It has been said that all good things must come to an end.
But in the case of the Battle of the Boulevard between Belmont and Lipscomb, sometimes that end only means a short break.
For several years, the NAIA’s District 24 played host to a constant battle for supremacy between the Nashville rivals. But that record-breaking match-up took an eight year hiatus following Belmont’s jump to NCAA Division I in 1997.
That year, the Bruins and Lipscomb both made it to the NAIA semifinals in Tulsa, Okla. only to lose on the same day.
“We played on the same court on the same day the last time we were both in the NAIA,” said Bruins’ long-time coach Rick Byrd.
The following year, the rivalry began its break.
“Probably on the front end, it was my choice,” said Byrd. “We knew it was going to be a difficult transition and there was no sense in us being a Division I school and playing a great NAIA school when we were struggling to start out the program.”
The university’s motivation for the move stemmed from then-university president Dr. William Troutt’s idea that based on Belmont’s growth and comparable schools in the South, a Division I athletic program was the next logical step.
“I remember him distinctly saying that if we play LSU, and why he pulled them out I don’t know, in regular season game more people would see the name, hear the name Belmont then if we had won an NAIA national championship,” Byrd said. “He just felt like Belmont needed to make the move as an institution. I don’t really know what he thought about our ability to compete.”
During the four-year period of independent play, Belmont averaged 14.5 wins a season while facing teams like Butler, Hofstra, Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt.
Lipscomb followed suit in 2000 and played as an independent for three years.
Eventually both teams found a home in the Atlantic Sun – Belmont in 2001 and Lipscomb in 2003. On Jan. 27, 2004, the rivalry was reborn with a 66-64 Belmont overtime win at Lipscomb.
But it was two years later that the two rivals would play what became a defining moment in the Battle of the Boulevard history.
In 2006, the Bruins and the Bisons faced off in Johnson City with a conference championship and first-ever NCAA tournament bid on the line.
“It was kind of very gratifying to see that two programs that had grown into DI and that we felt were going to be great contributors to the success and growth of our conference were now playing in our championship game,” said Atlantic Sun Commissioner Tim Gumbart. “It was the realization that, yes, these teams are ready to play Division I full-bore, they are not aspiring teams, they are championship teams.”
Lipscomb’s league-topping power offense was shut down in the overtime 74-69 win. Belmont, led by Josh Goodwin, held the Bisons to just 35.6 percent on field-goal shooting.
That win sparked Belmont’s ascension from lowly Division I program to trendy tournament upset-pick with six NCAA tournament appearances in the last decade. Lipscomb was sent to the NIT for its only appearance in the tournament.
Scott Sanderson, Lipscomb’s coach, may not remember exact details of how the game but he remembers the energy and the passion. “It was such a memorable game.”
For Byrd, that game is not only a memorable moment in Battle history, it marks “an almost role reversal” between the Don Meyer led Lipscomb program of the NAIA era and Belmont.
“It’s really hard to say, you’d like to think that our program has established ourself consistently enough that we would have gotten there anyway but the value of winning that game and going to the NCAA tournament and what it did for the future of our program I can’t measure,” Byrd said.
Without this pivotal moment, Byrd recognizes that the program could look considerably different than what it is now.
“I can’t even guess very good. Cause if they had won and we had lost they might have gone on and we might have gone elsewhere. I think about it alot. That was such a significant win.”