TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To see athletic director Greg Byrne’s new office at the University of Alabama, not much appears to have changed.
Physically, it doesn’t look much different, but that’s understandable because Byrne is just getting started. So far, his focus has been on things like completing the transition, becoming familiar with his surroundings and getting through the rest of the academic year. The personal touches will come.
What’s clear, though, is he’s different from what Alabama has had in that position before, someone with a unique sense of history and tradition while at the same time being on the cutting edge in collegiate athletics.
Byrne is 45 years old, 30 years younger than his predecessor, Bill Battle, a former coach who had been the founder and CEO of Collegiate Licensing Company. Before him, Mal Moore, who had an extensive coaching career, was 73 when he stepped down for health reasons just before his death in 2013.
Byrne never has been a coach but grew up around college athletics as the son of a legend in his profession. His father, Bill, was the athletic director at Idaho State (1971-76), New Mexico (1976-79), San Diego State (1980-82), Oregon (1983-92), Nebraska (1992 to 2002) and Texas A&M (2002-12), which led to a diverse childhood but in a way started preparing him for his eventual career path.
Following suit, Byrne worked fundraising and athletic oversight at Oregon (1995-98), Oregon State (1998 to 2002), Kentucky (2002-05) and Mississippi State (2006-08) before being promoted to replace Larry Templeton as the Bulldogs AD. That led him to Arizona in 2010, when he contributed to a significant upgrade in the Wildcats facilities.
Meanwhile, his coaching hires have reflected his desire to be innovative and out in front of the latest trends. They’ve included Dan Mullen and Rich Rodriguez, the second of which he announced on Twitter.
Not only is that kind of thing foreign to Alabama, it’s never had an AD who embraced social media. Fans still are getting used to it. During the recent NCAA Tournament, Byrne posted a photo from his high school team. One of its coaches was current Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) April 1, 2017
During his introductory news conference on Jan. 19, Byrne called Alabama the “pinnacle” of intercollegiate athletics and told of how excited he had been to learn that his office at Kentucky was one that Paul “Bear” Bryant had used. Now he’s at the helm of where Bryant became an international icon.
Byrne recently sat down with SEC Country to talk about his approach to the job and what his first few weeks have been like at the Capstone:
Q: What’s your father like and what kind of professional influence has he had on you?
Greg Byrne: “You know what, I’ve been so fortunate to have grown up in college athletics, and I didn’t know any better as a kid. Going, and being around teams, student-athletes and coaches — a guy who I really admired a lot growing up was Richard Brooks, who was the football coach at Oregon when my dad was the AD. He actually reminds me a little of Coach Saban. A guy who I really respect and admired. Because of what my dad did, I was able to be in that environment and grow up being in locker rooms and watch the commitment that it would take from student-athletes at this level, not just in football but in all the sports.
“My dad gave me those experiences, and I’ve watched him as a leader, too, having tough conversations, creating vision and being engaged in this role as an AD because it’s a full-time job. At the same time, my dad gets a lot of attention, but my mom was a great leader. I’ve watched her commitment to students, and her commitment to the teachers she worked with as a principal. Later on, when she went from being a dean of education at Doane [University] in Nebraska and the impact she had on her students. So I was very fortunate to have those experiences growing up.”
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) December 28, 2016
Q: At Texas A&M alone, his teams won 45 conference titles and 17 national titles. So are you going to try and top that?
Byrne: (Laughs) “The bar’s high. Even back, I remember early, his first year as AD at Oregon, I think they won the national championship in track and field, like in ’84. I think that was the right year. I always remember going to Mass at the Newman Center on campus, I went over to go for a Saturday night Mass and came across to Hayward Field as they were winning the national championship. I watched him evolve as an AD as the industry dramatically changed.
“One of the things that I really admired, there were many things that I admired about my dad and my mom, but my dad was always thinking, ‘What’s next? What’s coming down the pipe?’ I think he was one of the best in college athletics in recognizing and seeing the impact Title IX would have on women’s athletics, and seeing the evolution that took place there. I think they were ahead of the curve at Nebraska, and they modernized the approach tremendously when he was at A&M.
“They’ve had a lot of success here at Alabama, and it’s critical for us to make sure that we’re focused on the continued long-term success for football, and at the same time, too, this is a place I do believe that with the tradition, the history, the resources, that we used them wisely, that we can be competitive across the board.”
