Ricky Byrdsong (June 24, 1956 – July 2, 1999) was an insurance executive and was the first African American men's basketball coach at Northwestern University. On July 2, 1999, he was murdered in a hate crime killing spree.
He had also been head coach at the University of Detroit and assistant coach at the University of Arizona, Eastern Illinois University, Western Michigan University and Iowa State University. He was coached at University of Utah by Bill Foster, who went on to coach at Duke University. Bill Foster coached at Northwestern University immediately before Ricky Byrdsong assumed that role.
After he left Northwestern, he worked as an insurance executive for Aon Corporation until his death.
'The Walk on the Wild Side'
On February 5, 1994, while coaching a game against Minnesota, Byrdsong abruptly left the game and joined the fans in the stands shaking hands, high-fiving the Minnesota Gopher mascot and taking an unticketed seat until removed by an usher. The team had started the season 9-0 but was at this point on a 9-game losing streak.
On returning to Evanston, Byrdsong's wife requested a leave of absence for the coach, to which Byrdsong remarked, "My wife, after watching me, obviously got concerned, now, any time I'm going to take a walk on the wild side, I should let her know."
Personal life and death
He and his wife Sherialyn had three children: Sabrina, Kelley and Ricky Jr.
On July 2, 1999, while jogging near his Skokie, Illinois home with his son and daughter, ages 8 and 10, he was murdered by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a member of the white supremacist Creativity Movement who went on a shooting spree. Smith was a disciple of Mathew Hale (leader of Creativity Movement) and his shooting spree took place two days after Hale was denied a license to practice law in Illinois. Over a span of a few days, Smith killed a Korean American student at Indiana University, injured two African American men in Springfield Illinois, a Taiwanese man in Urbana, an African American minister in Decatur, and six Orthodox Jews in West Rogers Park. Smith also attempted to shoot, but missed 9 other potential victims. According to eyewitnesses, Smith pulled alongside the unsuspecting Byrdsong and shot him multiple times. Smith was never brought to trial because he committed suicide on July 4, 1999 after he crashed his car into a metal post during a high-speed chase in Southern Illinois. .
Media coverage and public reaction
A fair amount of media coverage was centered around the events of Bydrsong's death and his achievements as a former Northwestern basketball coach. In 2000, an award was created in his honor by the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative. Anya Cordell, Byrdsong's neighbor, wrote the anti-hate crime book, "Race: An Open and Shut Case." Cordell said that she was inspired by the urge to combat the hate that fueled Benjamin Smith's deadly shooting rampage. Byrdsong’s children also received college scholarships from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization which helps victims of families from hate crimes.
In 2009, a documentary about Byrdsong, entitled "Fly Like the Byrd," was created by Northwestern students from the Medill School of Journalism. This documentary examines race relations and how Ricky's legacy has lived on, ten years later. The 25 minute documentary can be viewed here http://vimeo.com/5204860
The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation
His widow established The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation. Its mission is to "arrest the growing epidemic of hate and violence in our society by and against our youth." The foundation holds a number of events in and around Evanston; the most well-known is the Race Against Hate, a 5,000-meter running race held annually in late June which race draws thousands from Evanston and surrounding areas. In 2009 a 10,000-meter running race was added in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Race Against Hate.
- Everson, Darren (15 December 2010). "Chicago's Other Sports Curse". The Wall Street Journal.
- Downey, Mike (7 July 1999). "The Last Walk in the Short Life of Ricky Byrdsong". Los Angeles Times.
- "Ex-College Basketball Coach Ricky Byrdsong Killed In White Racist's Shooting Spree, Mourned". Jet magazine. July 26, 1999. Retrieved 2008-04-25.