Vic Trilli got the phone call he had been waiting for in June 1997. After almost a decade as an assistant at the University of Texas, Trilli was set to become head coach at North Texas, his first chance to lead a program by himself.
UALR Coach Chris Beard (left) talks to Lis Shoshi during the Trojans 58-57 victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Jan. 9. Beard and the Trojans are two victories away from clinching a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
From Austin, Trilli pointed his car north toward Denton. But before he left, he took a phone call from a former student assistant.
“I’ll meet you up there,” Trilli was told.
Chris Beard was in Denton even before his new boss.
Trilli laughs when he retells the story now. He was going to hire Beard anyway, but the audacity of a then-24-year-old with one season of full-time coaching experience to assume he was getting a job on a Division I bench is the best way Trilli could get across all he knows about Beard.
“He was running around up at North Texas getting stuff done, I’m telling you, before I even got there,” Trilli said. “Now, doesn’t that tell you a little bit about a guy that does that?”
Beard, 43, is four days from leading UALR, the regular-season Sun Belt Conference champion for the first time, into the postseason tournament as a No. 1 seed.
The Trojans, who have an outside shot at gaining an atlarge bid to the NCAA Tournament, need two victories in New Orleans to clinch the Sun Belt’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
In less than a year, Beard’s Trojans set a program record for overall victories (27), attracted sellout crowds to the Jack Stephens Center for the first time in a decade and have the team in position to make a run at an NCAA berth.
It’s all gone a little bit faster than Athletic Director Chasse Conque imagined.
“I’d be lying if I told you I was expecting this,” Conque said.
Conque had been on the job three months when he fired Steve Shields after a 192-178 mark in 12 seasons.
Then, on April 8, Conque introduced Beard, a Division II coach from Texas, to a Stephens Center crowd, many of whom thought they might be meeting someone familiar to Arkansans, like former Razorbacks Joe Kleine and Darrell Walker, who were among the finalists.
UALR, which has won 20 games twice in the past 19 seasons, was coming off a 13-18 season.
Beard, in one season, had 20 victories by Feb. 4, 22 games in his tenure.
Nobody who has worked with Beard is surprised by his success.
Consider the following descriptions of Beard from his former bosses.
“Obsessed,” said Texas State Coach Danny Kaspar, who hired Beard as a graduate assistant at Incarnate Word.
“Intelligent and relatable,” said Tom Penders, who hired Beard as a student assistant at Texas.
“Not caught up in all the bullsh*t,” said Pat Knight, with whom Beard spent 10 seasons at Texas Tech.
Those who know Beard point to his track record. At 26, Beard led Fort Scott Community College in Kansas to a 19-12 record with no scholarships, then went 25-6 at Seminole (Okla.) State. There were 10 seasons spent with Bob and Pat Knight at Texas Tech.
Beard had to rebuild his career after leaving Lubbock in 2011, leading the ABA’s South Carolina Warriors to a 29-2 record. There was one season at Division II McMurry in Abilene and a 47-15 record over two seasons at Division II Angelo State, situated about 95 miles southwest of Abilene.
UALR players like senior point guard Josh Hagins have described the season as “unreal,” after enduring a 45-50 stretch the past three seasons.
Coaching friends and mentors, meanwhile, are hardly astonished.
“If you’re asking me if I’m surprised by what’s going on,” Trilli said, “not at all.”
‘HE WAS A PEST’
The conductor of UALR’s quick rebuild was born in Georgia, moved to Irving, Texas and then outside of Houston because of his father’s job in the corporate world.
It was in The Woodlands, Texas, where Beard’s path began to point toward coaching even as he played for the Mc-Cullough high school team.
Coach Terry Priest coached Beard, a player who wasn’t a great athlete, but one who was on the floor late in games because he made good decisions and free throws.
One time, Priest said, Mc-Cullough was at a postseason tournament with some downtime before a game. Other players rested, but Beard wandered off to watch other teams play. Eventually, Beard returned to Priest with a scouting report on a potential future opponent.
“He had it down as to what they were doing offensively,” Priest said. “He had it drawn out and everything. Defensively, too.”
In the absence of a scholarship, Beard enrolled in 1991 at the University of Texas and eventually caught on as a student manager for the Longhorns, with an assist from Mike Kunstadt, a former coach who ran a scouting service in Texas.
Beard did more than fill water bottless; Penders and Trilli let Beard take a seat in film rooms and meetings while discussing scouting reports.
“Everything but the actual recruiting,” Penders said. “I didn’t consider him a student guy who people threw towels at. He earned that.”
Beard wasn’t allowed to go on road trips with the team, but he’d always be at the arena waiting for when they got back.
“He was a pest,” said Trilli, now athletic director at Division II Newman University in Wichita, Kan. “Hey, ‘What do you need, here let me do this. What are you looking at?’ ”
Two years after Beard invited himself onto Trilli’s staff, Kevin Gundy was in Fort Scott, Kan., trying to find a men’s basketball coach. Gundy, now a high school football coach in Missouri, was Fort Scott’s athletic director when he answered a call from a coach he had never heard of.
