How Texas Tech plucked Chris Beard from UNLV, setting two programs on divergent paths

Only 19 days after she hired one of the sport’s rising stars to resurrect UNLV’s underachieving men’s basketball program, Tina Kunzer-Murphy received the sort of phone call every athletic director dreads.

Her counterpart at Texas Tech warned her that he intended to try to hire away her prized new coach.

When UNLV began its pursuit of Chris Beard in March 2016, Kunzer-Murphy had no reason to expect Texas Tech to be in the market for a new coach that spring. Tubby Smith seemed to be entrenched at the school, having just guided the Red Raiders to a surprise NCAA tournament appearance without generating much buzz as a potential candidate elsewhere.

Everything changed on the second Friday in April when Georgia Tech made the curious decision to hire Josh Pastner, a coach Memphis fans were happier to see leave than Yellow Jackets fans were to see arrive. Six days later, Memphis made its own peculiar hire, blindsiding Texas Tech by poaching the 64-year-old Smith.

There was immediate speculation Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt might target Beard as Smith’s replacement even though UNLV had hired him barely two weeks earlier. Beard grew up in Texas, spent 10 seasons as an assistant at Texas Tech and spoke glowingly about the university even after he left. His three young daughters from his previous marriage also lived a short drive from Lubbock.

The day after Smith left Texas Tech, Hocutt called Kunzer-Murphy to inform her that he intended to speak with Beard. Almost three years later, he still vividly recalls the details of their tense conversation.

“No, you do not have my permission to talk to Chris,” Hocutt remembers Kunzer-Murphy angrily telling him. “Are you kidding me? We just hired him.”

Undaunted, Hocutt responded, "With all due respect, I was just giving you a courtesy call. I’m going to ask Chris to meet with us. It will be his decision if he wants to take the time or not.”

Over the next 24 hours, the college basketball world watched with intrigue as Beard wrestled with the most difficult decision of his career. Should he honor the five-year contract he signed with UNLV days earlier at great personal sacrifice? Or should he snap up a dream job in his home state even if it meant reneging on his commitment and leaving the Rebels scrambling?

By the following morning, Beard had made his choice. He and his assistants boarded a charter flight bound for Lubbock, unaware of how drastically their decision would alter the trajectories of the two programs involved.

There was no way of predicting Texas Tech would rapidly evolve from afterthought to contender under Beard, reaching the program’s first-ever Elite Eight last March before advancing to face Michigan in this week’s Sweet 16. Nor was there any way of knowing UNLV would again have to scramble to find a new coach after sinking further from its Jerry Tarkanian glory days in three forgettable seasons under Beard’s replacement.

“Who would ever think that a coach would up and leave 10 days after signing a contract?” Kunzer-Murphy said “It was the right decision for him, but it was heartbreaking for those of us who love UNLV athletics. He really was the right coach for us, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

After spurning UNLV, Chris Beard has led Texas Tech to the Sweet 16. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

‘I thought we had the perfect guy’

To understand why UNLV crumbled after Beard left, it’s important to remember why the Rebels needed him so badly. This was a program in crisis in 2016, one that only had three scholarship players left on its roster after Kunzer-Murphy’s midseason firing of Dave Rice stymied recruiting and sparked a spate of defections.

UNLV jettisoned Rice in Jan. 2016 amid frustration over his inability to parlay elite recruiting classes into greater success. The Rebels landed 11 Rivals 150 prospects and a handful of coveted transfers during Rice’s four-plus seasons, but they never finished higher than third in the Mountain West, nor did they win an NCAA tournament game in their two appearances.

When UNLV began its search for Rice’s replacement, it had filet mignon tastes. Media reports out of Las Vegas named Rick Pitino and Jay Wright as potential candidates, and nobody at the university bothered to dispel those far-fetched notions.

The first candidate to actually interview with UNLV was Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, who at the time had led the Bearcats to six straight NCAA tournaments. Cronin ultimately withdrew from consideration and agreed to a contract extension at Cincinnati, leaving many at UNLV wondering if his interest was sincere or just a leverage ploy.

Unwilling to risk swinging and missing again on a high-profile candidate, UNLV’s search committee instead targeted a pair of successful mid-major coaches.

Marvin Menzies had won consistently at New Mexico State, leading the Aggies to five straight Western Athletic Conference regular-season or tournament titles. Beard had engineered college basketball’s biggest single-season turnaround in his debut at Arkansas Little Rock, winning 30 games including a first-round NCAA tournament upset of fifth-seeded Purdue.

A Las Vegas native who graduated from UNLV in 1975 and worked at her alma mater at the height of the Tarkanian era, Kunzer-Murphy saw in Beard qualities that reminded her of the Rebels’ legendary former coach. Beard possessed a disarming sense of humor, an ability to relate to people of all backgrounds and a knack for instilling toughness and discipline in his teams without fracturing his relationship with his players.

The biggest tipping point in Beard’s favor was a comment he made to Kunzer-Murphy as they drove to the Thomas & Mack Center. He pointed to a row of shabby-looking student apartments around the corner from the arena and announced, “If I get this job, that is where I want to live.”

“He wanted to be able to get to the gym in a few minutes early in the morning or late at night,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “That impressed me. I knew the type of coach we needed at the time was a gym rat, and I thought we had the perfect guy.”

UNLV athletics director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, Chris Beard and UNLV President Len Jessup pose after Beard was introduced as UNLV's new basketball coach on April 8, 2016. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

‘This could be a real possibility’

In the two-plus weeks he spent at UNLV, Beard attacked rebuilding the program with trademark urgency. He dedicated himself to meeting his players, assembling his staff and assessing which recruits to target even as the university’s antiquated hiring process created needless obstacles for him.

