Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part II of XIV parts.

Walter Byers was born in Kansas City and attended Rice University in 1940 to play football. However, he was a small man and did not fare well there as an athlete. After one year, he was encouraged by his coach to go elsewhere to school. The University of Iowa accepted Byers for enrollment, so he majored in English and minored in journalism. He worked as a reporter for the "Daily Iowan" and met his first wife there.

Byers left Iowa nine hours shy of his degree to join the Army in 1943. He never got to fight in World War II because of a "wandering eye". After his discharge, he worked as a journalist for United Press in St. Louis, Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago and New York City. He was always excellent at using words, but he was never an admirer of the press. This is just one of many inconsistencies discovered about his life and beliefs. Perhaps he understood how easily one can be deceived by a well-turned phrase.

Byers was eager to return to the Midwest, so he took a job as assistant to Kenneth "Tug" Wilson, a former Illini. Wilson was commissioner of the Big Ten and secretary-treasurer of the NCAA as both were basically the same organization with the Big Ten being more important. They worked out of the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago, which was owned by Avery Brundage, a former Illini star who later became head of the International Olympic Committee. Yes, despite the long-term problems between the NCAA and Illinois, at one time Illinois held a dominant position in Big Ten and NCAA governance.

It is theoretically possible this dominance by Illinois might have been a point of contention with Iowa devotee Byers. We do not wish to sound paranoid, and there is absolutely no proof of any intentional hostility of Byers toward Illinois at the time he became head of the NCAA. But in his Sports Illustrated article, Jack McCallum quotes Walter Byers about his relationship with Avery Brundage:

"Avery used to come in at two in the afternoon and work till midnight. We'd get in violent arguments about what the colleges were doing. There was nothing that would stop him from giving us his monthly lecture on how professional he thought the colleges were getting."

McCallum is probably correct in assuming Byers used Brundage's lectures as motivation for regulating college recruiting practices. After all, Brundage was extremely unwavering in his beliefs, even to the extent of saying scholarship aid to college athletes constituted professionalism. Perhaps the "violent arguments" were over the degree to which scholarships constituted professionalism.

However, one might also be curious about these arguments from another perspective. Perhaps one day someone privy to these conversations will set the record straight, assuming a participant is still alive and willing to share. But the Universities of Illinois and Iowa were often bitter rivals, and it is known Illinois football coaches Bob Zuppke and Ray Eliot were vocal in their disgust with recruiting tactics of competing schools. Brundage graduated from Illinois before Zuppke was hired, but they shared many beliefs regarding college recruiting practices and rules governing amateurism.

If Byers and Brundage agreed on principles governing amateurism, then why were their arguments "violent"? Was it just because of a disagreement over scholarships? Or, did it have anything to do with the fires of competitiveness first created for the two men at their respective universities? Byers was loyal to Iowa and Brundage to Illinois. Was this the source of their disagreements? We will likely never know, but once Walter Byers took control of the NCAA, Illinois was never again seen with as much favor by the NCAA.

Byers became executive director of the NCAA on October 1, 1951 and immediately moved his headquarters to Kansas City, his birthplace. He continued in charge until 1988 and remained on the payroll as a consultant until 1990. In that time, he saw his organization grow from a staff of one to 145. And he oversaw a financial bonanza that turned the NCAA into the equivalent of an international corporation. Through his brilliant foresight and negotiating skills, he made the NCAA and its member schools wealthy through lucrative television contracts for college football and its college basketball championships.

However, Walter Byers also had a dark side that threatened at times to destroy his vast organization. While he had an expansive financial mind, he approached his leadership role among the colleges with a far more limited and jaundiced eye. Indeed, he tended to see things only in black and white, friend and foe, and he was ruthless about getting his way. The world has at least four dimensions when one includes time, so seeing everything in just two dimensions prevented any flexibility, leniency or understanding of the variable circumstances found among different colleges and their administrators.

Perhaps one can understand this paradox by studying other similar men of small stature and personal insecurities who simultaneously had massive ambitions. J. Edgar Hoover formed an organization similar to Byers' NCAA at the Federal Bureau of Investigation while hiding his homosexuality, and the slightly built Napoleon had megalomaniac tendencies as leader of France. A man whose 5'-8" height was often dwarfed by the athletes with whom he dealt, Byers was likely insecure about a number of things. He wore thick glasses and a toupee, and his lack of a college degree and lack of experience playing college sports likely made him defensive at best.

Perhaps to compensate, Walter Byers admired and copied techniques used by powerful people to gain and maintain control over others. He believed the three most important parts of his job were the college football television contracts, the hugely popular NCAA basketball championships, and enforcement of the rules govering intercollegiate athletics. Especially enforcement.

Parts III through XIV will appear on in the upcoming days.

Part I of this series is available here.

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