Assistant coach J.D. Byers began on the path to his current position on the Rice University men’s basketball staff nearly 15 years ago. As a high school junior in Westminster, Md., the point guard received recruiting interest from Randolph-Macon College and its new head coach, Mike Rhoades.
Byers said of Rhoades, “He recruited me when I was a junior in high school and into my senior year. But they had taken another point guard at the time and didn’t feel that they needed me anymore. We joke about it all the time now.”
Byers instead chose to attend Rhoades’ alma mater, Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., where he put together an outstanding career for the Dutchmen. In his senior season, he was named to the NABC All-America first team and repeated as the Commonwealth Conference’s Player of the Year while leading his team to the NCAA Tournament.
In addition to those awards for his performance on the court, Byers added two national awards to his trophy case that not only celebrated his playing career, but his commitment to education as well. He was named the CoSIDA Academic All-America of the Year honoree for all of NCAA Division II and III as the top scholar athlete in the sport.
As for his motivation to excel in the classroom, Byers said, “I just didn’t have a choice with my parents. They weren’t very forgiving on poor grades and I knew that from the beginning. That’s just how I was raised. I never wanted to let them down and I also had a high standard.”
The Summa Cum Laude graduate earned his degree in accounting and business administration and also became Lebanon Valley’s first Jostens Trophy recipient. The trophy is awarded annually to the NCAA Division III outstanding athlete of the year for excellence in basketball, academics and community service.
“I don’t think I knew at the time what a big deal it was, but it was validation that you can be successful on and off the court. I’ve always looked at the academic part as a competition. I treat it very similar to how I played. I thought every class that you have; you need to do the best you possibly could in it - just like you do on the court. I always made it a challenge. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back on it now, winning those awards was a pretty big deal.”
En route to finishing his career with 1,898 points and a program-record 301 three-pointers, he earned all-America status on the golf team as well. Along with Rhoades, Byers is one of five players to have his basketball jersey retired at LVC.
Following his graduation in 2005, Byers began his coaching career at Fairleigh-Dickinson’s Madison campus as a graduate assistant. After earning his MBA in 2006, he returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach and began to build a relationship with the coach who once recruited him.
“I didn’t have too much contact with Coach Rhoades through college. In my second year out when I was working at Lebanon Valley, I’d see him on the road recruiting and we started to communicate and build a relationship from there. Then when his assistant coaching job opened up (at Randolph-Macon), he reached out to me. I was excited about it because I’d heard so many good things about what he was doing down there. Then, from the point when he left for VCU until he came to Rice, we would talk frequently. Sometimes it was a brief text but other times it was a long conversation about whatever was going on just to catch up. We always stayed in touch.”
After two years working together at Randolph-Macon, Rhoades left for nearby VCU. Byers spent one more season at RMC before moving to the Division I ranks as well. After one season at St. Francis (Pa.), Byers spent three years as an assistant coach building a winner at Radford before making the move to Houston to reunite with Rhoades.
Having now worked with Rice’s head coach twice, Byers often gets the same question from people: How has Coach Rhoades changed from his time at Randolph-Macon?
“Everybody asks that one. I think the one thing that has changed is he probably gives the guys more freedom offensively. But in terms of how he is as a coach, not much has changed. He’s still very demanding of the players in the way that he coaches them because he squeezes everything out of them. He gets the maximum out of them and brings their talents out. That hasn’t changed one bit. I saw what he is able to do for those two years, and he’s doing the same thing here.”
As the youngest member of the staff, Byers regularly finds himself thrust into competition during Rice's practices, either on the scout team or as part of drills and scrimmages. That experience helps give a different perspective than coaching from the sidelines or away from the play.
“I think when you’re still playing every day or most days in practice, you have a good understanding of what’s going on,” Byers said. “Sometimes, when you’re in the action it certainly helps and I think it gives you a lot of credibility with the players. You’re asking them to do certain things and they need to see that you’re willing to do them. That’s something that Coach Rhoades is really big on, with the SEAL training and everything we’ve done - the fact that we were willing to sweat with the guys. Even on the sideline, you’re working hard and they can see you working. But it’s unique to be able to do that on a daily basis and I hope I can do it for a few more years. I enjoy it and I think it’s good for the players and I think it helps me as well. Some days I have to tell Coach I don’t think I have it. I’ll have to find some ways to muster up some energy because we’re doing a lot of other stuff outside of practice as well.”
All of that experience gives Byers credibility and a unique bond with the players he coaches at Rice. As for his best advice to them to be successful both on the court at Tudor Fieldhouse and in the classroom?
“I definitely want them to compete in the classroom, in terms of relating it to basketball. I want them to understand that every day you’re measured. That it’s the same thing whether you have an exam or practice or a game. If someone walked in the gym or walked into your classroom, they might only get one chance to form an opinion of you. Not that you need to care about what others think, but by the same token, you are being measured and you want to live up to your expectations in any situation. That’s the biggest thing I tell them, to make sure they bring their best every day.”
Judging by his work ethic, there’s no doubt Byers brings his best every day as well.