Greg Hansen: 'Young gun' makes tough calls

Arizona's new AD brings different attitude, moxie
2010-03-23T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: 'Young gun' makes tough callsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 23, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Three months into his term as Mississippi State's athletic director, Greg Byrne, then 36, had a public showdown with the ranking legend of MSU athletics, Ron Polk.

Talk about picking the wrong battle at the wrong time. The Bulldogs' Hall of Fame baseball coach had taken MSU to 18 NCAA tournaments and five College World Series.

It was the Tucson equivalent of taking on Lute Olson, which, as memory serves, no one in power dared to attempt.

Polk insisted that his successor at the Starkville, Miss., school be assistant coach Tommy Raffo. Byrne resisted. He wanted his own man; he wanted Kentucky head coach John Cohen.

"Our new athletic director slapped me in the face and punched me in the stomach," Polk told a Mississippi newspaper. "He did the same to our players and parents. I want my name taken off the stadium and off the concourse until Greg Byrne is fired. I am taking the MSU Foundation out of my will."

Polk gave Byrne a 48-hour deadline to blink.

A few days later, Byrne hired Cohen.

So let's just assume that Arizona's new 38-year-old athletic director is going to be willing to make the tough calls and won't run scared of the inevitable political fissures that doomed his predecessor, Jim Livengood.

After Livengood took the bullet for Olson's delayed retirement, UA president Robert Shelton wisely made a clean break in hiring Byrne, an Arizona State grad. The Wildcat athletic department can use a fresh set of eyes, something different, something they couldn't have achieved by recycling someone from the same-old, same-style AD bin.

Byrne is a young gun with unusual moxie who, at 28, was bold enough to bolt from the Nike kingdom at Oregon for a better job 40 miles up the road at Oregon State. If you can go from Duck to Beaver and earn the respect of the Beavers, why can't an old Sun Devil become the No. 1 Wildcat?

Especially with the sainted ex-Devil Mike Candrea riding shotgun.

Besides, aren't we too mature for that kind of pettiness? If Byrne can raise $82 million to bring the UA football plant up to Pac-10 code, it wouldn't matter if he had a Sun Devil-forever tattoo on his forearm.

Shelton had several good and familiar options inside the Wildcat family. He might have been successful in persuading associate AD Rocky LaRose to give up her quality of life and become the full-time AD for a few years. And he wouldn't have had trouble locating boosters to fund a six-figure penalty to free ex-Livengood sidekick Chris Del Conte from his new contract at TCU.

LaRose was shrewd in her three-month term as interim AD. She did not publicly campaign for the job, even though many people inside McKale hoped (and sometimes pleaded) that she would. Byrne can now view her as a resource rather than a one-time foe.

Had Del Conte successfully pushed for the job, after only three months at TCU, he might have been forever radioactive in the business. The timing just wasn't right for a lot of reasons. The anti-Livengood brigade might have withdrawn financial support.

This way, with Byrne coming back to Pac-10 territory, Arizona gets what it most needed: a money man with experience in two BCS conferences; an AD who sat at the table as the SEC put together a ridiculously lucrative television package, a young man with new energy and some serious street cred.

"He never sleeps," Shelton said.

This is Byrne's fifth stop at a BCS school. Each stop was a step up, from Oregon to OSU to Kentucky to Mississippi State and now Arizona. He was approved not just by Shelton, but by Cedric Dempsey, whose terms as Arizona's athletic director and the NCAA's executive director made him uniquely qualified as a consultant.

"No one applies for these jobs," Shelton said, which means that the UA pursued Byrne, offered him the job and had to withstand Mississippi State's counter offer.

The affordability was important. Given the Arizona Board of Regents' negative reaction to the contracts of Mike Stoops and Sean Miller, there was never any chance Shelton could pursue a $750,000-a-year celebrity AD such as Louisville's Tom Jurich.

On paper, Byrne is a bargain at a $390,000 base salary over five years. He won't have to learn the Pac-10 turf, he starts clean, without scars, without old alliances to Livengood. And he has experience in the basketball-first business model he learned in three years as Kentucky's top athletic fundraiser.

Byrne is sure to tweak the culture at McKale Center and maybe change a lot of it. Hey, the guy went to school in Phoenix. He can take the heat.

Byrne's career

From the Pac-10 to the SEC, Greg Byrne's athletic career has been dominated by fundraising. Here's a look at his résumé:

1994: Received Bachelor's degree from Arizona State 1995-98: Regional director of development at Oregon. While overseeing the letterman's association, he helped raise $14 million for an indoor football facility and soccer complex.

1998-2002: Associate athletic director for development at Oregon State. In charge of eight people, he raised annual giving from $1 million to $5 million and helped raise more than $30 million. He helped secure $12.5 million to rename the football stadium.

2002-2005: Associate athletic director for development and fundraising, University of Kentucky. He raised annual gifts from $4 million to $9 million, and oversaw a $35 million athletic facility campaign. He helped design a $30million basketball practice facility.

2005-06: National sales director for CaseLogistix, a computer software firm. June 2006-February 2008: Associate athletic director for external affairs, Mississippi State. He implemented a priority seating program that helped increase annual giving by $1 million, adding almost 1,000 new booster club members in his first year alone.

February 2008-March 2010: Athletic director, Mississippi State. After becoming the youngest Div. I-A athletic director in the country, Byrne hired football coach Dan Mullen to replace Sylvester Croom after the 2008 season.

Patrick Finley

Byrne's Career

From the Pac-10 to the SEC, Greg Byrne's athletic career has been dominated by fundraising. Here's a look at his resume:

• 1994: Received Bachelor's degree from Arizona State

• 1995-98: Regional director of development at Oregon. While overseeing the letterman's association, he helped raise $14 million for an indoor football facility and soccer complex.

• 1998-2002: Associate athletic director for development at Oregon State. In charge of eight people, he raised annual giving from $1 million to $5 million, and helped raise more than $30 million. He helped secure $12.5 million to rename the football stadium.

• 2002-2005: Associate athletic director for development and fund-raising, University of Kentucky. He raised annual gifts from $4 million to $9 million, and oversaw a $35 million athletic facility campaign. He helped design a $30 million basketball practice facility.

• 2005-06: National sales director for CaseLogistix, a computer software firm. June 2006-February 2008: Associate athletic director for external affairs, Mississippi State. He implemented a priority seating program that helped increase annual giving by $1 million, adding almost 1,000 new booster club members in his first year alone.

• February 2008-March 2010: Athletic director, Mississippi State. After becoming the youngest Div. I-A athletic director in the country, Byrne hired football coach Dan Mullen to replace Sylvester Croom after the 2008 season.

Patrick Finley

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