When you score just 24 career points while wearing an Iowa State uniform, you aren’t likely to be selected by any University “All-Century” team or be tabbed in any fan’s personal “All-Time Starting Five”. When you play in an era of Cyclone basketball that was an upside-down, sideways-spinning, roller coaster ride, it is easy to get lost in the mix. Even though you were the team captain, even though you were a part of one of the most remarkable two-season turnarounds in school history. Even though you were the heart and soul of the squad while appearing in just 27 of the 54 games during your time in Ames.
Great basketball talent is so highly coveted and so necessary to success that often times the chemistry and emotional stability of a team is easily forgotten.
This is the story of the original “Glue Guy”: Ricky Byrdsong.
In Ken Trickey’s second season at the helm of the Iowa State basketball program, the 1975-76 Cyclones went 3-24 (3-11). It would ultimately be his last season. The team was in disarray.
That is the last time an Iowa State team was winless in the non-conference season, and the first time since the 1927-28 season. Trickey was replaced by Lynn Nance, an assistant from Kentucky the previous season. The Cyclones vaulted all the way to a second place tie in the Big 8 during Nance’s second season going 14-13 (9-5).
While the team in Nance’s first two seasons was headlined by greats like Chuck Harminson, Andrew Parker, Bob Fowler, Dean Uthoff, and Steve Burgason, it was Byrdsong that was the leader and the catalyst for success.
|Ricky Byrdsong played only two seasons for Iowa State
and scored just 24 points in his career.
John Tillo played with Byrdsong at Iowa State. “Ricky was just a great guy that was all about the team. He had a great attitude, was positive and always led by example. That’s why we voted him to be one of our team captains his senior year (1977-78),” Tillo said.
Another former player and co-captain with Byrdsong at Iowa State was Steve Burgason. The two were roommates and very close, even dubbed by many as “Salt & Pepper”. Byrdsong was later the best man in Burgason’s wedding.
“After the death of Maury John and the program troubles under Trickey the team really came together as a close knit group because of Ricky. The team bonded very closely spiritually, we had Bible studies together, prayers before practices and games, and went to Church together on Sundays during road trips,” said Burgason.
Upon exhausting his eligibility and staying in Ames as a Graduate Assistant, Ricky and Coach Nance were expecting a great team for Nance’s third season. With Harminson, Parker, Uthoff, and Fowler returning, coupled with the addition of Robert Estes, the Cyclones had high hopes. They once again were able to muster a tie for second place in the league with an 8-6 mark. But the 3-10 non-conference record was far below expectations.
Burgason, an Ames native and current resident, points to the lack of Ricky’s on court leadership to explain the drop off. “Ricky had a magnetic personality that drew everyone to him. He was a man of authenticity and that included his relationships with everyone on the team and coaching staff and was vital to the team chemistry that led to the program turnaround,” said Burgason.
Ricky spent only one season on the bench at Iowa State, but his coaching career was far from over. He bounced from Western Michigan to Eastern Illinois to Arizona (under Lute Olson.) In Byrdsong’s first and second seasons at Arizona, the Wildcats played Iowa State. In the 1982-83 season ISU beat Arizona 80-66 in Tucson and in the 1983-84 season the Cyclones again were victorious, winning 75-63 in Hilton.
Byrdsong was at Arizona from 1982-88 before taking the head coaching position at Detroit Mercy.
Detroit Mercy was coming off a 7-23 record in the season prior to Byrdsong’s arrival. Each year his team improved. He notched his best record as the Titan coach in 1992-93 with a mark of 15-12. During his five year stint at Detroit Mercy, Byrdsong’s squads went 53-87.
|Byrdsong spen almost four seasons
as the head coach of Northwestern.
In May of 1993 Byrdsong was hired by Northwestern University. In his first season as the head man of the Wildcats, they went 15-14–the first winning season in eleven years at the school and just the second in 25 years. That season’s performance was good enough for an NIT bid—at the time it was the second post season appearance in the history of the school.
