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May 10, 2012 / busmasterjones

Bill Byrne: Athletic Directing Done Right

After ten years as the Athletic Director at Texas A&M University, Bill Byrne is retiring.  In his farewell speech he mentioned being tired and that it was time.  He took his share of shots over the years for raising ticket prices and failing to rebuild the Aggie football program to the heights it acheived in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but let’s take a balanced look back on the time Bill Byrne spent in Aggieland to make sure that we truly understand what Byrne left behind in College Station.

Bill Byrne brought a new level of visibility and professionalism to the position of Athletic Director.  There are many familiar names on the list of past Athletic Directors at Texas A&M — Bear Bryant, Jackie Sherrill, and John David Crow — but it wasn’t until Bill Byrne took over as the eighth AD in the history of the school that A&M really started to reach stride as an athletic program.

For anyone who follows college athletics — not just football, but the entire college athletic scene — the rise of A&M to prominence in almost every sport is tied very directly to the hire of Bill Byrne.  When Dr. Robert Gates (A&M’s president at the time) hired Byrne, he wanted to change the way A&M approached athletics.  No longer content to just be compeitive in football, Gates found the premiere AD in college athletics and hired him away from the Nebraska.  It was a bold move that would finally awaken the sleeping giant in College Station.

It was apparent that something was different from day one.  For followers of Aggie athletics, there was suddenly a peak behind the curtain.  The good ole boy network image where the AD’s office was apparently being run by chummy men in their 50’s and 60’s from a room filled with cigar smoke was instantly gone.  Byne started his Wednesday Weekly column as a communication forum to those who followed the program.  It was unprecedented openness from an office that had been run from a distance in the past.  Byrne covered every topic imaginable from dealing with bats and their guano under Kyle Field to the financial realities of college athletics.  He talked about the difficulty in replacing coaches and drummed up student support for sports other than football.  He even laid out his blueprint for success for those who paid attention.

Byrne’s time as the great communicator of college sports began before his time at A&M.  His A&M communcation was patterned after a similar outlet that he used while at Nebraska to cimmunicate with the rabid fans there.  Instead of deling with rumors, Byrne wisely established a regular and open line of communication directly to the fan base.  This gave him a voice outside of media spin that he could use to get his message to the public.  And for fans of the team, you no longer had to be a high dollar contributor to learn about what was going on in the world of Aggie sports.  It was a great move that helped when high profile situations arose and raised awareness of a number of sports at A&M.

Another day one change that came in with Byrne was increased expectations.  The bar was raised, and raised high for A&M coaches.  You would be committed to Building Champions or you would be shown the door.  When coaches did leave the program, Byrne replaced them with some of the best coaches in the country who were also a cultural fit for A&M.  Pat Henry had won 27 National Championships while at LSU and was hired away to come rebuild an A&M track program that was at the bottom of the conference. Gary Blair was hired away from Arkansas after turning their losing women’s basketball program into a regular NCAA tournament team that reached the Final Four on one occasion.  Up and coming men’s basketball coach Billy Gillispie was brought in to help a lagging men’s basketball team.

With his coaches of the future in place, Byrne set expectations for everyone.  Byrne conducted an annual coaches retreat where coaches could share ideas about recuriting, practice, and balancing education and athletics.  Coaches were not siloed by sport, but instead were encouraged to share and support one another.

As AD, Byrne also provided a new level of support for his coaches.  He gave the coaches and their sports exposure thorugh his weekly column on the athletics website.  Byrne regularly trumpted successes in all sports and reminded people about upcoming games and events.  He also encouraged student participation through a rewards program that could net an avid fan a jersey at the end of the season for going to a high number of sporting events.

He campaigned for and got new facilities to arm coaches with a recruiting advantage.  Over $100 million of improvements to athletic facilities was done under Byrne including upgrades to virtually every sports venue.  The improved facilities allowed A&M to get on the short list for NCAA tournaments giving the Aggies home field, court, or pool advantage when playing at the highest level.

Byrne’s formula for success paid off over his ten years at A&M.  Prior to Byrne A&M claimed only six national titles in any sport [football (1), softball (3), and equestrian (2)].  Under Bill Byrne’s administration, A&M won its first championship in men’s golf, men’s outdoor track & field, women’s outdoor track & field, and women’s basketball.  They also continued their run with 7 equestiran – western national titles in a non-NCAA sport and won an overall equestrian title in 2012.  Both men’s and women’s track have repeated their national championships from 2009 – 2011.  The Aggies also won 45 Big 12 conference championships in 13 sports since he took over in 2002.  In fact, once the momentum was built, Texas A&M won 37 conference championships from 2006 – 2012 which is more than any other team in the conference including their “friends from the state capital.”

Byrne did have a few negatives that dogged him during his tenure.  The football program could never quite hit stride.  One good season full of promise wold yield to a mediocre campaign the next year.  Byrne is on his third coach going into the 2012 football season in an effort to recapture glory from 20-30 years ago.  Heading to the Southeastern Conference will not make matters any easier.

Byrne was often blasted for raising ticket prices.  Public tickets in Kyle Field were $35 in 2002.  Today they may run double that or more.  When you take into account that tickets to the neutral site A&M/Arkansas game start at around $100 each, it is clear that Aggie football tickets were priced well undermarket for years.  Byrne should not be faulted for bumping prices closer to market value.  A&M football games are still a good buy for a sporting event in Texas.  Tickets compare favorably with other college venues in price.

Byrne will be blasted for some for the lack of success of the football program in the last 10 years.  For those that have the perspective to see outside of a single sport — and not everyone does in Texas — A&M has truly made remarkable strides.  Using the Learfield Sports Director’s Cup as a measuring stick, A&M’s final position has risen to a consistently high level.

2008-09    13th (2nd in Big 12)

2009-10     6th (1st in Big 12)

2010-11     8th (1st in Big 12)

2011-12     12th currently with some strong sports for A&M yet to come

Byrne has done an outstanding job at A&M raising the level of competitiveness across the board.  Rather than inhabiting the basement in many sports, A&M is competing — and winning — on a national level.  The increased exposure and excitement helped position A&M for a move to the SEC and continues to feed the recruiting machine that is so necessary for future success.

Bill Byrne not only has built champions at Texas A&M, he is a champion.

 

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