WildcatAuthority.com sat down with University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne to talk about these topics and more.
In part one of our two part interview we'll take a look back at last season, find out how the MLB draft affects the program, get an update on the assistant coaching search, and more.
WildcatAuthority: You were the Athletic Director at Mississippi State before this stint at Arizona. Obviously the SEC is a big baseball league; overall do you look back at your experience at MSU when you look for ways to improve the baseball program at Arizona?
Greg Byrne: Yeah sure. I think any experiences that you have are going to help you. Baseball in the SEC is a big deal and I think if you asked any college baseball fan what the best two conferences are for college baseball you would probably hear them say the Pac-12 and the SEC.
Part of what we look at and have to understand in college athletics is: who are the people we depend on to have success? One, it's the student athletes first and foremost. We depend on the university and we depend on the support around our university, and our fans are a critical component of that. So how do we give our fans and student athletes a great experience?
If you look at kids these days, they start traveling for athletics at a very young age, so the idea of a college baseball player on the west coast saying ‘hey I think I'm going to stay here and play baseball and not consider any other school' is just not realistic. They will look at other parts of the country where they feel they have the best opportunity to train and compete at the highest level.
The other reality is, we want to be a top 10 institution in athletics, so while we want the best players out of Arizona, we'll also recruit guys from California, Texas, and those surrounding areas. A lot of the young men and young women we recruit are going to have aspirations that go just beyond competing at the University of Arizona. Whether they want to play in the NBA, NFL, MLB, or join a national team, they're going to need facilities that give them the best chance to develop their skill set.
WildcatAuthority: You've already alluded to the success of the Pac-10, well now the Pac-12, and the SEC. But it's no secret, the SEC over the years has drawn far more attention and it owns a far more developed fan base when it comes to college baseball. Why is that?
Greg Byrne: I think culturally most of those schools are in communities like Tucson where there isn't a lot of other competition, and that helps out tremendously. So one of the things we're trying to highlight about being in Tucson is the fact that yeah the Tucson Padres are here, but for nine months out of the year, we're the only game in town. I think we need to take advantage of that.
We have a very strong fan base and I think we can and need to get to a point where we get people to say ‘hey it's a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night, I'm going to go to an Arizona Wildcats baseball game.' Once you get that kind of energy around a program, it's contagious, and I think we have the ability to do that in our league better than any other school in the conference.
WildcatAuthority: Let's go back to last year now. Overall a bittersweet way to end the season, the team made the playoffs, but came just a game short of a Super Regional birth. How is your relationship with coach Andy Lopez and overall how would you categorize the season in terms of success or failure?
Greg Byrne: We got back to the postseason, which is always the first goal. We made it to the final game of our regional against Texas A&M. And I think if you say your going to go to the final game of the regional tied going into the eighth inning you'll take your chances, especially out on the road.
WildcatAuthority: You guys lost the first game of the regional too.
Greg Byrne: Yeah, exactly. So we really fought back and put ourselves in a position to get to a super regional. Then obviously you see what Texas A&M did after that, they went and beat Florida State and went to Omaha. So we're knocking on the door again, we just need to take that next step. Part of that, in my opinion, is allowing us to be in the best possible position to host a regional or host a super regional. You're not a guaranteed winner by doing that, but it increases your chances.
I've been very pleased with the job Coach Lopez has done. Now if I'm not mistaken, we've now been to the postseason seven out of the last nine seasons now?
WildcatAuthority: Yes, you would be correct on that.
Greg Byrne: So that's really strong, but we want to get it to be where we're going to the postseason every year and that it's a given. We really want to get ourselves in position so that we're knocking on the door to go to Omaha and competing for national championships. We've done it before, coach Lopez has done it before. Let's make sure we put ourselves in position to do it again.
WildcatAuthority: Maybe more than a lot of other schools, Arizona loses a lot of players to the draft every year. It happened again this year with all eight draftees signing with their major league clubs.
Greg Byrne: Yeah we do, and there's no easy solution for solving that. Your goal is to always bring in guys who are going to give you the best chance to win, so it's always a science to try and figure out each recruit's individual situation.
Maybe you have a player where their family is counting on that major league contract, so even though they're committed at the time to going to school, once a player gets an offer, you know the chances of actually coming to school for him aren't that high. Or maybe it's a guy that you feel is going to eventually develop into a major league player with a few years in college. Or maybe it's even a guy where he has the talent to go pro right away, but his family really values getting a college education. So it's not always that easy to determine what category these guys fall into.
WildcatAuthority: Long time Arizona assistant coach Mark Wasikowski has left to take an assistant coaching gig at Oregon. He's pretty much been with coach Andy Lopez for his entire coaching career. He actually played under him at Pepperdine when Lopez won the National Championship. How involved are you in this coaching search? Are you heavily involved, or do you give coach Lopez free reign and let him pick a guy who he feels comfortable with?
Greg Byrne: I believe strongly that you let your head coach fire and hire his/her staff. Now I like to know who it is and I like to know why they want to hire this person, but I can think of only one or two times as an Athletic Director where I've said ‘you know what, you might want to think about that.' You have to let them do what they want because ultimately it's the head coach's responsibility whether or not the team succeeds or doesn't succeed. We've talked about potential names and I like where he's headed.
WildcatAuthority: Would your involvement in the search be a little different if Lopez was a younger coach and didn't have as much experience?
Greg Byrne: Good question. I'd say yes. It's funny; when I hired Dan Mullen as the head football coach at Mississippi State I was pretty involved in the hiring of his staff because it was his first head-coaching job. But, again it was his decision, not mine. We talked and shared ideas. I think you need to have that relationship with your head coaches though, not to where you're micromanaging them, but just being a good soundboard for them is healthy.
WildcatAuthority: Is there a timetable to when the new assistant could be hired? I've heard two weeks. Is that accurate?
Greg Byrne: (Smiling) We'll see, when we find the right person, we find the right person.
In the second half of our two-part we visit the possibility of playing future Arizona baseball games at Hi-Corbett Field and more.