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 III of XIV parts.

Walter Byers controlled every decision made by the NCAA throughout his tenure there, but he did it from behind the scenes where he could operate in secret.

Secrecy is not always proof of negative behavior, but it certainly allows any corruption to fluorish. A child keeps his activities secret from his parents if concerned they will say "no" if asked for permission. If he is repeatedly successful at this secrecy, he will likely get into trouble before the parents are aware of problems. In contrast, honest people with no hidden agenda don't mind the light of awareness to shine on their activities and are willing to accept a delay in self-gratification.

Perhaps the most revealing information about Walter Byers' leadership style is summed up by his second wife Betty Byers, as quoted by Don Yaeger:

"He loved to read. His favorite book? Oh, it had to be The Godfather, well, he read it several times. I think we had to buy him a new copy because he enjoyed it so much. He would always go back and read portions again, check on it over and over. I really think that it fascinated him. I really feel that part of his personality, too, is that he wondered HOW the Mafia really worked and was kind of fascinated by how strong or how powerful the Mafia could be. I think he wondered how someone could become that powerful. He saw something of himself in that. Reading The Godfather, I think that had something to do with power. I mean, his office or the whole NCAA was run rather like the FBI. You just got that feeling. Yes, I think that tells you a lot about Walter Byers."

Betty Byers didn't wish to use the word "paranoid" to describe her ex-husband, preferring a "fear of being vulnerable." As such, he registered in hotels under an assumed name, refused to allow anyone to give out his home phone number and gave interviews only rarely, preventing most people from knowing what he looked like. And as Mrs. Byers stated, "You know, it's a little hard to live with someone that doesn't ever forgive and forget." Indeed, Walter Byers was exactly the kind of person who finds solace in power plays and control methods espoused by crime families and dictatorships.

As one of many examples how Walter Byers obtained power was the booklet he wrote to govern his office staff. The "NCAA Office Policies and Procedures" evolved into a tome in excess of 100 pages and could best be described as micromanagement. Everything from a dress code to the times one could open the office blinds was included. This booklet remained secret within the organization, and each person's copy had to be returned to the NCAA once he or she left the organization.

Texas' Donna Lopiano is quoted by Don Yaeger as saying, "Byers only hired people who would tolerate unquestioned obedience to rules...Walter didn't want human beings. He wanted robots."

Few people ever said negative things about Walter Byers because they knew there would be reprisals. As Jack McCallum wrote, "Byers has achieved something most corporate managers can only dream about: an office staff that does not whisper about him at the water fountain. Of course, under his buttoned-down, over-regulated, nose-to-the-grindstone administration, Byers has a staff that wouldn't dare whisper at the water fountain."

Walter Byers didn't use executions like some crime families, but a significant implied threat to his staff and the NCAA membership was there nonetheless. Those who are fans of The Godfather and numerous other stories about crime families can recognize many similar behaviors within the NCAA. Everything Byers did was to consolidate more power for himself and his organization. Nevada congressman Jim Santini is quoted by Jack McCallum as having "a J. Edgar Hoover-like impression" of the NCAA. "He (Byers) marches to his own drummer, and anybody who gets out of step in terms of his system, internally or externally, could find themselves on the Byers list."

The "Godfather" of college sports eliminated all competition, one by one. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), The Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) were either eliminated or weakened by his actions, and he didn't care how much damage he needed to do to gain control.

For example, he kept U. S. teams weak internationally in order to destroy the AAU. He wouldn't let any NCAA athletes compete in AAU-sponsored events, forcing the United States Olympic Committee to field somewhat inferior teams at Olympics. Theoretically, he may also have sought vengence against Avery Brundage or at least enjoyed the role reversal. Byers claimed he was merely protecting the athletes from the possibility of professionalism, but he consolidated his power this way.

After Congress passed Title IX in 1972, AIAW leaders asked Byers for an equal vote (one man and one woman for each school) within the NCAA, and they negotiated their own television contracts for women's championships. Byers responded by demanding they close down and join the NCAA with no vote for women. Obviously, there was an impasse.

Over the next six years, the NCAA began scheduling its events at the same time as the AIAW championships. In order to attract converts from the AIAW (up to then schools had a choice as to which organization to belong), the NCAA began offering schools all-expenses-paid. In the first year, the NCAA lost $2.5 million, but it had the financial clout to make it work. Eventually, the AIAW disbanded in favor of the NCAA. As some crime family bosses are fond of saying, "It's nothing personal, it's just business."

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

Part I of this series is available here.

Part II of this series is available here.

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