Chris Beard and the UALR Trojan miracle

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s double-overtime victory over Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday was a win for the little guy.

As someone who has spent decades writing about and broadcasting small college sports, I was delighted last April when UALR hired the head coach from Angelo State in Texas, an NCAA Division II school.

Not everybody in Little Rock was happy.

Joe Kleine, the former Razorback and NBA star who had been Steve Shields’ top assistant at UALR, wanted the job and had broad support in the community. You say “Big Joe” around Little Rock, and people immediately know who you’re talking about. Great man. Great family. I’m among the many people who consider him a friend.

Others (including key executives at Stephens Inc.) were pushing for another former Razorback and NBA star, Darrell Walker. Walker served as the head coach of two NBA teams, the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards.

But the school’s first-year athletic director, Chasse Conque, wanted someone who not only was a proven head coach at the college level but also was young and hungry.

Conque was castigated in the days that followed the announcement of Beard’s hiring. He was too young and too inexperienced, they said of Conque. He just “didn’t know how Little Rock works.”

Conque, the son of former University of Central Arkansas head football coach Clint Conque (who is now the head football coach at Stephen F. Austin University in the piney woods of east Texas), actually knew the UALR program inside and out. He had worked for four years under the previous athletic director, Chris Peterson, as the department’s development director before spreading his wings a bit in 2011 when he went to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to raise money for the UAMS Medical Center.

Having worked at both UALR and UAMS, Conque indeed knew how Little Rock worked.

Having grown up as the son of a college coach, he also knew what he wanted in a coach.

When Conque was hired as athletic director in January 2015, UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson said: “Chasse represents an unusual opportunity to hire someone who is both an insider and an outsider, and I believe he’s the right person for this department at this time. He knows the challenges and the opportunities of Trojan athletics very well, and he brings particular strength in the critical area of fundraising. After growing up living and breathing intercollegiate athletics, Chasse proved himself as a person and as a professional when he was here.”

One important move that Conque made was to rebrand the school’s teams simply as Little Rock. UALR means nothing to a national audience. Little Rock is an existing brand.

He came up with the hashtag #LittleRocksTeam to take advantage of a metropolitan area of 730,000 people.

He made sure there was a contract extension for women’s basketball coach Joe Foley (who, with all due respect to Beard, just might be the best college coach for any sport in the state), already an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He renewed the school’s contract with Nike.

He started the aggressive “I’ve Got Mine” season ticket campaign.

And he hired Chris Beard.

Beard was a guy who spent seven seasons learning the game under Bobby Knight at Texas Tech. When Knight’s son Pat was named Tech’s head coach in 2008, Beard became the associate head coach. In Beard’s 10 years on the Tech staff, the Red Raiders made it to the NCAA Tournament four times and made it to the NIT three times. There was a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2005.

Beard was born at Marietta, Ga., and raised in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He’s a 1995 University of Texas graduate (he was a student assistant for the basketball program) who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, spent a season at Abilene Christian and then spent a couple of seasons in Denton at the University of North Texas.

It would have been easy for Beard to have been a career assistant, but he wanted to be a head coach. He started his head coaching career at the junior college level at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas in 1999-2000 and then moved to Seminole State College in Oklahoma in 2000-01 before going to Texas Tech. His Fort Scott team won 19 games and went to a regional tournament. His Seminole State team was 25-6 and finished No. 14 in the junior college national rankings.

After that decade at Texas Tech, the head coaching bug bit again.

Beard worked in 2011-12 as the head coach of the South Carolina professional team in the ABA (remember when the Arkansas Rimrockers were in that league?), where finances are always shaky. The first-year franchise posted a 31-2 record under Beard’s leadership.

He then returned to Texas to serve as the head coach at Division II McMurry for the 2012-13 season. Success there (McMurry was 19-10 in its first season as a Division II member) led to the offer to be the head coach at another Division II program, Angelo State in San Angelo.

