BOSTON — The plan was already in place for what was likely the biggest game Chris Beard had ever coached—last Saturday’s second-round NCAA tournament matchup with Florida, with a Sweet 16 berth on the line—but as his Texas Tech team readied to leave its hotel for the American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas, inspiration struck for a quick tweak. While the Red Raiders idled on their bus, Beard got word that Sean Sutton, an advisor on his staff, was sprinting through the lobby, frantically trying to make the departure. The coach tabbed an underling to film Sutton’s mad dash, and a few hours later, immediately before his team headed out for pre-game warmups, Beard directed the players’ attention to a locker room TV. There they saw a 30-second clip from Forrest Gump of the title character’s cross-country run, followed by video of Sutton’s desperate scamper. Let’s run their asses off out there, Beard told his team, then sent the Red Raiders to the floor to take down the Gators.
“It was just beautiful,” Texas Tech special assistant Larry Brown said Thursday, tickled by the memory. “The players just relaxed and laughed and went out ready.”
Such is the Chris Beard experience: unexpected, unconventional, often fun and very effective. In his third season as a Division I head coach (and second as Texas Tech’s) the 45-year-old Beard is making his second NCAA tournament appearance and serving as one of this March’s breakout personalities. Coaching on a torn left ACL suffered while demonstrating how to fight through a screen in a January practice has not slowed Beard’s frenetic sideline demeanor, nor have the event’s daily press conferences dulled his media-charming ways, which have included meditations on local burger chains and tales from his days on the coaching ladder’s lowest rungs.
Yet, as a Googleimagesearch would suggest, Beard is not strictly some kind of all-smiles, cuddly jester. He is, after all, a Bob Knight disciple who has told players to act “like street dogs, not pet-store dogs”; who two years ago, while coaching Little Rock, broke his hand punching a whiteboard during the Sun Belt championship game; and who earlier this year, while describing his staff’s game-planning meetings, told The Athletic that “there have almost been fist fights.” But a college basketball coach often contains multitudes, and it is in this way that Beard excels.
“He’s intense, but he keeps it loose too,” said Brown. “He’ll have the guys ready but he’ll also know when to loosen them up and kick back a little bit.”
Added junior guard Brandone Francis: “He’s a bright guy with a lot of ways to get to us... You have to work really, really hard and then it’s like—Surprise! I got you this for working hard. You’ve gotta earn everything.”
Beard is less withholding toward the public. He has been generous with his soundbites, endearing himself to a quote-hungry press with frequent food analogies, including a recent comparison of his desire to extend senior guard Keenan Evans’s college career to “a good plate of enchiladas” where “you only have two bites left, but it’s so good, you turn it into three bites.” After upsetting Kansas in January, Beard said Texas Tech’s lone advantage over the Jayhawks is its proximity to Whataburger, which proved to only be prelude for how frequently he would invoke the Texas-based fast food chain in March. His references were so frequent, he said, that local franchisees sent him a high-end YETI cooler, but perhaps the most valuable product of his eatery evangelism came last week, when he shared how a visit to the restaurant might enhance one’s sense of humanity:
“Have you ever been to Whataburger at like two, three o’clock in the morning?” he said. “Don't go through the drive-through. Go in next time, and just get a corner booth and just watch America. Just watch it. You’ll see so many cool things at Whataburger. You will see a guy pick up a tab for somebody else. You’ll see somebody clean up a plate that wasn’t his. You’ll see some of the bad things in America too, at a Whataburger late, but I love people watching.”
These are the oft-unseen corners of the country one learns to appreciate during the long climb of a career like Beard’s. Since leaving Texas, his alma mater, in 1995, he has coached at 10 different schools, with Texas Tech—where he was an assistant under Bob and then son Pat Knight from 2001 to ’11—being the only stop that lasted more than two seasons. Assistant coaching stints at Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, and North Texas led to juco head coaching jobs at Fort Scott (Kans.) Community College and Seminole (Okla.) State College, after which he landed with the Knights in Lubbock. When Pat and his staff were fired in ’11, Beard spent a year coaching the South Carolina Warriors in the fledgling ABA reboot, then headed to Division III McMurry University for the 2012–13 season and Division II Angelo State from 2013 to ’15, after which Little Rock plucked him for his first D-I head gig. He led the Trojans to the NCAA tournament and a first-round upset of Purdue, which in turn earned him his last job before his current one and the briefest of his career: UNLV coach for 19 days in the spring of 2016, before Texas Tech came calling and lured him back to his home state.
Which is to say Beard is accustomed to working quickly; the Little Rock team he led to 30 wins was coming off a 13–17 campaign and had just seven returning players. The Red Raiders’ cupboard was more stocked when Beard took over, coming off an NCAA tournament appearance, after which coach Tubby Smith left for Memphis. Beard’s challenge was to not only retain key players like Evans, who scored 45 points over Tech’s two wins last weekend, but to get them to buy in the way he would need for them to succeed in an aggressive, man-to-man defensive scheme that now, in Beard’s second year, ranks fourth nationally in efficiency.
The first tactic was a home-visit tour of returning players and their families, where Beard sold his vision for the program and each player. Once they were on board, Beard won them over in other ways, like impromptu movie-theater excursions or this season’s surprise trip to a clown-ridden haunted house. Other times there are more homegrown frightening sights: senior forward Zach Smith said Beard once displayed photos of junior center Norense Odiase “trying to be a fake model” during a team meeting to earn laughs.
He also regales them with tales from his long path to this moment: sharing team-logo polo shirts with an assistant coach on recruiting trips; living out of his car; Days Inn continental breakfasts for team meals. When he was asked at Thursday’s press conference about whether his team’s travel to Boston had been impacted by the snowstorm hitting the Northeast, Beard rejected the premise. “At this level, when people talk about travel or distance or weather, it’s like comical,” he said. “We’re on a jet that has a heater in it.”
Then, for good measure, Beard began recounting his past before veering in another unforeseen direction: “I’m just glad I’m not driving a 15-passenger van that doesn’t have a heater,” he said, “that has a gas leak and only an AM radio—which, AM radio is not bad. AM radio is great. It teaches you kind of the history. Great talk radio on AM radio... That’s what I’m going to do today for my daughters. I’m going to teach them about AM radio. Delilah? Remember that talk show, Delilah? When I was in junior college, I used to listen to the Delilah show.”
Beard was off yet again in an unanticipated direction, his mind as active and seeking as ever. It’s the same mind that got him here, one win away from Texas Tech’s deepest-ever tournament run, and the same one that can hardly rest now that it is.
“I haven’t been able to sleep for a lot of reasons—Purdue, Coach Painter, but also just having so much fun,” Beard said Thursday. “Like, I don’t want to waste a minute of this... I’m just enjoying the ride, and I can’t state that enough, just how excited I am for one more day.”