Chris Beard, who has guided the Texas Tech Red Raiders to their first Final Four in only three seasons in Lubbock, is a quick study.
He coached one season at Arkansas-Little Rock. He made the NCAA Tournament. He scored a big first-round upset over Purdue and Matt Painter. He jumped to Texas Tech (after being UNLV’s head coach for a few seconds). He needed his first season in Lubbock to find his bearings in the ruthless Big 12 Conference.
Then? He has become college basketball’s most ascendant coach.
Yes, it is true that Beard has been coaching for a long time, since he was a student assistant to Tom Penders at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. Beard did get an early start on coaching. At 46, he is the youngest head coach in the 2019 Final Four, but he is no stranger to coaching. That should be acknowledged.
Yet, Beard made a conscious choice to follow a less traditional path through junior college, community college, a small alternative pro league, a small college organization, and NCAA Division II before finally — at age 42 — taking a head coaching job in Division I basketball. None of this is a criticism — direct or implied. It is merely a simple acknowledgment that Beard wanted to follow a particular route before choosing to coach at the highest level of college basketball.
Once he started, he has been essentially flawless, if we allow his first season at Texas Tech to be a necessary adjustment period.
You can’t do much better than winning an NCAA Tournament game at Arkansas-Little Rock.
You can’t do much better than make back-to-back Elite Eights and reach a first Final Four in one’s first three seasons at Texas Tech. Beard truly hasn’t made a fundamental misstep in his D-I head coaching career.
He might have studied for a long time, but once he turned in his papers and tests, he earned an A-plus grade… and right away.
As Beard prepares to face Tom Izzo — a Big Ten coaching icon — in Saturday’s second national semifinal, it has to be said that part of Beard’s long period of study came at the feet of another Big Ten legend, Bob Knight.
Even casual and young sports fans know who Bob Knight is — not necessarily for all the right reasons, but they know who he is. Knight won three national titles at Indiana, could not control his temper and was abusive toward players, provided mediocre TV analysis, and loves the shot fake.
We will focus on the coaching success Knight produced at Indiana, before he came to Texas Tech and made the Sweet 16 in Lubbock with Beard at his side.
Knight’s most famous achievement in college basketball is that he is the last coach to guide a team through an unbeaten national championship season. He ran the table with his Hoosiers in 1976. Yet, precisely because of the enormity of that feat, it might be forgotten that Knight had made the Final Four a few years earlier. Indiana played Bill Walton and UCLA in the national semifinals in St. Louis, losing to John Wooden in the first Final Four which had a Monday night championship game and Saturday semifinals.
Knight made that first Final Four in his career at age 32. That is younger than Brad Stevens was when the Butler coach reached the Final Four in 2010. That is younger than Shaka Smart when VCU made the 2011 Final Four. Yes, Knight did have six seasons at Army to prepare him for Indiana, but it remains that Knight made the Final Four in his second season at Indiana, similar to how Beard has gotten it right in only three at Texas Tech.
One should add that even though Indiana had two national titles when Knight took over at Indiana in 1971, the Hoosiers had not been to the Final Four since 1953. Knight was not inheriting a ready-made situation the way Bill Guthridge had at North Carolina in 1998 after Dean Smith handed him a fully-stocked team upon his retirement in 1997.
Knight immediately built Indiana into a superpower. Even today, Knight (5 Final Fours) has made a majority of all the Final Fours Indiana has made in its history (8).
When he was 46 years old, Knight won his third national title, upon completion of his 16th season at Indiana.
Beard is 46 and entering his first Final Four, but in terms of D-I head coaching experience — as noted above — he is relatively early in his journey. If he coaches as well in the next 13 seasons at Texas Tech as he has the past three, he might have three national titles in 16 seasons (the year 2032).
Chris Beard learned how to coach from Bob Knight. Early in his D-I head coaching career, Beard shows signs of rising to the top of his profession as quickly as Knight did in the mid-1970s. It will be exciting to see how this career evolves.
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