The Rams, who had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, went 19-9 in Beard’s first season. Angelo State won its first 10 games that season and found itself ranked for the first time since 2009.

The next season saw Beard lead Angelo State to a school-record 28 victories and the Division II Sweet 16. The Rams were 17-0 at home and finished the year ranked No. 19 nationally in Division II. They led the nation in scoring margin, were third in field goal percentage, fifth in assists and in the top 10 in total rebounds, assist-to-turnover ratio and assists per game.

So you had a coach who had gone 47-17 in two seasons at Angelo State.

Here’s what the Kansas head coach, Bill Self, had to say at the time: “I think it’s a great hire. He had the chance to learn under one of the all-time pillars in our game in Bob Knight. He’ll bring energy, he’ll bring excitement and he’ll bring a work ethic and recruiting knowledge that will be very beneficial to the Little Rock program.”

Here’s what the Tennessee head coach (and former Texas head coach), Rick Barnes, had to say: “Chris has an incredible work ethic and has won at every level he has ever been. I’m very confident that he’ll accomplish great things at Little Rock.”

Here’s what Kent Hance, the former Texas Tech chancellor, had to say: “I think Chris Beard is the finest young coach in America, bar none. He’s a great recruiter and coach, but the thing that I like most about him is that he cares about the kids. He graduates players and makes sure they’re good citizens and complete student-athletes. I’m thrilled for him and Little Rock. Get ready because you’re about to move up.”

Still, there were those in Little Rock who complained.

I liked Beard the first time I met him. Soon after the coach arrived in Little Rock, my friend Kevin Crass invited me to Doe’s Eat Place to share a steak with Beard. Kevin and I have been friends since we were students at Ouachita Baptist University. Kevin’s son Ted was the only member of Shields’ staff that Beard retained.

Beard told stories of how Bobby Knight would drive two hours to try out a new barbecue joint for lunch. I certainly thought more highly of Knight after learning he was a fellow barbecue aficionado.

Beard was witty. He also struck me as intense, maybe even someone with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. In other words, exactly what UALR needed.

That attitude was evident in this quote Beard gave to USA Today earlier this week: “Me personally, I’ve been overlooked my whole life. I wake up every day with an edge. Guys like me get one chance. I wasn’t a great player. I don’t have a famous grandfather. I get up every day, surround myself with winners. Every day I feel like I’m an underdog.”

That newspaper story told how Beard took his team up on Petit Jean Mountain to Camp Mitchell, the old camp operated by the Episcopal Church in Arkansas.

The players slept in bunk beds and talked late into the night, getting to know their coaches and each other much better.

Senior Roger Woods told the newspaper: “We had a lot of players with a lot of different stories that were really impressive. … We all wanted to come together and get something going in Little Rock.”

Conque liked what he saw in Beard.

And Beard liked what he saw in Little Rock. He saw a chance to build something special at the Division I level.

“We have everything we need to build a successful program,” Beard told interviewer Greg Henderson last year. “We have the best facility in college basketball, a great capital city, a great university, history. I don’t see any reason we can’t get it done. Our mission is ‘why not us’ from the first recruiting call.”

He also took Conque’s rebranding as “Little Rock’s team” to heart, saying his players took pride in having the name of the state’s largest city on their jerseys.

I have to believe that this is what the late Jack Stephens had in mind when he gave that $22.4 million gift to UALR to build what’s now the Stephens Center, which is a perfect size for a mid-major program (seating 5,600 people) and is as fine an area as there is in the country.

“We’re not done yet,” Beard said after Thursday’s win over Purdue. “We came to this tournament to win two games in Denver and try to advance to the Sweet 16, just like everybody else.”

Now, some of those same people who were criticizing Conque’s choice in a coach a year ago are worrying that Beard’s stay in Little Rock might be a short one.

Even if it is, he has given basketball fans in this state a season they’ll always remember.

Why not us indeed.

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