Battle: The branding of a rivalry
Moments define legacies.
In a fierce rivalry that began in 1953, the Belmont and Lipscomb men’s basketball programs are no strangers to each other on the court. But in that long history, two games launched the real start of the intensity: Belmont’s 1989 upset of Lipscomb and the 1990 Memorial Gym game.
During a period of NAIA domination by the Don Meyer-led Lipscomb Bisons, Belmont was the little brother overshadowed by a program that ESPN columnist and longtime baseball writer Buster Olney called the “New York Yankees of the NAIA” and “like US Steel in that division of basketball.”
Belmont coach Rick Byrd said, “their goals back then were to win the national championship, our goal was to try and get competitive with Lipscomb.”
But the younger scrappy brother began became not only competition to the offensive-machine that was Lipscomb, but also gathered unexpected success. The “Joe Behling” game of 1989 set the stage for what became the highest attended game in NAIA history and the defining moment of the Battle series.
We interviewed people from both sides of the Boulevard to capture the “branding” of the Battle of the Boulevard in the 1990 Memorial Gym game.
Philip Hutcheson (Lipscomb basketball player 86-90, current Athletics Director) : The last game of my junior year, we were 38-1 that year, we’d only lost one game. We were playing the district finals I guess here against Belmont and they beat us. That was devastating. We had been ranked No. 1 and they beat us.
Buster Olney (sports reporter for the Nashville Banner 1987-1990): It was huge. Joe Behling’s game against Lipscomb. One of the most incredible games I’ve gotten to see is when Belmont beat Lipscomb at their gym at the end of the 1989 season. He scores 58 points in their gym and totally shocks Lipscomb. And Lipscomb at that point was considered to be the favorite to win the national title. Instead, Behling beats them.
Coach Meyer had a phrase at that time, “A guy’s treed” meaning he’s playing way above where he is normally supposed to be. So he basically told them that you could not guard him (Behling) at all for the second half and he would never score 29 points again. Well he scored exactly 29 points in the second half.
Rick Byrd (Belmont head coach): I can’t imagine a much tougher loss for a school. I mean they are 38-1 and at that time, maybe the most wins in college basketball history. Just putting yourself on the other side of it, I can’t imagine a more devastating loss then that one was.
Olney: So the tension between the two schools, especially after Belmont upset, was enormous.
Byrd: It motivated their side of the rivalry because when you’ve dominated somebody for the most part it’s not as big of a rivalry. It became a big deal for them when we won that game.
That tension sparked a city-wide interest in the Battle. Members of the Nashville Sports Council, then Nashville Athletic Club, began working on the idea of moving the rivalry to Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym to “kind of display this game for all of Nashville so a lot of people could see it, not just the fans from each of those schools.”
Ron Bargatze (founder of the Nashville Athletic Club, former Belmont basketball player): I talked with both coaches who were excited about doing that, but one coach was going to have to give up his home game.
Byrd: They went to Lipscomb first because the date that was available at Vanderbilt was the date of the Lipscomb home game against Belmont and Lipscomb chose not to take the game away from their gym.
Olney: Well there was no chance Lipscomb was going to do it because they sold out every game, and Coach Meyer was not going to concede a home game to make that happen. But I think Coach Byrd always took a broader view of what the rivalry could mean not only to the league but to Belmont because Belmont at that time was still getting a foundation for what was to come.
Bargatze: Coach Meyer wouldn’t, but Rick Byrd would. So Belmont’s home game became the original Battle of the Boulevard held at Memorial Gym in 1990.
Hutcheson: I remember before the game for about a week or two before, we had a white board in the team room and everybody put their predictions on what they thought the attendance would be at the game just for fun. And I don’t think anyone wrote more than maybe about 10,000.
Bargatze: As kind of the director of the game, I was going around to banks, taking them tickets, they would sell out, they’d call me and I’d call and stay in contact with the schools as we distributed those tickets around. And we were shocked and thought we thought we might actually get seven or eight thousand in an arena that would seat 15,000.
But the tickets kept selling. So we were hoping for 10,000. The week leading into that game, it just took off like wildfire.
Byrd: None of us thought it would sell out. None of us. We were hoping for 10,000 plus. And we didn’t even know until that night, and they announced it in the women’s game, that it was sold out.
Hutcheson: I rode with Wade Tomlinson to the game, and I remember driving up and thinking ‘man we’ve got to park a long ways away.’ So I actually started to get the sense that there was going to be a lot of people at this game. As soon as you walked in, you thought this was going to be a big crowd because there was already thousands and thousands of people there.
Bargatze: Around 5:30 that night when I went out to my truck to pick up a couple things, I could see all these people beginning to show up ‘cause the doors were getting ready to open. There was a clamoring for people to get in and they had not bought a ticket in advance. And a lot of these people I knew were saying ‘Hey Ron, we need a ticket to the game. Can you get us a ticket to the game?’ Of course, I had no tickets.
Hutcheson: In fact, Tomlinson, one of our guards, had relatives come up from Huntsville, Northern Alabama to watch the game and they got locked out. They couldn’t get in. And we were like, “This is the first in NAIA history where you can have a 15,000-seat arena and people turned away at the door.”
Bargatze: By the time the boys’ game started, it was a packed house. Lipscomb fans were sitting next to Belmont fans and so on. It was a very unusual game in that you didn’t have the home section. So it became a real wild and sort of crazy atmosphere in there. We had to beef up our security once the game started because there had been some instances over the years were this game had gotten a little bit out of hand.
Olney: I remember taking a moment before that game reminding myself to sit here and take a moment to take this in before the game because this is one of the coolest things you’ll ever cover.
Hutcheson: The thing I remember the most in the game is that again that the other three guys that were in my same class, all of us had over 20 points that game. Which is unusual. So we really spread it out. Granted, we scored 120 something points, so there was a lot of points to be had.
The game by the end wasn’t super close. It was exciting for a while, but I think our depth pulled away in the late stage of the game.
Byrd: The game was exciting, real high scoring. They beat us 124-107. I didn’t do a very good job of coaching that game, but it was still fantastic. The event far and away superseded the outcome. And I don’t say that very often because I’m pretty competitive and don’t like to lose.
Olney: The game kind of turned out to be a bit of a dud, Lipscomb blew out Belmont, but the excitement level about the game going into, it kind of reminded me of the Super Bowl for that level.
Bargatze: When it was all over, we just set back, took a deep breath and said, ‘That was unbelievable.’ And it was. The game itself almost took a backseat to the spectacle the game became and was.
Hutcheson: So it was certainly memorable. It just stands out in terms of the crowd and the hype leading up to it. There are probably 40,000 people who have said they were at that game, so who knows who was really at that game.
A percentage of ticket sales from the Memorial Gym were donated to Vanderbilt’s Burn Center. Approximately $40,000 was raised.
Lipscomb and Belmont, the then Rebels played two more games at Memorial Gym with split results, the Bisons won 100-72 in 1993 and Belmont captured a 92-89 win in 1994. But neither game lived up to the original game that made the Battle of the Boulevard a brand.
View part two, Battle: Bout continues, business as usual, after hiatus, to continue the history of the Battle of the Boulevard series.