Former Northwestern coach Ricky Birdsong’s untimely death hurt so much.
by Michael Bradley
He was larger than life.
That’s what you thought when you met Ricky Byrdsong. He filled the room with his smile. With his confidence. With his personality. Talk to him long enough and you might find yourself ready to follow him on a crusade against hate. Or hunger. Or just about anything. Ricky Byrdsong could do that. Could motivate people to follow him. Before they knew it, they were right next to him. Involved. That was his power, the power to lead.
Ask Jamal Meeks about that. He spent three years as an assistant to Byrdsong at Northwestern, going from glorified gofer to a valued bench assistant. “I had all the jobs everybody else didn’t have time for,” Meeks says, laughing. “I got the cars washed, filled them with gas and picked up the recruits from the airport. All the glamour stuff.” In return, Meeks learned about basketball and how to serve others. He saw that when Byrdsong showed up in Meeks’ office with three boxes of sharp Cole Haan dress shoes for the 24-year-old coach. “I’m making $1,000 a month, and he’s treating me like one of his kids,” Meeks says. “If I needed a new suit for the sidelines, he helped out.” And on that bus ride back from a loss (Northwestern had a lot of them) when Byrd made Meeks look out the window and consider “how many people in this city are hungry right now.” That really made an impression. “I’m 24 years old, and I’m trying to figure out how to afford a new car, and he’s talking about people who can’t eat,” Meeks says. “He says, ‘We’ve got to figure out how to feed them.’”
Then there was the time when Byrdsong told Meeks, “Come on, we’re taking a drive.” They jumped into the head coach’s maroon New Yorker and started driving into Chicago. Way into Chicago. To Cabrini Green, the most notorious projects in the city. A place where people who drive shiny New Yorkers don’t go, unless they’re moving at top speed. Not Byrdsong. He stopped. He parked. “The locals are trying to figure out who we are,” Meeks says. “They think we’re detectives.” Byrdsong took Meeks into one of the apartment buildings. It reeked of urine and despair. “Think about trying to raise kids in this,” Byrdsong told him. “We’ve got to do something about that.” Byrdsong wasn’t eyeing a recruit or trying to make contact with a street agent. He just wanted to see the place. And he wanted Meeks to know that even at $1,000 a month, he had it pretty good. “To feel that, wow!” Meeks says, a decade later.
All the Byrdsong stories are about 10 years later, because he has been gone almost that long. Not just gone from coaching; then-Northwestern AD Rick Taylor took care of that with seven games left in the ’96-97 season. Nope, Byrdsong is Gone, as in dead. Passed. Murdered.
In the summer of ’99, it took a hateful man and his gun to stop Byrdsong, because nothing else was going to. So Northwestern had fired him and taken him away from the profession to which he’d given his life? That was a mere speed bump. Byrdsong ended up at Aon, the world’s second largest insurance company, running community relations programs and spreading his gospel to an even wider audience. The ultimate preacher had been given a bigger pulpit. He was going to write books. Influence people. There was no stopping him.
“I guess that is what he should have been doing all along,” Evan Eschmeyer says. “He was a better preacher than a basketball coach. He could provide better service to his country. If he had not been shot, he would have been a powerful force in people’s lives.”
Eschmeyer spent four years with Byrdsong at Northwestern. He was hurt for two and played for two. Eschmeyer then had a four-year NBA run with the Nets and Mavs and is now pursuing joint law and MBA degrees at his alma mater and has recently become a father. He acknowledges Byrdsong’s limitations as a basketball coach—“He made a lot of mistakes”—but marvels at his ability to overcome any obstacles he encountered, whether they were self-inflicted or beyond his control. That was one of his gifts to his players, the unflinching optimism that things would be all right. No matter how tough it got, he kept moving forward, kept overcoming. “If he made a mistake, he could bounce back as well as anybody,” Eschmeyer says. Now 32, Eschmeyer appreciates Byrdsong more and more. “I find myself, as I move from a young adult to a full adult, thinking every few months back to something [Byrdsong] said in the locker room after a game, and it will make sense,” he adds. “I’ll realize that he was instilling life lessons that don’t always go with motivating a basketball team. It’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to fulfill that mission.”
Its name was the World Church of the Creator, though it had about as much to do with a church as a school of fish has to do with an education. Its founder, Ben Klassen, was a horrible man whose worldview had been shaped by some of history’s greatest hate-mongers, like Hitler and Mussolini. He saw enemies all around him and slowly built a following of twisted, like-minded types who believed in “racial purity” and the same propaganda that incited the Nazis, specifically that Jews were running the world and that white people had to fight back. It had attracted nearly 10,000 followers throughout America and the world. Matt Hale, “Pontifex Maximus” of the church, had been on several TV programs, spouting his venom. One follower, Benjamin Smith, believed in the need for a “racial holy war,” and when Hale was denied a law license in Illinois, thanks in large part to his religious creed, Smith was irate. It was time for him to abandon the church’s non-violent stance.
