Belmont and Lipscomb, those Nashville neighbors barely two miles apart, resume their eyeball-to-eyeball basketball rivalry Wednesday. And you know what that means.
Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander will be going against Belmont. No, wait. That was the last six seasons. Now, Belmont coach Casey Alexander will be going against Lipscomb.
OK, that might be a little confusing. Only the Battle of the Boulevard could produce a story like this.
“Very weird,” Alexander said. “I’ll take it farther. My daughter is a junior at Lipscomb University. I’ve got an 11th grade boy and eighth grade boy at Lipscomb Academy. We’re still heavily involved and see a lot of those people, so it’s really awkward to be taking a different team back over there. Last year I was coaching those guys trying to beat Belmont, and this year I’m coaching a new team trying to beat those guys.”
There’s more. Alexander is a Nashville guy, played for a high school whose big rival was Lipscomb Academy, then went to Belmont as player and stayed as an assistant. Lipscomb was his lifelong foe. Then he moved two miles down Belmont Boulevard to coach Lipscomb. Now, with the retirement of Belmont legend Rick Byrd — the man who coached him and won 805 games in 33 seasons — Alexander has returned up the street, like a Nashville city bus.
“Literally from seventh grade to 2011, Lipscomb was my biggest rival. Then when I got that job, they quickly became my favorite team, and they were my favorite team for six years,” he said. “I poured my heart and soul into it, and now I’m on the other side of it again.”
It’s the closest rivalry in Division I. Compared to Belmont and Lipscomb, Duke and North Carolina are distant cousins. So here’s the thing: How many men have changed their jobs as Division I head coaches, but didn’t even have to sell their house?
“We were trying to think, maybe Bill Self when he went from Oral Roberts to Tulsa,” Alexander said. “You talk about not changing your home or your kids’ school, it’s literally the exact same distance to the Belmont parking garage as it was to the Lipscomb parking garage; 1.4 miles from my house, on the same road. I just turn left instead of right.”
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And all that Lipscomb clothing he collected over six seasons? “I folded it nicely and put three big bags’ worth back in my office. So I don’t know if they just took it straight to Goodwill or they passed it around. Hopefully somebody’s getting some good use out of it.”
This rivalry has been torrid for decades and in its way, is among the most unique in the nation. Nobody would understand it better than a guy who has worked both ends of the street.
“I think what makes it special, and I know this now first hand more than ever, is there’s so many more similarities in the two schools and programs than there are differences,” Alexander said. “Usually when you’ve got the real rivalries, you’re talking the state school and private school, or big school and a small school, or two completely different fan bases.”
This we know: Alexander can coach, no matter what end of Belmont Boulevard. He had Lipscomb in the NIT finals last season, and its first-ever NCAA tournament spot the year before. Now he’s in charge of Belmont, which has produced 17 conference season or tournament titles since 2006, more than any program in the nation except Gonzaga and Kansas. His debut has started well, despite stars Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain and their 38 points a game being gone from last season. The Bruins are 3-1, and had a rousing 100-85 win at Boston College Saturday, led by 35 points from Adam Kunkel. The sophomore guard is averaging 22.5 after four games. Last season, he was at 2.3.
“We’re never going to take an ACC road win for granted,” Alexander said. “But as I told our team before the game, Belmont quit worrying about who we were playing or where we were playing a long time ago. It was a matter of us going out and being ourselves.”
Only problem he had at Lipscomb was with his alma mater. He went 2-10 against Belmont, but had his program right there with the Bruins. Belmont won both games last season — they have a home-and-home series in December — but they were struggles, 87-83 and 76-74. It was never easy to face his mentor and school.
“It was hard because Belmont was always really good,” Alexander said, “wanting to close that competitive gap and have similar success. I think by the time we left Lipscomb we had done a lot of that. Lipscomb didn’t have the sustained success Belmont had, but the competitive gap was pretty close.”
And now it can’t be returning to replace a local legend, can it? “It hasn’t been hard in the sense it seems really natural. Having been at Belmont for 20 years as a player and then an assistant coach, I don’t have to look over my shoulder and wonder how it was done. I don’t have to second guess or wonder if anyone is second guessing, because I know how Belmont has done it in the past. That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it perfectly or it’s going to be easy. but I think it would be tougher walking into a situation where I wasn’t familiar with the program.”
Plus, he and Byrd can talk anytime now. The past six seasons, the friendship was put on hold each December. “He played 18 holes this morning and we’ve texted since our (Boston College) game. I think he had a lot easier day then we did, but both of us are happy now.”
So now comes his first Belmont-Lipscomb game in his role reversal. Fate would have it, Wednesday’s game is at Lipscomb, coached by Lennie Acuff, who had been at Alabama-Huntsville.
“A lot of mixed emotions,” Alexander predicted of Wednesday night. “Definitely what I’m most concerned with is coaching my team and trying to get Belmont a win. But at the same time Lipscomb was great to me. I love those guys and pull for them. It’s hard to play against them.”
“I would expect a little bit of everything. Lipscomb people have been entirely gracious to me and supportive and somewhat understanding about the move.”
When he was at Lipscomb, Alexander once said the schools were so close, his daily jogging route took him through the Belmont campus. Must be the other way around now.
“Unfortunately, I’m not running as much, but the route’s still the same. There’s only one street to get from one to the other. It just depends on which direction you’re headed.”