In late January of 2019 I found myself in downtown Louisville one late evening as I checked into the Omni Hotel. I was in town for a work meeting taking place the next day. After unpacking I decided to grab a bite to eat before settling in for the night. Being the all-encompassing UofL homer that I admittedly am, I decided to walk over to Griff’s (now closed) and try out the food since I had never eaten there before. I’m not lying when I tell you that the following thought also crossed my mind: what if I run into some former UofL players or coaches and get a chance to chat with them?
When I arrived at the restaurant it was mildly busy - pretty normal for a Monday evening I presumed. As I walked to my table, I did a quick scan of the room to see if I recognized anyone. At first glance I came up empty but right before sitting down I turned to my right and I saw four individuals eating together at a high-top table. Two of the faces were more than familiar. One was Jerry Eaves. The other, was none other than Butch Beard.
Jerry Eaves was and still is a former player I only know by name and history. Having been young when he helped the Cards win their first title in 1980, my memories of him as a player have been relegated to games on old VHS tapes accompanied by random episodes of Knots Landing (thanks Mom).
As for Butch Beard, well that was and still is a completely different story for me personally.
Growing up in the small town of Hardinsburg, KY (Breckinridge County), I quickly learned to link the name Butch Beard synonymously with greatness. Butch was and still is a legend from my hometown where he helped lead the 1964 Breckinridge County Basketball team to a state runner-up finish and more importantly the school’s first ever State Championship the following season in 1965. Through the years, Butch Beard was more a figment of my imagination than a real person. I had never actually seen him in the flesh, more less spoken to him. He was someone that even my father, Gary, looked up to and still talked about 50+ years after he last played at UofL. Meeting Butch was something that I had always hoped to do as an adult.
Having never been a big fan of approaching athletes or famous folks in general or especially while they eat in a public restaurant, I decided to bypass the opportunity to directly introduce myself and instead sat down at my table. As I anxiously pondered if I was going to jump on the potential once in a lifetime chance to meet a hometown hero I decided to ask my waitress, who was also serving Butch and his group, if she would be willing to casually let him know that there was a person in the restaurant from Hardinsburg who, once he was done eating, would love the opportunity to simply say hello.
After my waitress agreed to play along, I nervously watched as she approached Butch’s table. She leaned in, spoke to Butch, then pointed over at my table across the restaurant. The first thing I thought in my mind was, “Dude, he’s gonna think you’re an idiot.”
Upon hearing the waitresses’ offer, I watched as Butch quickly stood up and began making his way toward my table. I was so nervous I picked up my phone to act like I was searching for something on Twitter. After reaching my side, Butch asked if I was the guy who was from Hardinsburg. I smiled and said yes and reassured him that my intent was certainly not to bother him or disrupt his meal with his company.
What happened next is something that will forever be etched into my memory.
After acknowledging that I was “the guy” who was from the same small town as he, Butch immediately walked back to his table. He exchanged a few words with his crew, picked up his plate and brought it over to my table and asked if I would be ok with him finishing up his dinner there.
Needless to say, I agreed.
Butch sat with me for at least 30 minutes. I told him my background and we highlighted all the folks and places from back home that he and I both knew. We shared stories about his playing days both at Breck County and his time at UofL and in the NBA. It was one helluva dinner, for me at least. Before leaving we shook hands, snapped a few pictures and had a few laughs. He told me to be sure to tell his high school teammate and long-time friend Homer Gray (my middle school basketball coach) “hello” and out the door he went.
As I reflect back on that evening, which I have done many times over the past couple of years, I always go back to remembering how sincere, genuine and personable Butch had been during his time with me. He spoke eloquently and made me feel like an old friend. He said a lot of good things about the city of Louisville and Cardinal Basketball in general.
As a result of that evening and all the things I had heard and read about Butch Beard before actually meeting him, it has been trying for me to make sense of the recent happenings in which Butch has gone public and voiced his disdain for the University of Louisville.
Let me being by saying that I don’t pretend to know all the pertinent details behind Butch Beard’s issue with UofL and/or the men’s basketball program. There appears to be more than just one. Obviously, Kenny Payne is part of Butch’s scorn toward UofL or as he now calls it “that university”. Beard has admitted on numerous occasions that he along with a group of other former players are still upset that Payne was allegedly never given the opportunity to have an actual interview for the Cards’ head coaching job to be David Padgett’s replacement.
