To get you briefly caught up to speed. Yesterday, another shot was fired in the growing LSU-Texas A&M border war. The Aggies reportedly lost Athletic Director Scott Woodward to the Tigers, replacing the hated Joe Alleva. Woodward, a Baton Rouge native and LSU alum, made two huge splash hires over the last 18 months in College Station. He brought over Buzz Williams and Jimbo Fisher to reinvigorate underperforming basketball and football programs (though we can debate the market-busting wisdom of that latter contract). In all else, Woodward stayed the course and enjoyed the stability that A&M’s former AD bought him.
That man’s name? Bill Byrne.
And his son may become a chess piece in the Tigers-Aggies territorial war.
I think I speak for the abiding majority of alums, and probably just as many casual fans, when I say that Alabama nailed it: After decades of weak leaders, competing visions, inconsistent figures, and the well-intentioned but uncomfortable-outside-of-football, the 2017 hiring of Greg Byrne remains single best achievement of the athletics department in the decade following Coach Moore luring Nick Saban over from the Dolphins.
If there is any word you could use to sum up the 47-year-old’s two-and-a-half-decade career, it’s “aggressive”. Greg Byrne is an aggressive figure: He is an aggressive cost-cutter; an aggressive facility-builder; an aggressive hiring executive and its corollary — aggressive in handing out the pink slips to underperformers.
He has a great eye for talent and knowing when a coach or a facility has gone on too long. For instance, in his tenure at the three schools Byrne immediately shook up the baseball programs at Arizona, Alabama, and Mississippi State. At two schools, he hired Brad Bohannon (UA) and John Cohen (MSU). At the third, he moved Arizona to a better baseball facility — where attendance would be the third-best in the West and help buoy the Wildcats to a CWS title. He arrived in Starkville, immediately fired Sylvester Croom and hired Dan Mullen. When he landed in Tucson, he immediately fired Mike Stoops and then hired Rich Rodriguez — who went on to lead the Wildcats to five bowls in six seasons.
When Byrne touched down in Tuscaloosa, he inherited a series of legacy hires in several underperforming programs, including basketball, gymnastics, women’s basketball, and inherited a nightmare in baseball. Two of those coaches are gone; in their place are two well-respected coaches on the upswing of their careers. While the fate of Kristy Curry and Dana Duckworth remains to be written, one gets the sense that both programs have reached make-or-break seasons in 2019. Hanging around won’t cut it with this athletic director.
So, many ADs excel at the politicking: fundraising, glad-handing, moving within the bureaucratic corpus. Still others excel at the executive side: balancing the personnel side, with the budgeting and the capital improvements. Byrne’s career shows that he excels in both spheres — just like his dad.
But, does it make sense?
The ties that bind
It is that family connection that gives many pause.
Greg Byrne’s father is former Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne. Bill is still a special advisor to the chancellor. To say he is a legend in Aggieland doesn’t do the scope of his achievements proper credit. In his dozen years in College Station, Bill Byrne replaced coaches in nine sports — and within two years of their hiring, every coach he replaced made postseason play. His school finished in the Top 25 of the Director’s Cup seven times. His teams won forty national titles. Every scholarship sport on campus set a new attendance record. He helped create the Texas A&M Sports Network Properties. Byrne the Elder shepherded A&M out of the two-team Big 12 hegemony and into the welcoming (and far wealthier) arms of the SEC.
Building? Did he build? Oh, yeah. Those familiar with the Crimson Standard (and we will have more on that in the next week), will recognize Greg’s plan as previously-effected in College Station. As part of a multiphasic capital plan, Bill Byrne oversaw $100-million in fundraising that: renovated Olsen Field (baseball), built a premiere indoor football and track facility (McFerrin Athletic Center), renovated Reed Arena (hoops), built a dedicated basketball practice facility — complete with separate locker rooms, and oversaw a rapid football expansion that turned the Hate Barn into a 100k+ vertical terror complete with a Big Ass JumboTron (tm).
So, given the eerie similarities between the leadership and ambitions of the Byrnes; their fundraising goals; and their aggressive (and largely successful) personnel moves, there are many who worry that the departure of Texas A&M Athletic Director Scott Woodward to LSU will likely set the Aggies’ sites square on Greg Byrne.
But does it make sense?
I hope that I am not Gumping too hard here when I say that I don’t see that moving to A&M helps Greg Byrne’s legacy.
People do not vault to the top of their profession without exceptional ambition and more than a little faith in their abilities. I won’t accuse anyone here of being an egoist. But, ego almost certainly must be a necessary part of the job. It takes two-ton chutzpah to badger wealthy donors, wage war with high-profile multimillionaire subordinates, maneuver through politically-connected boards of regents, and handhold risk-averse university presidents and legal departments. It is a world of alphas, where you are, in every sense of the word, the boss — even of the Best Football Coach of All Time. It’s not a place for displays of weakness; and it’s a position where good judgment and strong leadership can shape an institution for decades to come.
Alabama is in such a place and time to be affected by strong leadership. The Alabama of 2017, the one Byrne inherited, had just reached the dark forest, where so many dendritic branches stretched off into uncertainty. And he has ably navigated that perilous path, step-by-painstaking-step. And there remains much hard work ahead.
Already, Byrne has made his mark on baseball and basketball. The Crimson Standard is well underway, and with it, new-look facilities for almost every sport will follow. Personnel decisions must be made with gymnastics, swim and dive, and women’s hoops. And, there remains the plush assignment on the forseeable horizon, the one that will forever write an AD’s name in crimson flame, be it as either a knave or a knight: Alabama football. Many ADs would not want to be responsible for making the hire after Nick Saban. But, you do not get the sense that Greg Byrne is one of them. Rather, that he relishes stamping his imprimatur on one of the most storied sports franchises in history.
What would be left at A&M? Nine years of Jimbo? Six years of Buzz? Unseating the very successful apple cart on the Aggies’ baseball and softball diamonds? Renovating facilities that have all been constructed or renovated in the prior seven years? The hard work has been done. In many ways, the A&M position is not one where a successor can make much of a mark — a victim of its own success — because the prior two administrations have been so ruthlessly competent, there is little to do but supervise the fruits of their labor.
For someone trying to escape the long shadow cast by his father, to outpace the old man’s accomplishments, running a self-licking ice cream cone isn’t the way to do it. Instead, the best way for Greg Byrne to do that is to leave Alabama, one of the wealthiest athletic departments in the nation, also among its strongest. There is much hard work ahead, and as a younger executive, there is plenty of time to put in the hours and reap the rewards of a dynasty he built.
Your turn. In the circular firing squad of the SEC, how worried are you that Aggie will poach Greg Byrne?