Chris Beard, then the head men’s basketball coach at Texas Tech, opened one of his 2019 fireside chats by pulling up the back of his polo shirt and revealing the “4:1” tattoo he’d gotten on his upper back.

In doing so, he fulfilled a promise to add the ink if the Red Raiders won in Austin that weekend, which they did. His 4:1 mantra—“the mental is to the physical as four is to one”—became second nature to Tech fans during five seasons in which Beard elevated the program to places that once seemed unthinkable.

Those fireside chats were masterful blends of marketing, fan engagement, and a forum for conversations that touched on everything from relationships to restaurants. The chats became as much a part of the Beard brand at Texas Tech as tenacious defense. He would use them to announce, for instance, that the first five hundred Tech students who showed up at the next game would be getting free T-shirts. He finished one by asking a bilingual player, Brandone Francis, to translate the following message into Spanish:

“If there’s anybody out there that has never been to a Texas Tech basketball game before, if finances keep you from coming to the game, send me an email to the Tech basketball office. I’ll do my best to help you get tickets.”

This is the Chris Beard whom Texas Tech fans fell in love with, right up until the moment last year when he bolted for the University of Texas at Austin. Almost overnight, that love became hate. And that makes Texas Tech versus the Longhorns on Tuesday night in Lubbock—Chris Beard returns!—one of the more heated regular season games of this college basketball season.

Sports are funny that way. Beard built one of the best programs in the country during his five seasons in Lubbock, and Texas Tech’s appearance in the 2019 national championship game—an overtime loss to Virginia—will endure as one of the sweetest moments in the history of sports on the South Plains.

And then the hero of our story ducks out the back door and takes up with the Red Raiders’ top rival. So, things will be awkward—and the language salty—when Beard walks onto the floor with his new team on Tuesday. Had he left Texas Tech for Kentucky or North Carolina, he might get a warm ovation and lots of bear hugs. Maybe the Tech communications staff would even whip up an NBA-style tribute video. 

But Beard didn’t go to Kentucky and he’s not returning with the Tar Heels. Instead, he made the one move Tech fans could never forgive. He left Lubbock for Austin.

“Had he gone to any other university, he’d be celebrated,” Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told the Dallas Morning News. “But there’s just certain things you cannot do, and one of them is you can’t leave Texas Tech for Texas.”

Tech students began lining up Saturday night for a chance to grab one of the best seats inside United Supermarkets Arena and give Beard a piece of their mind. 

“This is to be as close as humanly possible to Chris Beard,” senior Zackary Henry told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “Most games we show up like four hours before to be as close as possible, but more than any other game, this is an emotional game for many Tech fans. We want to let Chris Beard know how we feel.”

One thing we think we know about Chris Beard: he’s not going to give a rip about the boos or taunts or curses, no matter how ugly things get. You can’t make mental toughness the cornerstone of your coaching career and then go weak in the knees when the fans you left behind turn on you.

Beard spent eight seasons on Bob Knight’s staff at Tech. You think that didn’t thicken his skin? His first head coaching gig was at Fort Scott Community College, followed by a stop at Seminole State. You think there weren’t nights he wished enough people had shown up to raise a little hell? So you want to boo him, brothers and sisters? He’ll take it as a compliment, seeing that he’s the reason Texas Tech has such a roaring home-court advantage in Lubbock.

Beard’s teams played a style that blue-collar Tech fans could appreciate, and because he’d spent a decade in Lubbock as an assistant before rising to head coach, he spoke the language of West Texas. His fireside chats were mandatory viewing, and he talked up Whataburger to national television audiences.

Beard had the gift only the best coaches possess. He took a group of players from all over the place and got them to play together, to play unselfishly, and to play with purpose. At their best, his teams just wanted to win more than the other teams, and that lit a fire around Tech basketball that still burns brightly. He probably raked in more elite recruits in one off-season in Austin than he did in five years at Tech. But the Longhorns are still searching for the cohesive spirit his Tech teams had.

Tech made its first-ever appearance in the Elite Eight in Beard’s second season in charge, and the Red Raiders went all the way to the NCAA championship game in his third. Along the way, the coach created a passion for Texas Tech basketball that had never been there before.

And then, just as the team’s new, $32.2 million practice facility was about to open, a development that meant the program would finally be able to lure four- and five-star recruits to Lubbock, Beard was gone.

Asked over the weekend about the reception he expected to receive in Lubbock, Beard told reporters: “I was there fifteen years as an assistant and head coach. I gave my all every day. I never took a day off. Our success [was] real. I just don’t put a lot of thought into things I can’t control. . . . I appreciate the question, but that just doesn’t register with me.”

Plenty of Texas Tech administrators will have an array of emotions regarding Beard. During his five seasons running the men’s basketball program, he could be so demanding that at times, the entire athletics department seemed on edge. Some of those closest to Beard could not decide if they adored him, couldn’t stand him, or fell someplace in the middle. But every last one of them knows that Beard put Texas Tech hoops in position to be a national power for the foreseeable future.

“This has become a basketball town,” Lee Lewis, CEO of Lee Lewis Construction, told the Morning News. “It became a basketball town, partly because of what Chris did. You have to give him credit. You can’t take that away. Everybody really bought into Chris Beard. They followed him. They believed in everything he said. And then he exited. It left a lot of, well, harsh feelings.”

UT’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference with little apparent regard for the damage it could do to Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU only increased the usual vitriol any Longhorn visit prompts. Last week in Fort Worth, TCU fans greeted Texas players with a series of profane chants.

For Texas Tech, the silver lining is that the new Red Raiders coach, Mark Adams, an assistant under Beard, has gotten the team off to a spectacular start. Tech is 16–5 and ranked fourteenth in the Associated Press poll, with four victories over four top-fifteen opponents. Texas, also 16–5 but with fewer impressive wins, is ranked twenty-third.

Adams endeared himself to Tech fans by declining an offer to join Beard in Austin. With no guarantees that he’d be hired to replace his former boss, Adams said Texas Tech had become home and that he’d like a chance to be the head coach. He’s a Brownfield native who has spent most of his life in West Texas. His low-key, professorial style stands in contrast to Beard’s raging bull approach, but the commitment to defense and toughness is exactly the same.

Whether Adams was always the first choice of Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt may never be known. But as players and coaches at other programs lobbied for Adams, Hocutt reflected on the depth of the relationships Adams had formed and saw that the ultimate decision was no decision at all.

“I was around the basketball program, and I’d seen the impact [Adams] had on what we were doing on the court,” Hocutt told the Morning News. “But I didn’t see or fully realize the impact he had on the lives of the kids who had come through here and the genuine relationships that he’d built with them. As we got into the process, guys reached out to me on their own about that.”

Adams said he considers his former boss “family,” while Beard said: “That guy’s practically the godfather of my kids.”

On Monday, Adams urged fans in Lubbock to “stay focused on helping us win the game”—a gentle reminder not to do anything that would tarnish the Red Raiders’ reputation while extracting their long-awaited pound of flesh from Beard and his Longhorns. Meanwhile, the Texas Tech players who played for both men have had a year to prepare for this game.

“I really never thought twice about it, because this is a business,” Texas Tech guard Kevin McCullar said during Big 12 preseason media days. “College basketball and the pros, where we’re all trying to go, is a business. So I knew it was a business decision, for sure.”

For sure.

On the other hand, some Tech fans have a few things to get off their chests Tuesday evening. Game on.