Bill Keightley, who served as Kentucky’s athletics equipment manager for nearly half a century, was there for all the great ones in basketball, notably Adolph Rupp, and for the one great one in football, Paul Bryant.
When Greg Byrne was working as an associate athletics director at Kentucky from 2002 to 2005, the offices of some administrators were moved into Memorial Gym, the longtime home of Wildcats basketball until the construction of Rupp Arena. Byrne was admiring the spaciousness of his new digs when Keightley walked in. “Do you know whose office this was?” Keightley asked. “Coach Bryant’s.”
Now Byrne won’t occupy the office Bryant had in his time at Alabama, but he will occupy one of the positions. Bryant was athletics director as well as head football coach for 25 years in Tuscaloosa.
Byrne was introduced Thursday as the next athletics director for the Crimson Tide, replacing the retiring Bill Battle.
In a remarkably quiet month and a half, Alabama officials managed to court and hire Byrne from the University of Arizona. Although it wasn’t portrayed as a final audition, Byrne and his wife, Regina, visited in Nick and Terry Saban’s home “for a few hours” Saturday evening where the men had a long conversation.
“I asked him a lot of questions and was able to get some great insight,” Byrne said. “I felt that the meeting couldn’t have gone any better and felt very comfortable that this would be a wonderful coach to work with.”
Byrne, 45, got the job that night.
And, he said, “I hope my career ends here at The University of Alabama.” And, after a short pause, “In a good way.”
He said, “I’ve admired The University of Alabama, really even in younger years before I’d even been here, when we’d watch Keith Jackson call the game, Coach (Frank) Broyles do the color and even when Coach Bryant was coaching. I remember some of those games. The historical ride Alabama football has been on is incredible and that engages people. Look at the growth in The University the last 10 years.
“I remember coming down here 15 years ago and seeing what it looked like then, which was great, and what it looks like now is even better. You can’t help but say that athletics -- and football in particular -- has been the engine that is driving that train in many aspects. It’s incredible to have a chance to be a part of that.
“The fact that people here at Alabama support this university, support this athletics program, support the football program in the manner that they do, you don’t take that for granted and you thank people for that. You tell them how much you appreciate the efforts they make.”
Byrne had been at Arizona since 2010. Before that he was director of athletics at Mississippi State from 2007 until going to Arizona, where he was responsible for the hiring of football coach Dan Mullen. He also hired Scott Stricklin at State who succeeded him as Bulldogs AD, and Stricklin last year replaced Jeremy Foley at Florida. Byrne’s other major hire at Mississippi State was John Cohen, hired as baseball coach and now serving as athletics director in Starkville.
Byrne had a career in athletics administration (primarily in fund-faising) prior to his first athletics director’s job at Mississippi State, starting at the Fiesta Bowl, then going to Oregon, Oregon State, and Kentucky.
He is the son of a well-known athletics director, Bill Byrne, who served at Oregon, Nebraska, and Texas A&M.
Byrne does not need to roar into Tuscaloosa making sweeping changes. Obviously, the football situation is in good shape. Bama Football Coach Nick Saban missed the introductory event in the Mal Moore Athletics Facility Thursday. “He’s recruiting,” Byrne said.
Byrne also pointed to Alabama having an experienced staff that “wiell be able to guid me and support our department.”
Alabama also has excellent facilities in most sports and is among the most financially sound athletics prorams in the nation.
He said, “Facilities are critical. And reinvesting in your success and continuing to have vision for the future. You just can’t hit the pause button. What we’re really fortunate here for is that the infrastructure, for the most part, is really, really good. That doesn’t mean that you just stop because the importance of recruiting, the importance of the experience for the student-athletes in every aspect – academically, athletically and socially in what you do – all those are critical and facilities play a big part in that.”
Under Byrne’s leadership, Arizona athletics underwent more than $100 million in construction and renovation of athletics facilities. That work was highlighted by the $72 million Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, the addition of two video boards in Arizona Stadium, and a new scoreboard in the McKale Center. Additionally, Byrne oversaw a $30 million renovation of the McKale Center, a project that included upgraded seating, handrails, enhanced lighting and a new playing floor.