On July 2, ’99, Smith was cruising the streets in a predominently-Jewish neighborhood near Byrdsong’s home, hoping to get some retribution for what he felt was a vendetta by the “Jewish-Operated Government” against Hale and his fellow church members. In a 15-minute span, he shot six Jews and frightened countless others with his gunplay. Looking for more victims, he headed toward Skokie, where he saw Byrdsong and two of his children, Ricky, Jr., and Kelley. Byrdsong was jogging, and the two kids were on their bikes. Smith had gone out looking for Jewish victims. His twisted mind was just as happy to fire on African-Americans. Smith slowed down, cruised toward the Byrdsong family at a deliberate pace and opened fire. Two days later, being chased while he looked for more victims, Smith took his own life. Sadly, his irreparable damage had been done.
“I was coaching at Bowling Green at the time, and I was asleep on my couch,” says Meeks. “I woke up and saw Byrd’s face on SportsCenter. I thought he had gotten another coaching job. Then I heard the news, and my heart dropped.”
Brad Hurlbut, who had been the sports information director at Northwestern while Byrdsong was the coach there, was up early on July 3, preparing to drive to a friend’s wedding. He had the news on and heard, “Next up, a former Northwestern coach is shot dead.” He waited for the commercial to end and confronted the news. As SID, it was his job to tell people what had happened. “It was gut-wrenching,” he said. The hardest job was telling Taylor, the same man who had fired Byrdsong. Taylor hadn’t hired the coach, and he didn’t always agree with Byrdsong’s unorthodox methods. When Taylor announced Byrdsong’s dismissal with eight games left in a ’96-97 season that would end at 7-22, the Northwestern players were irate and held a press conference making their sentiments known. It didn’t change Taylor’s mind.
Taylor may not have regretted firing Byrdsong for the good of the program, but it hardly lessened his sadness about Byrdsong’s tragic death. As Hurlbut approached him on the golf course on July 3, 1999, the hardened AD knew trouble was brewing. “I’m coming down the second fairway toward him, and he knew something was wrong,” Hurlbut says. “When I told him, he burst into tears. And this wasn’t a guy who cried. When we held the press conference at the university the next week, many of the people there couldn’t make it through without crying. Ricky was just a wonderful man.”
Byrd had taken a long route to Northwestern. He was an all-conference performer at Pratt Community College in Kansas, a long way from the Georgia home where he grew up. Byrdsong moved on to Iowa State, where he was named co-captain. But he wasn’t going to play professionally. Nope, he was going to coach, and his first stop on the bench was at his alma mater. From there, it was on to Western Michigan, Eastern Illinois and Arizona. At each stop, Byrdsong’s reputation as a strong recruiter and inspirational force for the players grew. In ’88, Byrdsong’s assistant career ended when Detroit Mercy named him head coach. By the time he left, after the ’92-93 season, he had lifted the Titans to a 15-12 record. That performance attracted Northwestern, which made him the program’s first black head coach. Byrdsong had a 34-78 record with the Wildcats, who were often outmanned in the highly competitive Big Ten thanks to their stringent admissions requirements. They were also hurt by injuries, defections and some plain bad luck, such as when star Geno Carlisle was convicted of assaulting a woman and transferred to California.
Byrdsong, who once took his team to Tijuana when they were in Cali to play a game at San Diego State, had his signature moment during a game at Minnesota in his first season. Trying to motivate his team and angry with the officials, he left the Northwestern bench during a February game at Minnesota and wandered into the stands. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune put it, “Northwestern coach Ricky Byrdsong put on one of the most unusual displays ever by a visiting coach at Williams Arena. Byrdsong turned over coaching duties to assistant Paul Swanson and spent much of the second half walking the aisle behind Northwestern’s bench, exchanging pleasantries with Minnesota fans.”
Many around the country felt Byrdsong had lost it. His subsequent 12-day leave of absence convinced them the coach was crazy. But Byrdsong returned and led the team to a strong finish and a 15-14 record, the Wildcats’ first winning season in 11 years. The performance earned the school an NIT berth, just the second post-season invitation tendered to Northwestern in its history. But the good times didn’t last. Northwestern was 7-20 in ’95-96 and 7-22 the following year. The dismissal hardly tempered Byrdsong—at the first game after his firing was announced he came into the postgame press conference holding a sign that said “Will Work for Food.”