ARIZONA ATHLETICS

There's little time to burn for new AD

Meetings, greetings keep Byrne running on his first day of school
2010-08-29T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:49:45Z There's little time to burn for new ADPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 29, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Like so many others on the first day of school, Greg Byrne can't sleep.

The Arizona Wildcats athletic director woke up at 4 a.m. on Monday. Around 5:15, in the dark, Byrne began the 20-minute drive to his office at McKale Center.

From his work-issued SUV, Byrne called two friends from the Southeastern Conference, where he spent the past two years as the athletic director at Mississippi State.

Byrne, 38, started May 1 after signing a five-year deal worth $390,000 a year.

Before 7:30 a.m. on Monday, the first day of UA classes, Byrne has run 3 1/2 miles on a McKale Center treadmill to keep his balky back loose. He's read, believe it or not, www.coacheshotseat.com.

For $20 a year, he reads the website for its list of the day's college sports stories. He's also listened to NPR.

His day has just begun.

The Star shadowed Byrne from his first appointment to his last meeting Monday.

With rare exception, the Star was given access to his conversations and meetings, from planning a football pre-game ritual to crafting speeches and greeting fans purchasing tickets.

With an easy but authoritarian lilt, Byrne spoke to almost every head coach on campus - be it in a meeting or in person - before giving a speech to a gathering of all UA student-athletes.

There, he scolded two kids for falling asleep - a side to the young-looking athletic director few athletes had seen before.

Byrne replaced Jim Livengood, the Arizona Wildcats athletic director since 1994, in May, and has begun crafting the department his way.

On the eve of his first full season, here's an account of Byrne's day:

8:38: Carl Evans, director of the Tiger Scholarship Fund at Memphis, calls. At a convention, he asked Byrne to mentor him.

"You're in fundraising," Byrne said. "You're on the right path."

Byrne is a fundraising dynamo. He wants to grow the Wildcat Club from 7,000 to 12,000 members. He raised money at Oregon, Oregon State, Kentucky and Mississippi State before becoming an athletic director at 36. He has raised more than $120 million in his career.

8:45: Byrne puts Evans on hold; his wife, Regina, has called with news about the lakeside home they're trying to sell in Starkville, Miss.

Regina and Greg have two sons - Nick, a 15-year-old freshman at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, and Davis, a 12-year-old eighth-grader.

8:52: Byrne signs thank-you notes from his cross-state road trip in red ink.

"School colors," he said. He signs contracts sealing tennis matches with Sacramento State and Pacific. It's a rare paper transaction.

His desk is sparse. Items on top are a laptop, desktop screen, a few binders and a framed photo of him, his father and two uncles.

Byrne keeps his schedule on his Blackberry, e-mails memos and takes his MacBook Pro to meetings.

"I've got a bad back as it is," he said. "I don't want to lug a lot of paper."

9:02: He tweaks a PowerPoint presentation titled, "Arizona Athletics: Character and Integrity."

He'll show it to every UA athlete at a 4 p.m. welcome-back barbecue at McKale.

The slides outline social- media dangers. One shows Matthew Stafford, the 2009 NFL No. 1 draft pick, with a drink in one hand and his middle finger in the air. Camera phones changed the game. "Everyone's a reporter," the slide states.

9:07: Told of a highlight reel to be shown at the barbecue, Byrne asks, "What's the music on that?"

Tunes played during games are important to Byrne, whose tastes range from Johnny Cash to classical music.

9:13: He receives a weekly football ticket sales e-mail. The UA sold 2,283 season tickets the past week, bringing the total to 25,477, the fourth-highest ever. "I'll Twitter that out real quick," Byrne said.

Byrne has about 2,700 followers, down 300 from when he was at Mississippi State.

9:27: Before walking downstairs to buy an energy bar, Byrne asks his assistant, Brenda Filippelli, to remind him of the concession stand worker's name. It's Skip.

Byrne uses word association, tying names from his past to help remember new faces, but it's not foolproof.

Filippelli knows part of her job is to brief Byrne whenever possible. She calls him an "old soul" who's not afraid to ask for help.

9:40: The Wildcats have a new class-attendance policy. A fourth absence means a player misses 10 percent of the remaining games in that sport. The sixth leads to an extra 15 percent loss. The ninth absence costs another 50 percent.

9:43: Byrne clicks through PowerPoint again and finds his "gotcha" moment. At MSU, a scoreboard sign forgot an "i" in Mississippi. A fan photo commemorated it forever - including on Byrne's PowerPoint. "We live in an age," he said, "where even when you have no idea you're being watched, you're being watched."

