To look at Ricky Byrdsong's career as a basketball coach and to judge him by the bottom lines of 34-78 at Northwestern and 53-87 at Detroit Mercy is to see things upside down.
In this age of win at all costs, Byrdsong's heart remained in the right place. He looked far beyond the bottom line and tried to instill in his players the philosophy his mother, Mary, had imparted when he was growing up poor in Atlanta.
"The truest purpose for a coach is to do for that kid what my mom did for me--make sure he keeps it in his mind that he can be great," Byrdsong once said when he was coaching at Northwestern.
"She used to say over and over again: 'God don't make any junk.' As I'm coaching, as I look at every kid I have on the team, that phrase keeps coming back in my mind."
Byrdsong, 42, died early this morning, the victim of a drive-by shooting while walking with two of his children near their home on the Evanston-Skokie border.
Byrdsong, a child from an Atlanta ghetto, became a man who lost his life in a relatively affluent, integrated suburban neighborhood. "One of the greatest tragedies of this is that there was not a prejudiced bone in his body," said Shawn Parrish, a former Byrdsong assistant.
Byrdsong took over at Northwestern in 1993. The Wildcats went into the Big Ten season with a 9-0 record, but then came seven consecutive conference losses.
In an attempt to shake the team out of its tailspin, Byrdsong resorted to a bizarre stunt at Minnesota. With the Wildcats trailing in the first half, he took what he later described as "my walk on the wild side," meandering through the stands and high-fiving the Golden Gophers mascot. Byrdsong's caper backfired--the Wildcats lost, 79-65, and the following day the university announced he was on a leave of absence.
After six games--two of which Northwestern won--Byrdsong returned and expressed remorse for any embarrassment he had caused.
The Wildcats responded with a late-season surge. In the NIT, they rallied to defeat DePaul before being ousted by Xavier in overtime.