Since UNLV’s Board of Regents had to formally approve Beard’s contract, he actually had to appear in front of board members and and justify why he had the credentials to merit a nearly $1 million per year salary. That tedious process took so long that Beard didn’t hold his introductory press conference at UNLV until more than 10 days after he accepted the job.

Those close to Beard insist that process played no role in his decision to abruptly leave UNLV. He focused more on UNLV’s potential than its warts, salivating at the thought of recruiting to a tradition-rich program located in the heart of a destination city rapidly becoming the basketball mecca of the West.

“Mentally, we had engulfed ourselves in the job,” said Chris Ogden, then an assistant under Beard and now the head coach at Texas-Arlington.

“All of us, to a man, were excited about the challenge. I grew up on the UNLV Runnin’ Rebs. I think it's a top-five brand in college basketball lying there waiting to be booming. The right person can win there. We were the right people. Beard was the right guy. We could have gone in there and done it.”

The mood of the staff changed immediately on April 14, 2016 when word began to spread that the Texas Tech job had opened. Ogden remembers the car falling silent after he and the other coaches learned the news.

“There were five of us in this little Nissan sedan,” Ogden said “We were all just staring at our phones like, ‘Oh s---.’ I don't know if anyone said anything out loud, but I knew in my mind this could be a real possibility.”

While Hocutt’s Texas Tech tenure only overlapped by a few weeks with Beard’s 10 years there, others at the school urged the athletic director to monitor the up-and-coming coach’s progress. Hocutt tracked Beard as he built Division II Angelo State into a powerhouse program in only two years and watched from his phone at a North Carolina airport as Beard’s Arkansas Little Rock team toppled Purdue.

In addition to Beard’s winning track record, Hocutt valued the coach’s familiarity with the Texas Tech program, ties to the West Texas community and time spent learning under former Red Raiders coach Bob Knight. Hocutt didn’t know if he could persuade Beard to leave Las Vegas so quickly, but he figured UNLV’s awkward hiring process could only boost his chances.

“Before we even had an opening, I remember watching him at a board of regents meeting that was broadcast live,” Hocutt said. “They had Chris stand up and really defend his credentials. I remember watching that and thinking what in the world is going on here? That's not typically you welcome and celebrate the arrival of a new head coach.”

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 27: Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard watches drills during the practice day before their NCAA Division I Men's Championship Sweet Sixteen round basketball game on March 27, 2019 at Honda Center in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

From Las Vegas to Lubbock

Beard had a usual request when Hocutt called the afternoon of April 15, 2016 to arrange a job interview with him in Las Vegas the following day.

“Is there any way you can come tonight?” Hocutt recalled the coach asking.

Eager to show Beard how much they wanted him, Hocutt arranged for a flight to Las Vegas and asked his university president to meet him at the airport in 45 minutes. They offered Beard a five-year contract worth more than double his UNLV deal over dinner that night but left without any sort of agreement in place.

The following morning, Beard called Hocutt back and accepted the job — on one condition. The coach wanted to arrange a flight to Lubbock that afternoon so he could get to work as quickly as possible.

“The sense of urgency is unmatched with Chris Beard,” Hocutt said with a chuckle. “There's moving fast and then there's Beard speed.”

Asked Wednesday whether it was tough leaving UNLV under those circumstances to come to Texas Tech, Beard declined comment. He said he has “nothing but respect for the people in Las Vegas and UNLV,” but he preferred to focus on Texas Tech’s Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan on Thursday.

At his introductory news conference in Lubbock three years ago, Beard called leaving UNLV a “difficult situation” but something he felt he had to do.

"It's like when Bear Bryant left Texas A&M for Alabama," Beard said. "He said, 'When momma calls, you've gotta go home.' Texas Tech is my momma and I'm home. I'm so glad to be here."

Texas Tech is no doubt glad he’s there too the way he has elevated a program with a history of only sporadic success.

While Beard earned Big 12 coach of the year after winning 27 games last season, the job he has done this season is undeniably more impressive. The Red Raiders were projected seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll after losing five of last year’s top six scorers, but they’re 28-6 and one win away from another Elite Eight.

You’re not supposed to produce back-to-back seasons like this at Texas Tech. You’re especially not supposed to do it when you lose an All-American (Keenan Evans) to graduation and a surprise one-and-done (Zhaire Smith) to the NBA draft.

“He’s taken Texas Tech to a level that it’s never been before,” Hocutt said. “To be in the Sweet 16 two consecutive years, to advance to the Elite Eight last year, these are school records that are being established. We knew the type of leader we had when we hired him, but I can’t sit here and say I expected this.”

Things are very different in Las Vegas, a town that is slowly losing interest in UNLV’s sputtering basketball program. Attendance reached historic lows this winter as the Rebels endured a sixth straight season without an NCAA tournament bid.

New athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois fired Menzies earlier this month after only three years on the job, saying, “If I’m not confident in where we are headed, we need to make a change.” Reed-Francois announced the hire of former South Dakota State coach T.J. Otzelberger on Wednesday.

UNLV’s struggles are especially tough for Kunzer-Murphy to stomach because she knows she hired the coach who could have reinvigorated the Rebels. Now she has to watch him do it at the school that plucked him away instead.

When Kunzer-Murphy stumbled across Beard at a conference a few months after he left UNLV, she tapped him on the shoulder and unloaded on him.

“It was hard that first year,” she said. “It was raw. We got dumped.”

Now with the benefit of a few years hindsight, Kunzer-Murphy feels differently. She watches Texas Tech whenever she can and actually takes some bittersweet pride in identifying one of the sport’s elite coaches.

“I root for him now,” she said. “I love watching him coach. He could have been here for a long, long time, but it just didn't work out.”

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