“I told him up front,” Gundy said. “It’s not a very good job.”
Beard didn’t care. The next day, Beard put on a suit and drove to Fort Scott, Kan. and interrupted Gundy’s daily game of handball wanting a campus tour.
Gundy told Beard that the Greyhounds had no tradition, no scholarships to help build one, a basketball arena that shared space with the rodeo team — “so you can imagine the smell,” Gundy said — and maybe a $25,000 salary.
But Beard, 26, took the job anyway, and was a head coach for the first time. Beard said fundraisers were held to get scholarship money and enough was raised to attract talent to win 19 games, at that time their best showing in almost a decade while earning a bid to a regional tournament.
“He brought in kids that they’ve never had there since,” Gundy said.
Beard got an offer from Seminole State (Okla.) College, another junior college but a bit closer to his Texas roots. Gundy said he remembers Beard feeling conflicted with the offer. But Gundy’s advice came quick: Take the job.
“We didn’t want to hold him back,” Gundy said. “There’s no ceiling on anything Chris does.”
MAKE IT RIGHT
Beard wasn’t at Seminole very long, either, leading the Trojans to a 29-5 record and a national ranking.
The next spring, Bob Knight visited the small campus looking for players. The Hall of Famer had just been named head coach at Texas Tech, was looking for a quick rebuild and a coach who knew how to get junior-college players annually.
That’s where Beard came in.
“He was young, he had coached in college before, he wasn’t just a recruiter,” said Pat Knight, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers.
As Pat Knight remembers, Beard was invited to Lubbock for a weekend-long interview and his job was to vet Beard over a couple of days to make sure he passed the test needed to work for Bob Knight, who won 902 games and three national championships in 42 seasons.
“It takes a special kind of guy to work with my dad,” Pat Knight said. “You’ve got to be thick-skinned. You can’t be a yes man. You’ve got to stick up for yourself. … We can’t have chickensh*t guys working for us.”
Pat Knight said it took only a few hours to decide Beard was the guy. Eventually, Beard became more than just a recruiter with junior college connections and along the way helped the Knights turn Texas Tech into a consistent contender in the Big 12.
The Red Raiders had won 20 or more games four times in the 25 seasons before Bob Knight got to Lubbock, then they did it five times in seven seasons, including four NCAA Tournament appearances.
Pat Knight and Beard would let their minds wander during down time in the office or in hotel rooms on road trips.
One would flip through a college basketball magazine, point to a school and both would decide if it was a good job or a bad job, then listen to Bob Knight’s more qualified assessment.
“Everyone wants to be a Division I head coach,” Pat Knight said.
Pat Knight got his chance in 2008 when his father retired, and he made Beard his associate head coach. They reached one NIT in three full seasons before he was fired in 2011. Beard was fired, too, but was eventually rehired by Billy Gillispie. For reasons that still aren’t clear, Beard lasted less than three months before resigning.
Beard hasn’t publicly commented on why he left Lubbock, and declined to for this story, but said last summer that he had no regrets.
“I believe you make a decision, then you make it right,” Beard said. “I learned that early in my coaching career and it’s been good to me. I don’t look back.”
Knight, like Beard, declined to go into details.
“All I know is that it wasn’t very good for him,” Knight said. “So he had to leave.”
Beard did, and seemingly landed at the bottom of the coaching ladder with the South Carolina Warriors of the American Basketball Association, a step above semipro ball.
“I tried like hell to talk him out of it,” Knight said.
But Beard made the best of it, like he did at at Fort Scott.
The Warriors went 29-2, partially because of John Fowler, a defensive-minded guard Beard found, ironically, with help from then-UALR Coach Steve Shields.
Fowler was the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year for the Trojans in 2009, and Fowler said Beard’s team building and toughness were the reasons for the quick success.
They’d have team cookouts and go to the beach together. Practice was tough, but reasons for the work were always made clear.
“If you’re not tough, then you can’t play for him,” Fowler said.
That season led to one year at McMurry, in Abilene, and then to two seasons at Angelo State, 90 miles southwest of Abilene, before he landed his first Division I head-coaching job — the type that he and Knight had talked about while flipping through magazines.
“He kind of had to reinvent himself,” Knight said. “He really shouldn’t have. If anybody was really smart they should have just hired him right away.”
Beard said he doesn’t look at it that way, instead saying he’s always looking to prove himself. It’s the attitude he had in Fort Scott, Lubbock, Myrtle Beach, S.C. and San Angelo, Texas.
It’s the same one he’ll have in New Orleans this weekend, too.
“I didn’t grow up with a famous father that coached basketball, I didn’t grow up being an all-ACC guard,” he said. “When we got fired at Tech, it didn’t really change my approach. It’s how I feel every day. You’ve got to validate your last success, or you’ve got to overcome your last adversity.”
Sports on 03/08/2016