swept floors for the South Carolina Warriors, a semi-pro team he also coached and, yes, thanked.
He never, not once, mentioned UNLV.
It’s telling, and yet should it be?
The hottest coach going right now, the one who in three seasons at Texas Tech has delivered an Elite Eight appearance and now the school’s first trip to a Final Four, always has seemed to put his time with the Rebels behind him faster than those 19 days over which he actually worked for them.
In those three years, UNLV has fired their next choice, Marvin Menzies, and already hired his successor.
It’s as if Beard knew a truth that has been so incredibly difficult for Las Vegas to accept: that while UNLV followed a forgettable coaching search when replacing Dave Rice by ultimately hiring the best available coach in 2016, its relationship with Beard ended the second his phone’s caller ID read: Lubbock.
Ready for Michigan State
Beard, whose team faces Michigan State in the second of two national semifinal games Saturday, often has said that when Mama calls, you go home.
This wasn’t Mama, but Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt was even more important at that moment.
As for then-UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, her administration and the team’s fans, they all pretty much wanted to throw Beard from a train.
“It happened really quick,” Hocutt said. “I always knew Chris Beard was No. 1 on our candidate list at that time, and if it was going to happen, it was going happen immediately and very fast because of his situation. Tina knew we would be reaching out. The first time I spoke to Chris and asked if he would have interest in talking, he said, ‘Yes, but call Tina.’ I hung up and called Tina. My calls to Chris and Tina were within three minutes of each other before we moved forward.
“As soon as we had a verbal agreement in place, Chris said: ‘Can you send a plane out here to get me, now?’ So we sent a plane out that afternoon.”
Here’s why: First, Beard was indeed going home, to his three daughters, to a better program in a much better conference, to more money and resources, to the place he had spent 10 years learning under Bobby and later Pat Knight.
Second, the last thing he wanted was to be seen in Las Vegas a minute longer given his sudden departure.
Think, um, Duke men’s basketball legend Christian Laettner level of popularity around town.
The ‘perfect fit’
Glynn Cyprien knows UNLV well, having spent five seasons as an assistant to Billy Bayno in the late 1990s. Cyprien was coaching in the NBA’s G League as the saga played out in Las Vegas.
He took a new job last July: assistant coach, Texas Tech.
“I thought at the time Chris was a perfect fit for Las Vegas, but obviously with the ties he had in Lubbock, you have to go where your heart is,” Cyprien said. “There’s never a good time for a decision like that. He has since proven to be one of the best coaches in the country. He is the most meticulous coach I have ever worked for. He’s the whole deal.
“What happened in Las Vegas is part of the business, but there is no question he could have done there exactly what he has at Texas Tech. No question in my mind.”
And the knife gets turned a little deeper in the belly of UNLV fans.
Beard mostly has deflected any questions about those 19 days, other than the line about going home to Mama. He has become a media favorite at the Final Four, spinning stories about his days at the junior college and Division II levels, about being humbled by the moment and carrying the torch for all small-school coaches.
Look. It happened. It wasn’t good for UNLV and yet really good for Beard.
“As a kid growing up in Dallas, I only had one chance to go to a basketball camp, and I chose Texas Tech,” Beard said. “I had never been to Lubbock before. I was in the eighth or ninth grade. Saved my money. Got on a Southwest flight. I won the Hot Shot contest, but they ran out of trophies. I was so mad. I wrote letters. …
“Years later, I get the job with Coach (Bobby) Knight, but it wasn’t my place to ask about the trophy. So I bit my tongue for 10 more years. Finally, when I became head coach, I went right to (former Red Raiders coach) Gerald Myers and explained my story. I’m kind of upset. … So (Myers) later comes to my office and has my 1980 Hot Shot trophy. Gerald Myers — truth teller, real guy, admits when he makes a mistake, paid me back years later.”
Sorry, Las Vegas.
Once that caller ID read Lubbock, there was never a chance.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.