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Striplin Gymnasium in Nashville, home of the Belmont University
Bruins, is an ideal place to have your opinion heard when you
disagree with a referee's call. The bleachers accommodate only
2,500 fans, and a courtside seat is really courtside, close
enough that the referees can hear you whisper a complaint. But
one winter night at Belmont nearly a decade ago, country singer
Vince Gill was not whispering, his vocal cords be damned. Gill
isn't one to let a bad call go unnoted, particularly when it's
against Belmont, his favorite team. This time he hammered and
hammered at one of the refs. Finally, the target of his wrath
had heard enough. "Why don't you give me a break?" he said to
Gill. "I'm one of the only people who actually buys your records."

Back then, neither Gill nor the Bruins rated a star on their
dressing room door. "I was like their struggling-singer mascot,
and they were my struggling team," says Gill, who met Belmont
coach Rick Byrd at a golf tournament 10 years ago. Gill has
since been named country music's male vocalist of the year a
record five straight times. Belmont, which has two All-America
seniors back from a team that reached the NAIA tournament
semifinals last season, is favored to win its first national
crown in its final season of NAIA play before moving up to the
NCAA Division I level.

"Even if we weren't going to join the NCAA, I'd look at this
season as our best chance to win a title," Byrd says. "It's not
often teams have the kind of experience we do."

Rarer still is a college team with the kind of following Belmont
has. Gill, a big basketball fan, and Byrd, a big Gill fan,
bonded over a passion for golf (Byrd plays to a three handicap,
Gill to a one), and Gill has since become one of the team's most
loyal supporters. He sponsors an annual celebrity basketball
game and concert to raise money for Belmont's athletic
department and wears a Belmont letterman's jacket in one of his
music videos. "Everyone thinks I went to Belmont," he says. "I
get credit for graduating from college, and I never even cracked
a book."

Singer Amy Grant, who met Byrd through Gill, almost never misses
a Belmont game unless she's on tour. Even then she keeps up with
the team--Byrd faxed her newspaper clips on the team's games as
she performed overseas last winter. When the team played in
California last season, Grant arranged for the Bruins to have
dinner on her in Beverly Hills.

Mark Miller, lead singer of the country band Sawyer Brown, is
another Bruin fan. He played point guard at the University of
Central Florida and became friends with Belmont assistant coach
Kevin LeGate through pickup games in Nashville, often held on
the full court in Miller's backyard. Now Miller is on the
Belmont bandwagon--and Belmont is sometimes on his bus. The team
has taken one of Sawyer Brown's customized tour buses--complete
with TVs, VCRs and bunk beds--to the national tournament in
Tulsa the last two years. "I tour 200 days a year, and I know
how travel can wear on you," Miller says. "So I had our band go
out on just one bus so the team could take our other one." The
bus driver spent much of his time on those trips on the CB
radio, informing curious truckers that, no, Sawyer Brown wasn't
really on the bus. "We disappointed hundreds of people all
across Arkansas," Byrd says.

But those stars and Belmont's other high-profile fans--which
include singer Larry Stewart and professional golfers Kirk
Triplett, Kris Tschetter and Bob Wolcott--don't steal the
spotlight at Striplin. "The focus is on the team, not us,"
Miller says. (That is basically true, though Byrd does concede,
"You can pretty much count on the other team's cheerleaders
being over by Vince at some point.")

The Bruins (formerly the Rebels; the team nickname was changed
this fall in the name of political correctness) averaged 100
points per game while finishing 37-2 last season, the third
straight year that they have won 30 games. Coming back from that
squad are the top three scorers: guard Kerry West and center Al
Allen, who were first- and second-team All-Americas,
respectively, and forward DaQuinn Goff, who was an honorable
mention All-America.

Allen, who led the team in scoring with 20.6 points per game, is
more likely to describe himself as a "political intellectual"
than as a center. He lists his interests as rhetoric and
reciting poetry, and he has had two Christian devotional books
published. The Belmont Vision, the student newspaper, last year
ran pro-and-con columns on whether varsity athletics bring
anything of value to a university. Allen, rather surprisingly,
took the con position, writing, "The truth is, I can't think of
one good reason why athletics should be a part of the
higher-educational structure."

At 6'6", 235 pounds, Allen was a star tight end and outside
linebacker at Brentwood Academy, just outside Nashville, where
he was hotly recruited by Notre Dame and Tennessee, among
others. In practice the week after the first game of his senior
year, he was temporarily paralyzed by a routine hit. Diagnosed
with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column, Allen
was forced to give up football. "I was devastated then," he
says, "but I'm happy with my situation now." (His younger
brother, Tremayne, is a tight end at Florida and wears Al's old
number, 91.)

West and Goff weren't counting on college basketball careers
either. When their high school teams met in the semifinals of
the Tennessee state championship tournament--West played for
Hendersonville and Goff for Columbia Central--Goff asked West
where he was playing college ball. "He said he didn't know if he
was going to," says Goff, who is now West's roommate. "I was in
the same situation." Byrd had seen both play before but wasn't
sold on either until he watched them that weekend. He decided
right then to sign both players and has reaped the benefits ever

West scored 18.7 points per game last season and made 44.2% of
his three-pointers. "When he shoots, I go to the boards, but I
usually think there isn't going to be anything to rebound," Goff
says. But on those occasions when there is a miss, Goff's long
arms are there to pull in the carom. He brought down a
team-leading 7.2 boards per game to go with his 19.8 points last
season. "They're both Division I talents," Byrd says.

