December is just about over, and his voice, always quick to bounce back in past seasons, remains hoarse with no sign of recovering.
But Alfred "Butch" Beard Jr. was aware of what lay ahead. Some people called him crazy and others told him his win-loss record would take a serious hit when he accepted the position as head coach of the Morgan State men's basketball team in July.
So he talks about the lack of a winning tradition at Morgan (one winning season since 1979); how fragile his players are from all the losing, including a 6-23 record last season; the work ethic he's trying to instill; and how he's got to get lucky with some recruits in the coming year.
After all that, he confidently declares in the raspy voice: "But we'll get it turned around."
He says, laughing: "No, I haven't gotten my voice back yet. I've been like this ever since Oct. 15 - the first day we all walked into this gym. Normally, it takes me like two or three days and it's over. If they paid me by the word here, I wouldn't have to ever work again."
This project isn't about money (he signed on for three years at about $150,000 per) for Beard, 54, a former Louisville standout who played nine years in the NBA, was head coach for two seasons with the New Jersey Nets and had a number of assistant coaching jobs at the NBA level, most recently with the Washington Wizards in 1999-2000.
And though there are definite parallels with his first head coaching job, four seasons at Howard University starting in 1990, there are also a number of contrasts in this current challenge as the Bears (0-9) still search for that elusive first win.
"I'm not as frustrated as I was at Howard. My main goal then was to do well at the collegiate level to get back to the pros. So I had the opportunity to go back up and was fortunate to do that," says Beard, who resides in Burtonsville with his wife, Ruth Ann. "At this stage of my life, if I can help some kids and help turn this around, I will feel like I've accomplished something.
"I'm enjoying it. I knew this wasn't going to be easy, and that's the beauty of it. A lot of it has to do with trying to help some kids out, and some of the things I do is to not only help them on the basketball court, but also to help them when they walk off this campus to go out and make a living. Hopefully, I can make an impression on some kids and help them in that sense."
Pushing to do better
Beard has already made his share of lasting impressions.
Jerry Eaves, a fellow Louisville alumnus who spent four seasons playing in the NBA and is now an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a 10th-grader when he first met Beard in Louisville, where he was running a summer camp at the YMCA.
"I used to tell him, 'Butch, I'm going to break all your records at Louisville,' and he'd be like, 'No way,' and I didn't, but he'd always stay in contact and kept pushing me to do the best I could," Eaves says.
After his playing days were through, Eaves was working at an investment company when he made a pact with Beard, who at the time was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks.
"I said, 'Butch, when you get a head coaching job, I'm coming. I don't care what the pay is, I'm going to be there because I want to get into coaching.' He said he was going to hold me to that," Eaves says.
More than five years later, Eaves heard Beard was going to get the Howard job. So off he went.
"I left a job making $62,500 and Butch got me in Howard making $32,000, but he let me stay with him for free," Eaves says. "He taught me how to work, he taught me how to watch tape, he taught me how to learn the game and then your skills and personality will take hold. But you have to learn to do those things first. I mean, it was just a great opportunity for me. I think the first six years underneath him were the most educational that I've had."
Teaching his son
Now, Beard's oldest son, "Butchie," is receiving the education, working as an assistant coach under his father at Morgan.
He says growing up with a professional athlete for a father provided plenty of unique experiences - shaking hands with Julius Erving in the locker room and meeting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - but it wasn't until later that he fully appreciated his father's accomplishments. A couple of months back, the younger Beard once again got caught up watching his dad on ESPN Classic, seeing the elder Beard help the Golden State Warriors defeat the Washington Bullets for the 1975 NBA championship.
"You sit back and you're, 'Wow, my father was on a world championship team - the starting point guard,' " he says. "When you're young, you kind of don't understand the magnitude of things. But as you get older and mature a little bit more, you can sit back and say my father is something special."
Beard is much the same as a father and coach: disciplined, demanding, organized and "if there's anything he can do to help you, he'll find a way," says the younger Beard, 32, one of four children.
The head coach lifts weights and runs with his team, setting a hands-on example for his Morgan players. The message is clear: Coming together as a group and hard work come first, and winning comes later.
"That's encouraging when you think about it, because he's out there doing the work with you. So you can't stop if he's not stopping. He's as old as our fathers, so how are you going to stop running when he's still running?" says senior forward Curtis King, an All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference second-team performer last season.
Learning to listen
Milan Brown, a sophomore point guard at Howard when Beard took over, talks from experience: listen and listen quick, believe, work hard and everything will turn out fine.
The Bison went from 8-20 in Beard's first season to 17-14 the next, winning the MEAC and advancing to the 1992 NCAA tournament, something the program hasn't done since.
"It was one of those things where he basically put it out there for us that for us to be good, you got to make some sacrifices. But if you can't, he had to get someone else to do it, and that's just the way it had to be," Brown says. "And until that point, I had gone 8-20 twice, so who was I to say that he was wrong? We just came to the conclusion, 'Let's go ahead and do this.' He's got to know what he's talking about or he wouldn't be here, and he wouldn't have had the success that he's had if he didn't know what he was doing."
Brown made the necessary sacrifices, going from a starter averaging 25 minutes to coming off the bench and never playing more than 20 minutes. Beard made sure they were quality minutes.
"He just told me, 'All I know is this: In the last five minutes of the game, I believe in you and you're going to be in there,' " Brown says. "And that was kind of like all I needed to hear."
Brown is now an assistant coach at William and Mary. After Brown informed his father he wanted to get into coaching, the person Brown told next was Beard.
Each day begins at 4 a.m. for Beard, who conducts practice from 6 to 8 and then turns to his ever-present blue folder, where he logs an account of each session, breaking practice into 15-minute intervals.
The note at the bottom after the first practice reads: "Need a lot of work on skills. ... Tried to please me by going too fast." The second day states: "Started with a good practice in a sense that they picked up on what we wanted to do. ... We're a long way [from] where we need to be."
Morgan athletic director David Thomas says Beard has already changed the Bears.
"The thing that I like is he teaches," he says. "He gives direction and then he sits back and lets his players play, lets them attempt to execute his direction. In the Hampton game, a player came off the floor and Coach Beard turned his back to the court to talk to that player - to teach that player - before going back to the game. I think one of the things that's also outstanding for me is that the kids seem to be enjoying themselves."
For Beard, his team's actions off the court are just as important as its performance on the court. So when a woman working at the team's hotel at Western Michigan said this was the best-behaved group of young men that they've ever had, he left pleased.
"I just wanted her to say they're well-behaved and they can sure play," he says, laughing.
Beard seems optimistic that second part will come, too.
"I really didn't set any goals other than to try to change this around, try to see if I can get them to play a different way, get them to compete night in and night out," he says. "None of this is going to be done overnight, so we have to have the patience to see some improvement year after year after year. Here, when you turn it around, you've done something. And we're going to turn it around."
Butch Beard's basketball experience before Morgan:
College: Louisville ('65-69)
NBA: Atlanta, Cleveland, Seattle, Golden State, New York ('69-79)
NBA: New York ('79-82), New Jersey ('88-90), Dallas ('96-98), Washington ('99-00)
College: Howard ('90-94)
NBA: New Jersey ('94-96)