Perhaps the moment most en-grained in the memory of everyone from that season was an incident that didn’t take place on the court. February 7th, 1994 marked the night that incited the Minnesota student section to begin chanting, “Byrdsong’s nuts!”
Northwestern was on a seven game losing streak when the game started. As the game progressed it became more and more clear that another tally was going to be added to the losing column.
It was then that Byrdsong took what he would later characterize as “a walk on the wild side”. He marched to the end of the bench as the forthcoming loss became more apparent and sat on a stool far from his assistant coaches. On two separate occasions he walked onto the court with complaints to the officials and a technical was earned for one of his complaints.
When a timeout was called, Byrdsong continued his strange behavior and did not join the rest of the staff or team in the huddle. He finally handed the reins of the team to one of his assistant coaches and headed to the stands. It was there that Byrdsong began shaking the hands of Gopher fans, and high-fived the Gopher mascot before taking a seat in the aisle. He sat there until an usher asked him to move.
Upon losing the game and returning to Evanston, Byrdsong’s wife, Sherialyn, requested a leave of absence for the coach.
Byrdsong had this to say at the time, “My wife, after watching me, obviously got concerned. Now, anytime I’m going to take a walk on the wild side, I should let her know.”
His leave ended up being for 12 days. He missed four games while consulting with doctors about his mental and physical health. Upon his return for a home contest with Indiana, Byrdsong was greeted with a standing ovation.
The event in Minnesota drew national attention because its oddity. And it was an event that perhaps overshadowed Byrdsong’s accomplishments as the Wildcats coach. It was widely misconstrued as a mentally unstable man participating in crazy behavior, as opposed to a coach being fed up with his team’s play searching for a motivational tool.
Byrdsong was never able to duplicate the success of his first season in Evanston. In his second season on the job he had to replace four starters. His team was devastated by defections and injuries. Byrdsong was fired with seven games left in the 1996-97 season, having gone 34-78 in his four seasons at the helm.
But that is not the end of the Byrdsong story.
Byrdsong had been out of coaching since he was fired by Northwestern, but he remained in the Chicago area. It was just past 8:00 pm on July 2nd, 1999 when he went for a walk with two of his children in the suburb of Skokie.
That walk turned tragic.
Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, who over the previous few days had shot at a group of Orthodox Jews wounding six and killed a Korean-American college student, drove around Skokie, Illinois that same fateful night. He found Byrdsong and his two children walking.
Smith shot Byrdsong in the back just three blocks from Byrdsong’s home. Byrdsong collapsed to the ground in front of his children and died four hours later on the operating table.
Smith later took his own life before he could be brought into custody.
Ricky Byrdsong was more than just a basketball player. His success wearing the Cardinal and Gold wasn’t only because of his ability on the floor; he had success at Iowa State because of his charisma and fun loving personality. “Ricky was a consummate team player that won everybody over with the biggest and widest smile on the planet,” said Burgason.
It wasn’t Byrdsong’s talent that recruited players like Steve Kerr and Sean Elliot to Arizona; it was his leadership, genuine personality, and his authentic relationships that won them over.
There were more than 2,000 people that attended Byrdsong’s funeral. The attendee list was a metaphorical trail of bread crumbs throughout his career. Former teammates from ISU—including Burgason—and the former Cyclone coach Lynn Nance. Also attending was Steve Fisher, Lute Olson, Steve Kerr and former players at Northwestern under Byrdsong like Evan Eschmeyer and Dion Lee.
“The news of his death was just so shocking and a reminder of the presence of evil on earth. There were so many at his funeral because he was so beloved and connected so well with everybody. He was an extraordinary example as a black man,” said Burgason.
As it stands now, Ricky Byrdsong and Fred Hoiberg are the only two Cyclone basketball players that went on to coach Division 1 basketball later in their careers.
Cyclone fans young, old, and in between need to know the story of Ricky Byrdsong. Not because of his playing ability but because of who he was as a person.
In fact, everyone should know the story of Ricky Byrdsong.