LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Chris Beard spent a decade as an assistant coach at Texas Tech for the Knights, first Bobby and then Pat.
When that ended with a head coaching change by the Red Raiders after the 2010-11 season, Beard never thought about whether he would ever get back to Lubbock — or even Division I basketball. He just loved coaching.
“The decision to take a year off, or try to do some media stuff, it never really entered my mind,” Beard said. “I just remember like always being immersed in the job we had.”
First, there was a season leading a South Carolina expansion team in the semipro American Basketball Association that won its first 29 games before losing in the ABA finals. There were stops at two lower-division schools in Texas the next three years before a magical 30-win season at Arkansas-Little Rock that included an upset of Purdue in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
“He didn’t take the easy road,” Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said. “He was confident in himself and his ability and his knowledge of the game, and his work ethic and his preparation. I admired his journey, followed his journey.”
And that led to Beard’s sudden and awkwardly timed reunion nearly two years ago with the No. 10 Red Raiders (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who before last month hadn’t been ranked that high in more than two decades. They are only a game behind No. 7 and perennial Big 12 champion Kansas halfway through the conference schedule, and already with their first victory ever at Allen Fieldhouse.
“Even when they got down, they never wilted. They showed the resolve, the resilience that he’s coached them to have,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said after his team blew a 15-point lead after the half in a loss at Tech last week. “They’re really tough.”
After the Red Raiders lost to Butler in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Hocutt and others in the travel party waiting to go home huddled around their phones in an airport and watched the end of Little Rock’s double-overtime win over Purdue.
Hocutt didn’t know then that he would be looking for a new coach just a few weeks later, when Tubby Smith left after only three seasons to go to Memphis.
“Tubby’s situation happened quickly, and out of the blue, but we knew that there was, at the top of our list, one individual who made perfect sense for us,” said Hocutt, who became Tech’s AD only a short time before firing Pat Knight.
Except there was one slight issue. Smith’s departure came after Beard had just accepted a five-year contract to be UNLV’s new coach.
“I wish the timing would have been different, but life gives you different opportunities at different times,” Beard said. “With this job here, No. 1, I’m from the state of Texas, this is my home state. Texas Tech is a school that I have an association with, a past with. Obviously it’s the Big 12 Conference, a chance to compete for a national championship if you’re relative in your league.”
After going 18-14 in the first season of Beard’s six-year contract, the Red Raiders matched that win total this season on the last day of January. Keenan Evans hit a buzzer-beating jumper at the end of overtime against Texas .
Evans is one of five seniors on a unique roster that also has five freshmen who have played. Three of the freshmen have started games, including hometown standout guard Jarred Culver.
“When guys come into jobs, I think there’s really two ways to look at it. One is you immediately start building for the future, and two, is you try to win immediately,” said Beard, who opted for winning now. “Most coaches and successful people would tell you not to do the latter.”
Freshman guard Zhaire Smith, now a regular starter, describes Beard as a trustworthy and caring coach who can be hard on players on the court and “really cool” off of it.
Beard is coaching hurt, with a torn ACL in his left knee that popped while he demonstrated something to Smith at Iowa State the night before playing there. Beard forgot about his heavily wrapped knee in the heat of a moment during the Jan. 20 game .
“I jumped up and it just buckled,” Beard said. “I appreciated the people at Iowa State. They didn’t make fun of me too much. I can only imagine what it looked like on the sideline.”
But he wants them to know that he got hurt the previous day, and not from jumping up during the game.
“I’m not as soft as it looked like I was,” he said.
Texas Tech made four NCAA Tournaments in a six-year span under the elder Knight, but then went eight seasons without one until Smith’s final season.
“I’d love to get the program to the point where we’re not talking about making the tournament, we’re talking about what kind of seed can we get this year,” Beard said.
For now, the Red Raiders are in the top 10 for the third time in four weeks. The only time they were ranked that high longer in a season was the final four polls in 1995-96, when the Southwest Conference champs made it to the Sweet 16 and finished 30-2 under coach James Dickey.
“Earlier in my career, I would almost shy away from anything that brought publicity until the end of the season, rankings and stuff,” Beard said. “But I’ve grown to understand that what you do need when you build the program is you need validation … some success along the way.”