Unfortunately, by the time Belmont really needs Division I
talents, all three of the Bruins' top scorers will be gone. In
1996-97, Belmont will become a provisional NCAA member, meaning
it will play major schools but be ineligible to play in either
the NAIA or NCAA tournament. The following season, the Bruins
will play as an independent in Division I of the NCAA. With
several academic programs that are national in scope--the
music-business program is considered one of the best in the
country--administrators at Belmont, a Baptist-affiliated school
of 3,000, wanted the athletic department to go national too.
"The thinking is to make Belmont the best school it can be in
every area," Byrd says. "But we know we're never going to enjoy
the kind of basketball success [in the NCAA] that we've had at
the national level in the NAIA."

They've enjoyed quite a bit, winning more than 70% of their
games since Byrd took over in 1986. Since then, Belmont has
reached the national tournament four times. "There was a time
when I would be happy if I could just say we'd gotten to the
national tournament," Byrd says. "We've achieved more than I
ever envisioned."

And though there will surely be tough times ahead, when Belmont
will get run off the court by the likes of Kansas--and maybe even
by Athletes in Action--it's pretty certain that Bruin home crowds
will continue to rival the Grand Ole Opry for star presence in
Nashville, regardless of how badly Belmont might be beaten by
its Division I foes. Says Gill, "I didn't become a fan of theirs
because they were successful, and vice versa."

It would be hard to argue with either call.

COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Gill (far right) was once a struggling musician cheering on a struggling Belmont team, but now both are Music City powerhouses. [Belmont University basketball players and Vince Gill sitting on bench]

COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Gill shows (from left) Goff, West and Allen that his best moves still occur onstage. [DaQuinn Goff, Kerry West, Vince Gill, and Al Allen playing basketball]

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BEARD Leading scorer James Cason returns to help Birmingham-Southern try to repeat as NAIA champ.

TOP 25


Team (1994-95 Record)

1 Belmont (Tenn.) (37-2) The Bruins have two All-Americas back
from a team that shot 55.2% from the floor

2 Birmingham-Southern (35-2) Doug Annison, a transfer from La.
Tech, will help defending champs extend 32-game winning streak

3 Life College (Ga.) (31-3) With two-time All-America Billy
Lewis aboard, coach Roger Kaiser will get his 500th career win
by Thanksgiving

4 The Master's College (Calif.) (31-5) Talented transfers
Reggie Robinson and Jeremiah Cathey join a team with four top
players returning

5 Geneva College (Pa.) (26-6) Four starters return, including
Troy Nesmith, the first freshman since 1987 to be named NAIA

6 Oklahoma City (30-3) Top five scorers are gone from a team
that outscored opponents by an average of 23.8 points

7 Georgetown (Ky.) (33-3) Tigers will continue to do damage
from behind the arc; they hit 43.0% of threes last season

8 Hawaii Pacific (25-9) Sea Warriors, the '92-93 national
champs, are led by 7'1" center Juergen Malbeck of Noerdlingen,

9 Columbia (Mo.) (29-6) One of four returning starters is
American Midwest Conference Newcomer of the Year Thomas Muldrow
(16.1 ppg)

10 Lipscomb (Tenn.) (30-7) After scoring 102.0 points per game
last season, the Bisons will run again

11 Arkansas Tech (29-6) Coach Marty Barnes must replace David
Bevis, the Wonder Boys' top scorer last season

12 Oklahoma Baptist (28-6) Despite losing four starters,
including All-America Eric Jones, Bison should return to
national tournament

13 St. Mary's (Texas) (24-6) Challenge of replacing top three
scorers won't rattle the Rattlers

14 Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) (23-8) Crusaders, who averaged
97.4 points per game, battle St. Mary's for Heart of Texas
Conference title

15 McKendree (Ill.) College (27-6) Coach Harry Statham is first
among active NAIA coaches, with 631 wins; he should get at least
20 more

16 Oklahoma Christian (28-9) Eagles need to overcome loss of
All-America Eric Wiens to have 11th 20-win season in 12 years

17 Transylvania (Ky.) (26-8) Pioneers raised money this summer
for earthquake-stricken Kobe, Japan, where guard Chee Toyonaga

18 Concordia (Calif.) (27-7) Senior power forward Pharoah Jones
was ninth in the country in field goal percentage, hitting 65.3%

19 Azusa Pacific (Calif.) (23-10) Three returning starters must
make up for loss of Raymond Tutt (26.1 ppg)

20 Southern University-New Orleans (21-9) Last year senior
guard Karriem Reed scored 43 points in his first game as a Knight

21 Cumberland College (Ky.) (25-7) Bulldogs were fifth in NAIA
in scoring defense (68.3 points per game)

22 BYU Hawaii (19-12) Center Ionatana Enosa (12.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg)
from American Samoa had five double doubles in last six games

23 Fresno Pacific (24-8) Eight new faces look to take Sunbirds
back to the Sweet 16

24 Lynn (Fla.) (20-10) Senior Johnny Owens (14.7 ppg, 7 rpg)
showed what he could do against big boys, scoring 24 in a 78-70
loss to Auburn

25 Montana St.-Northern (17-19) Northern Lights look to prove
that last year's berth in the final eight of the national
tournament was no fluke


Birmingham-Southern senior forward James Cason shot 69.8% from
the field last season and was named MVP of the national tournament