10:01: "I walk fast," Byrne cautions, and he does.

His 6-foot-6-inch frame tears downstairs to an auditorium, where about 30 coaches, including men's basketball coach Sean Miller and softball coach Mike Candrea, have gathered for "Step Up" program training.

Byrne explains the new attendance policy. Academics need improving. "Overall we're 10th in the league," he said. "That's not where we want to be in anything we do."

There are two ways to influence college athletes - take away their playing time or their scholarship check. "We're not going to touch their checks," he said, "because we want them to eat."

10:15: Byrne meets with director of football operations Erick Harper, and then football coach Mike Stoops, about a player.

Walking from his office to the football hub, Byrne's back aches. He had surgery on a ruptured disk last year, and now has a bulging one. Moving boxes in his new Foothills home didn't help.

Byrne stretches during the day and takes Aleve, but no prescriptions.

He's trained twice for marathons, only to get hurt, and said now "all I can do is run straight ahead."

11:05: Byrne introduces himself to fans waiting for tickets. His father, Bill, is the Texas A&M athletic director, but he says his mother, Marilyn, is the more social of the two.

"Shaking someone's hand, it's amazing how far that goes," Byrne said.

11:10: At Byrne's urging, football players will walk through the tailgating crowd into Arizona Stadium before home games.

"We gotta get people there the first time," Byrne tells marketing director Shawn Chevreux.

Byrne is changing player introductions, too, to build excitement. He wants everyone but the team to practice the entrance "a time or two or three" before the Sept. 11 home opener against The Citadel. He'll be there, too.

11:40: Byrne checks the schedule on his Blackberry. He and Regina struck a deal - he puts the phone in his bedroom when he gets home, and checks e-mail only once per night.

"This job will just swallow you up," she said, "if you let it."

Byrne still takes out the trash and does the dishes. He doesn't cook; he lived off Golden Dragon Chinese food until his family moved in late May.

12:05 p.m.: Byrne eats lunch at Kingfisher with booster Bob Davis, a former UA swim coach, fundraiser and lifelong Tucsonan.

2:04: Byrne meets in the conference room adjoining his office with associate athletic directors Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose, John Perrin, James Francis, Steve Kozachik, Suzy Mason and Chevreux to go over game- day activities.

Players will begin the "Wildcat Walk" two hours before the game and march in to a drum cadence. The Pride of Arizona will form a "Block A" and move south to north, forming a player- entrance tunnel.

"Everybody's cue is fireworks," Chevreux said. "When you see fireworks, you start running."

2:40: Byrne asks Chevreux about a list of songs to play at the game - "Carpenters, Barry Manilow, that stuff," Byrne joked. The athletic director wants a blend of hip-hop, rock and country for games.

"On third and fourth downs," he said. "we better be playing something that gets people fired up."

2:49: Byrne wants athletes wearing tucked-in shirts and no hats when they are honored at halftime Sept. 18 against Iowa.

Byrne wears open-collared shirts so students don't feel distant from him. Still they must call him "Mr. Byrne," not Greg. "That's mandatory," he said.

3:58: The ADs' meeting over, Byrne is greeted in his office by UA president Robert Shelton, and they walk to the barbecue together.

Shelton tells him he likes the attendance policy because "it's well-worded and allows for exceptions."

4:12: "I want you to take out your cell phones," Byrne tells the 500-plus athletes gathered at the barbecue.

He speaks his cell phone number intro a microphone, telling students to save it in their phones. "Call me, day or night, if you need help with a bad situation," he said.

4:34: He shows the PowerPoint. He warns of social media, and shows the embarrassing photos he had assembled earlier.

The UA will randomly drug test athletes, he says. "What's more important," he asks, "winning a national championship or smoking pot?"

Every senior athlete leads the crowd in "Bear Down, Arizona." He stands behind them, clapping along.

5:36: Byrne forgoes a plate of barbecue and walks upstairs for his final meeting - with Shelton's athletics advisory committee.

Shelton loves Byrne's communication skills. Byrne has called him from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Shelton said, and he likes that.

"I want to hear it from him first," he said.

Byrne fills a souvenir stadium cup and grabs a handful of pretzels from his assistant's desk.

The Wildcats' communication king has one task left. He walks through his office into the conference room, off to one more meeting. The door closes behind him.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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