From dirty socks to whiskey shots, Texas Tech is the loosest team in the NCAA tournament

BOSTON – Well past midnight as Friday bled into Saturday and history collided with ecstasy, Texas Tech coach Chris Beard slipped into a quiet area. He huddled with his three daughters in the coach’s locker room. They hugged, giggled and enjoyed the rarefied air of No. 3 Tech Tech’s victory over No. 2 Purdue for the school’s first-ever appearances in the Elite Eight.

Beard is college basketball’s version of a journeyman coach, with eight head-coaching stops by age 44. To begin explaining how Texas Tech arrived at this moment, he pulled up the pant leg of his new blue suit. His youngest daughter, 10-year-old Margo, had bought him a pair of neon-ringed socks – florescent loops of pink, orange and blue – which have accompanied Texas Tech’s historic postseason run.

Beard started wearing the socks at the start of the Big 12 tournament, meaning they’ve been lingering for 16 days, five games and zero washes. “They’re so hard now, I put them on the night table because I’ve worn them so many times,” Beard told Yahoo Sports early Saturday morning.

But Chris Beard always has a plan. Even for his toxic socks. He keeps them in a special pocket on the outside of his travel bag, which fittingly is a souvenir from his time as an assistant with the Swiss national team.

On his path through the ABA, JUCO and Division III head coaching jobs, Beard has developed a style contrasting relentless superstitions, meticulous preparation and innovative motivation. On his path where his home gyms ranged from rodeo barns to rec centers, Beard learned the value of staying loose.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard celebrates with his team after a 78-65 win over Purdue in an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal early Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Boston. (AP)

This Texas Tech team has persisted with dueling lucky socks, a road board, deflection belt and rebounding chain. The entire rollicking Texas Tech program plays out to a soundtrack on a schizophrenic shuffle, with 2 Chainz, Travis Tritt and Bob Seger alternating spots on the Red Raider play list.

“It’s ridiculous, we have so many things, it’s painful to try and keep up,” Beard said with a laugh at the quirks and superstitions. “I wish all this stuff could give us a couple of baskets against Villanova.”

When No. 3 Texas Tech plays No. 1 Villanova on Sunday afternoon, Beard will simultaneously have the loosest and most superstitious team remaining in the NCAA tournament. They’ve taken on the personality of Beard, a captivating study in contradictions who resonates as one of the most fascinating characters in this NCAA tournament.

He’s a loose disciplinarian, an intense goof and a hardline Bob Knight disciple who believes in the power of man-to-man defense, 5 a.m. whiskey shots and a black Rodeo King cowboy hat. He says his guys have worked hard enough all offseason and season to have confidence. And if they’re confident, why can’t they be quirky? “That’s a good question,” Beard said. “I think maybe we’re confident in our superstitions. We’re confident in our mojo.”

How confident is Beard in his superstitions? He has three different sock routines in rotation. There are the unwashed lucky game socks courtesy of Margo and a pair of navy socks with sharks playing pool from his girlfriend that he wears to the arena. (Those socks hung in the oversized shower area, and they luckily have been washing recently.) He also has low-cut white Under Armour socks that he wears on off days, which he said he has multiple pairs of and can alternate. “Be you,” said associate head coach Chris Ogden. “That’s the best thing I’ll say about Beard, he wants everyone to be themselves. From our walk-on that wears a cowboy hat to other guys from different situations. Be you, and we’re a melting pot.”

To cast Texas Tech as a quirky underdog would be disingenuous. The Red Raiders finished second in the Big 12 for the best league performance in school history. They have five seniors (including star Keenan Evans), two of the Big 12’s best freshman (including potential one-and-done Zhaire Smith) and the nation’s third-best defense. If Evans hadn’t hurt his toe late in the season, Texas Tech likely would have coasted to the Big 12 title and been under consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The moment hasn’t been too big for Beard, as he showed Friday when Texas Tech scored on a pick-and-roll out of the under-four timeout in the second half. Beard turned to the scorer’s table in the general director of NCAA committee chair Dan Gavitt and said, “That was a hell of a call by me, wasn’t it?”

No one disagreed. And, plus, it had a little more to do with the on-court action than Beard’s in-game conversation in the previous week with his daughter, Margo, during the Florida game in the Round of 32. When he noticed an iPad on press row with an accessory on the back he’d never seen, he turned to her during the game and told her to check it out. “He understands the moment,” said Larry Brown, an old friend and staff member. “He’s also loose enough to do whatever it takes.”

Brown would know. He’s known Beard for decades through Texas high school and JUCO circles, and when Beard visited him in the Canary Islands before hiring him. Beard offered him the job on the way to the airport at 5 a.m. They pulled over and did a shot of whiskey in the car. “That’s how we consummated the job,” Brown said.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard speaks during a news conference at the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Boston. Texas Tech will face Villanova in a regional final on Sunday. (AP)

The quirks keep coming. Walk-on Avery Benson wears a Rodeo King black hat that looks as if he stole it form the Tech mascot, per Beard’s strong suggestion. There’s a rebounding chain, the Red Raider version of Miami’s turnover chain, for the game’s top rebounder. And there’s a Deflection Belt, a WWE-style accessory given to the player with the most deflections. They are awarded during dramatic film sessions, with the highlights played to the whole team.

How much have the players bought in? Smith pointed out that some of his teammates will even wear the chain and belt to class. There’s also “The Road Game Board,” a wooden plank that’s an idea Beard swiped from Nick Saban. “If you put a board over two buildings, it’s the same board,” Beard said, comparing it to walking on the ground. “It’s about cutting out distractions, environment and atmosphere.”

One way to do that is by staying loose. That’s why the final moment in the locker room before the Florida game in the Round of 32, Tech played a video that interspersed video of Forrest Gump running and special assistant Sean Sutton sprinting for the team bus. Their similar gait, cut up side by side, cracked up the team in the moments before they ran out to the locker room. “We got live after that,” Smith said.

Beard torched his way through the blogosphere earlier in the tournament when he recommended foregoing the drive-through late-night at Whataburger, and instead go inside to people watch. “Just watch America,” he said. “Just watch it.”

On Sunday, the tables are turned. Beard has Texas Tech on a such a high stage, where he’s forced America to watch him. Just avoid getting too close to the neon socks.

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