Greg Byrne estimates he spent five nights at home last month. The others? Here, there, everywhere. He is 5-Hour Energy in an inexhaustible supply.
“I’m passionate, but I’m tired at the end of every day,” he says. At 42, Byrne sets a pace that fits with what he said his first day on the job, May 3, 2010: “I’m not a clock watcher.”
He will be in New York City next week at the athletic director’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy ceremony, a finalist with ADs from Missouri, Charlotte, Duke and Washington as the nation’s Athletic Director of the Year.
People inside the UA athletic department, and fans on the outside, fear that Byrne has become too good, too soon. It’s inevitable he will be hired away by a Big Name School sooner rather than later. Isn’t that what they fear?
Byrne recently completed his first four-year term at Arizona, but ADs don’t come in tidy four-year terms, renewable by majority vote.
“The chances of me being here for a while are really good because of the support of President (Ann Weaver) Hart,” he says. No one said he isn’t a good politician.
Much like the first four years of his UA predecessors Dick Clausen, 1958-61, and Cedric Dempsey, 1982-85, Byrne arrived at Arizona during a time of athletic crisis and delivered.
How does Byrne compare? Does he compare? Here’s how it stacks up:
He was 48, the head football coach at New Mexico when hired at Arizona.
In his third year at Arizona, Clausen was the co-creator of the Western Athletic Conference, a force behind a move that got the Wildcats out of the small-time Border Conference and forever changed the school’s athletic image.
Clausen inherited a football program serving a one-year NCAA probation that dated from illegal payments made to players in the mid-1950s. He released coach Ed Doherty and hired one of the nation’s rising assistant coaches, Jim LaRue of SMU, who almost overnight took the Wildcats to their greatest season in history, 8-1-1, in 1961.
Clausen then abolished the Towncats, a booster group that provided funds to the athletic department, and hired the school’s first full-time athletic fundraiser, Bud Daniels. By his fourth year, Clausen began a campaign to replace Bear Down Gym and build what would become McKale Center.
Memorable quote: “We can’t keep playing West Texas State.”
He was 50, a former AD at Houston, San Diego State and Pacific when hired in August 1982.
When he arrived on campus, Dempsey took charge of a nasty three-year NCAA football probation stemming from a late 1970s slush fund and further improprieties. Penalties included no bowl games and the inability to have games televised.
Worse, Dempsey’s first season coincided with a 4-24 basketball team. He moved swiftly, firing coach Ben Lindsey, a transaction that required a messy and well-chronicled litigation and courtroom drama.
Dempsey’s standards became clear when, less than a year after he was hired, he pursued and successfully hired Lute Olson from Iowa, three years after Olson had taken Iowa to the Final Four.
In his third year, Dempsey instituted a priority seating charge: a tax on prime seats at McKale Center and Arizona Stadium. It was a volatile, and, at the time, uncommon and unpopular practice in Pac-10 sports. But it allowed Arizona to balance its budget and generate revenues to incorporate the women’s sports program, all under Dempsey’s command.
Until then, the UA women’s sports program had operated independently outside of the men’s athletic department.
Memorable quote: “Dick Clausen brought me to Arizona and was responsible for my move into administration. He was my mentor.”
He was a bullish 38 when hired from Mississippi State; he served three seasons as MSU’s athletic director.
Across his four Arizona years, Byrne moved the baseball operation from its traditional campus home to Hi Corbett Field, where attendance almost tripled.
He raised more than $30 million for a $74 million Arizona Stadium project, and also installed a $6 million video board, a state-of-the-industry entertainment piece that changed the game-day experience. This season, he installed a $2 million video board at McKale Center, the best of its kind in the Pac-12.
Byrne implemented the Wildcat Walk before home football games, the “White Out” at McKale Center, and moved quickly to fire football coach Mike Stoops in October 2011. Six weeks later, after a one-man search, he hired Rich Rodriguez.
Byrne is now in Phase I of an $80 million renovation of McKale Center, with about 50 percent of the financing in hand.
He has moved boldly to claim turf in Phoenix, scheduling a 2016 football game against BYU in University of Phoenix Stadium. Many of his forays into social media, including a weekly newsletter to about 100,000 fans, have been copied by Arizona State.
In the image-conscious world of college sports, Byrne has put Arizona’s brand on display like never before. It’s not just about helmet colors and catchy video presentations, but also about being committed to competition.
Last week, for example, Colorado broke ground on a $140 million football facility. Last month, Utah began construction of a $34 million basketball plant.
Arizona’s athletic budget has grown from $51 million to $67 million in Byrne’s years. “It could easily get to $75 million or $80 million in the next four years, if not sooner,” he says.
Like Clausen, who went on to add 10,000 seats at Arizona Stadium and hire the first black head coach in Division I history (track coach Willie Williams), and Dempsey, who would hire Hall of Fame coaches Mike Candrea and Frank Busch, and become chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, the first four years aren’t likely to define Byrne.
If Clausen begat Dempsey, then Dempsey begat Byrne. The UA paid Dempsey $35,000 as a consultant to find a replacement for Jim Livengood in the winter of 2010. Dempsey found Byrne.