Maybe you’re looking for a team to support in this NCAA tournament. Here’s a candidate: Texas Tech, as coached by Chris Beard, who was born in Marietta, though most of what he recalls about the area – his parents moved to Irving, Texas, when he was small – has to do with a restaurant off North Avenue in Atlanta. You know the one.
Apropos of very little, Beard offered this in his media briefing here Thursday, the day before his third-seeded Red Raiders would beat No. 14 Northern Kentucky 72-57: “Ever been to the Varsity? Great. Best hot dog in America. Chili and cheese, no onions.”
This piqued an Atlanta correspondent’s interest enough to ask about Beard’s Georgia roots. Off the obliging coach went.
“Both my parents are from Atlanta. My grandparents, too. I was born in Marietta, moved to Texas – I don’t know, first or second grade. Always at that time (we had a) trip back every summer. My dad got two weeks off a year. That's where some of the work ethic comes from that I get. One week those five days will be my sporting events, whether it’d be football, baseball or basketball. The other we're loading up the car on Saturday morning, 5 a.m., driving straight to Atlanta.”
Itinerary: “Staying two days with grandparents and going to Panama City Beach. Staying at the same motel, eat at the same restaurants. Routine. Another thing with our process, got this from my dad: We're going to go to he Varsity twice even though we'll be there three days. He's going to relive all the stories about how he went there as a kid. He's going to show me where he scored the game-winning touchdown, where he went on his first date.”
Where did the elder Beard attend school? “My mom went to Sprayberry High School, my dad, I think Marietta High.”
Enough with that. Back to the Varsity: “I'm getting two hot dogs, mustard, chili, cheese, no onions. Fries with a side of chili on the fries, and I'm doing the chocolate milk on ice. The next person I saw do that was Bob Knight. Coach Knight used to have Dr Pepper and chocolate milk on ice. Think about that one.”
Then: “(Atlanta) is special place. I’ve recruited in Atlanta over the years. We always go back (to guess where). Al Pinkins, who is now (an assistant coach) at Florida, is from the South, too. So we went to the Varsity. We spent $32 between the two of us last time went to the Varsity. Do the math on that.”
We pause to run through Beard’s bio. He has been a Division I head coach for four years – the first at Arkansas-Little Rock, where he won the Sun Belt in 2016, the past three in Lubbock, where he has taken Texas Tech to the NCAA tournament twice running, this time as the co-champ of the Big 12 and the No. 3 seed in the West Regional. Before that, he was everywhere.
He worked 10 years as Knight’s Tech assistant, somehow missing the lessons about how the media exist only to be browbeaten. He twice was head coach at junior colleges – Fort Scott in Kansas, Seminole State just up the road from Tulsa. He coached the South Carolina Warriors, a semi-pro team, and went 31-2. Then a year at McMurry, then two at Angelo State. The old-time East Coast coaches would call him a Basketball Benny – a guy who loves the game even if it doesn’t always love him back. Now he’s a big-time coach making $3 million at a Power 5 school, and he still sounds like a guy who came up at tiny programs pinching every penny.
Said Beard: “We're glad to be at the Embassy Suites (in Tulsa). We used to stay there back in JUCO, put eight guys to a room, two beds, two to the bed, two on a couch, freshmen on the floor. Free beer at Happy Hour, always good for the SIDs and assistant coaches. Not me during the season. After the season, yes. Went to Jamil's Steakhouse last night. Top 10 steakhouse in this part of the country. We're glad to be in Tulsa. Anybody been to Jamil's?”
Said the moderator: “I have.”
Beard: “Big-time. Get the prime rib.”
Me: “Did it cost more than $32?”
Beard: “Yes. Especially at this level. When we were at Seminole, we went to Cici's Pizza off (Interstate) 44 -- $4.99 without a drink. Can't do it. ‘What do you want, coach -- $4.99, free drink?’ ‘Can our bus drivers eat for free?’ ‘How many bus drivers do you have?’ ‘Four.’ (If the) same guy’s running that Cici's off 44, thank you.”
The talk then turned to hot dogs, again, and then, of things, root beer. Finally, a sheepish Beard asked: “Any basketball questions?”
Well, since he mentioned it: Beard’s team is a solid bunch with an exceptional player in sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, who had 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists Friday. He was the Big 12 player of the year. He’ll be a lottery pick. The Red Raiders play in a way reminiscent of Knight’s Indiana, meaning they defend hard and run a motion offense with lots of screens, some of them legal. (Northern Kentucky fans were screaming about moving picks five minutes in.)
With a spot of luck, Texas Tech could win the West – Gonzaga is the No. 1, Michigan the No. 2 – but it’s not a national-champ-in-waiting. Still, Beard built a very nice team in three years’ time, and at 46 he should be around for a while. Unlike 95 percent of the coaches in the world, he’s fun to hear. He likes hot dogs. He likes roundball. Do the math on that.
After his team’s victory, Beard asked guard Davide Moretti, who’s from Bologna, Italy: “I noticed you got a glass of water and didn’t get ice. I always wondered -- I went to Europe – what’s the deal with the whole idea of no ice.”
Said Moretti, shrugging: “The water is already cold.”
And then they all piled into the team bus and headed for CiCi’s. Just kidding. Maybe.
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