Q: Did your father have one piece of advice or a golden rule that has always stuck with you?
Byrne: “I don’t know if there was a golden rule necessarily. One of the things that I just always watched with him was how well he treated people. From CEOs of companies, to academic counselors, to your custodial crews, to fans. Both of my parents come from small-town, blue-collar upbringing, and they were both the first people in their families to go to college.
“That background came out in how they approached their jobs and how they approached people. I’ve got plenty of weaknesses, but one thing that I think I’m pretty good at is engaging people and letting them know how valuable they are. Because every one of us wants to be valued. It doesn’t matter what you do. Part of what you have to try and inspire your student-athletes, and hopefully lead the staff and coaches, is every role in here, for us to be as successful as you can be, everybody needs to do their jobs and handle their responsibilities as good as they possibly can with the talents they have to work with.
“One of the things I’ve heard a number of times already is people say, ‘Hey, I want to come work at the University of Alabama.’ I saw the same thing when I was at Arizona. And I’d sometimes say to them, ‘What do you want to do?’ And they say, ‘Well, I just love Alabama.’ Well, I appreciate that, and one of the things that we’re fortunate about here at Alabama is that there’s a lot of people who love Alabama, and that’s a strength of ours. But when you’re working here, or part of our department, is what are you doing to your student-athletes’ great experience? What are you doing so that they have a great academic experience, a great competitive experience, and how are we serving our fans? How are we managing our resources? How are we doing the right things from a compliance standpoint? Those are the things that we have to be very focused on, to make sure that we can be as strong as we possibly can and every person has a role in that.”
Q: So what motivates you then?
Byrne: (Pause) “I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that before. I really haven’t. I hope that when I’m done here at Alabama, which I hope is a long time from now, that I’ve made a positive impact on the university. On our teams and coaches, our student-athletes and our fans. That journey, I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.”
Q: You mentioned having everyone on board a moment ago, which is very similar to one of Nick Saban’s analogies, of everyone being on the bus and he’s just the driver. How sick are you of being asked about maybe someday trying to replace him and finding the next Nick Saban?
Byrne: “I’m not sick of it at all, but I hope it’s not any time soon. The impact that he’s had on — and Miss Terry, too — this university, the community, our state, our student-athletes, is immeasurable. I’ve been really impressed with his energy and his commitment to what he does. And so, I hope we get to work together for a long time.”
Q: You’ve only been on the job for a little more than a month. Regarding facilities, do you have a wish list yet?
Byrne: “Not even close. … I know already that we have some very good facilities. I also know that the ones that we have to make sure to keep up and maintain, which is very expensive. The reality is each new building that we bring on line adds to those costs. We need to make sure that we’re very smart and efficient with our current facilities and any future facilities, to make sure it has the best impact in allowing us to have success competitively and academically.”
[Note: Byrne went on his first elaborate facility tour of Bryant-Denny Stadium later that day.]
Taking an in-depth facility tour this afternoon. 1st stop is Bryant-Denny Stadium. pic.twitter.com/oxy0ac8ZGG
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) April 6, 2017
Q: In that same vein, is there a sport or two that you’d like to eventually add?
Byrne: “Too far down the line, and philosophically, whatever sport we have I want to make sure that we’re giving it the resources to compete at the highest level. While I’d love to see new opportunities for student-athletes, I don’t want to do anything that takes away from our current student-athletes or doesn’t put us in a position of strength moving forward.”
Q: Final question: You just came from a school with quite a basketball program in terms of history and tradition, Arizona. What would it take to get Alabama to that level?
Byrne: “Good question. I don’t know yet. I’ve been really impressed, both with the women’s and the men’s programs, with Avery [Johnson] and with Kristy [Curry]. I think we made good strides this past year, and one of my favorite quotes is, ‘If you’re going to keep score, you might as well try to win.’ I have been more than impressed with the leadership of the programs, to start putting us in a very strong position.
“I think we have to be smart with our strategy from a recruiting standpoint, what does our roster look like? Is it all Southeastern kids. Is our brand such nationally that we can do a combination of Southeastern kids and young men from other parts of the country maybe, and other parts of the world at times. We need to make sure that we’re very focused on recruiting and find the right makeup that works for Alabama basketball for both the men’s and the women’s teams.”
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) March 2, 2017