I respect Butch’s stance on the Payne matter, but it doesn’t mean I completely agree. My respect comes from the fact that Beard, who is one of the early trailblazers (along with the likes of Wade Houston, Wes Unseld, Eddie Whitehead, Sam Smith, etc) to help tear down the color barrier within the UofL Basketball program, sees and understands the importance of diversity, inclusion and all the good things that could come of the possibility of Louisville Basketball hiring an African American to be its head coach. If indeed Butch feels wronged by UofL because of an issue involving race, then that is not only a serious issue but one that needs to be addressed. Any and all former or current minority players have every right to let their voices be heard if they feel wronged in any way.
My divergence with Beard regarding Payne has to do with experience. And my disagreement hasn’t anything to do with Payne coaching as an assistant at the University of Kentucky. Instead, I continue to base my opinion that Payne would not have been the right choice for Vince Tyra because the Louisville job is one of the premier top 5 gigs in the country and only a small group of individuals are capable of taking it over and being successful. Also, Louisville in my opinion was not properly positioned to take a chance on someone who had never been a head coach before. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think Kenny Payne can coach. That would be ludicrous as he has shown his coaching abilities through the development of several big men he coached while at Kentucky. Individuals with no coaching talent don’t get jobs in the NBA and Payne is no exception.
I don’t feel the need to defend the hiring of Chris Mack, but he was a proven head coaching commodity who had recently led his program to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Vince Tyra made a great choice. Vince Tyra made the right choice.
To my knowledge, Kenny Payne has never gone public and bad mouthed UofL at any time in his career, most notably when AD Vince Tyra zeroed in on Chris Mack as Padgett’s replacement. Payne, in fact, complimented Tyra and had positive things to say about UofL’s program. So, if Payne isn’t upset, one may ask, “Why is Butch Beard so bent out of shape”? Obviously, only Beard can answer that question. As a proud alumnus and fan, it would be my hope that Beard could come to terms with UofL while continuing to support Kenny Payne AND the Louisville Basketball program. As previously mentioned, the program needs goodwill from its former players now more than ever.
A second issue that Beard takes up with UofL is the lack of public acknowledgement for former All-American Wes Unseld. Admittedly, I think Beard has a point in that there could have been more done to publicly cast a light on the overwhelming importance that Unseld played in the building of the Louisville Basketball brand. His personal accomplishments on the court speak for itself. I don’t know what Beard is eluding to specifically when it comes to his opinion that UofL has not done enough to honor Unseld.
Sure, a statue would be both welcomed and warranted in my opinion. It has been rumored that Unseld’s family, however, has shown no interest in that happening. I think it’s unjust for Butch to throw shade at the current administration over the proposal. Fifty plus years have elapsed in the time that Unseld last played for UofL and other administrations had ample opportunities to honor him justly. That doesn’t make the perceived lack of acknowledgement acceptable in any sense, but it also shouldn’t solely rest on the shoulders of President Neeli Bendapudi and Vince Tyra.
My hope is that time will somehow heal many of the wounds that Butch Beard and some other former players feel they have endured at the hands of UofL Basketball. The program now has a new generation of fans, many of which who are not familiar with Beard as a person or more importantly as a former star player. Accordingly, many fans have been quick to lash back at Beard in recent years especially after he publicly asked the University to essentially remove his name from the record books. Those same fans are quick to point out that the University doesn’t need Beard and his PR baggage. Perhaps its because of where I grew up and my love for the history of Louisville Basketball, but I think UofL DOES need Butch Beard just like it needs the support from ALL its former players. There is strength in numbers and both parties (the school and the players) need to find a common ground.
The Louisville Basketball program has endured enough disfunction over the past several years to last a lifetime. The one thing it DOESN’T need is disorder from within. So I ask one question…..
What is the end game here?
A few days ago, I tweeted out a message requesting that Butch (and other disgruntled players) move on and support the program”. Let me be clear, that was not me telling the likes of Butch Beard to “get over it and be quiet”. I would, however, like to see someone of Beard’s status and background come to the table with proposed solutions. If there are issues at UofL, particularly ones involving race, how do they get fixed? One of the solutions in my opinion is direct, open and honest communication. I have the utmost faith in the folks now running the show over on Floyd Street. I also have confidence in President Bendapudi. And, I have self-assurance that perceived or actual wrongs can be made right, in time.
It’s not in my blood to turn my back on a legend like Butch Beard. Instead, I’ll hold out hope that fences can be mended, and bridges rebuilt. The University of Louisville Men’s Basketball program has brighter days that lie directly in front of the fans who support it. I’d like for those to be shared with the individuals who helped build it from the ground up.