State Staffers Study Peers, Look To Future

He was out of the office most of the week, and went to some old stomping grounds. But this was not a vacation for Greg Byrne. The athletic director was on a working trip. He and top MSU administrators and coaches were getting a closer look at several university athletic operations, with the goal of improving how Bulldogs go about their business.

The traveling party for this six-stop trip was led by University president Dr. Mark Keenum, while Byrne and assistant ADs Scott Stricklin and Duncan McKenzie were joined by football coach Dan Mullen and baseball coach John Cohen. As Byrne's review of the tour points up, they were not looking for any single solution or one big idea that will help push Mississippi State athletics ahead in the seasons and years to come. By looking at how their peers operate in varied settings, these University leaders were trying to clarify and expand their own common vision of what State could and should become.

As Byrne told Dawgs' Bite earlier this summer, there will be a ‘master plan' program started by the University along with a separate marketing survey by the athletic department. This trip was not directly involved with either, but will offer a broader perspective when the results are eventually in.

The transcript of Friday's afternoon meeting with Byrne follows, beginning with a review of the travels.

Byrne: "We left here Tuesday afternoon and went to Baylor. Baylor has done a very nice job with the flow of their facilities, brickwork throughout and a constant ‘theme.' And they've done a good job with their signage and artwork and everything on facilities. And then the pathways to each facility, other than football and track are way the heck out there. But you can tell they did a good job with their master plan."

"We went form Baylor to Oregon, spent Tuesday night there and toured in the morning. Obviously I feel a little connection from growing up there and my Dad worked there for ten years then having worked there for three years before I went to Oregon State. But the thing that Oregon has done, and I think it's something that we need to identify with, is they've done a good job of being unique. In that if they tried to do the exact same thing that USC does for instance that may not work quite as well."

"So part of what we're going to be working on is what do we want to represent and how are we to go about getting there? The thing that was interesting about them, obviously the influence of Nike is significant but a lot of it happened before Phil Knight got involved in the same manner he is today."

"We went from there to Oregon State. They've done a great job with their football facilities, have a new weightroom, they're trying to do a lot of things for a lot of different sports. We spent time with (baseball coach) Pat Casey and saw the work they've done on their baseball park. Dudy Noble, even with what they've done Dudy Noble certainly has the atmosphere and the feel that we're so proud of and don't want to ever lose. At the same time what are our next steps to improve the facility long term?"

"We spent yesterday morning in Nebraska, got to spend a little time with Tom Osborne in his office. They've opened up a new football complex and their weightroom, medical treatment center, administrative offices, a lot of their sports offices are in that one place which is a nice thing for staff continuity and bringing people together. One of the things they've done a really nice job is keeping things up-to-date, where when things get eight or nine or ten years into them they're looking at what is the next step with that? That's one of the things we're working on as well for the future here."

"We saw their baseball park, they have a unique partnership because they did a joint venture with a minor league baseball team. And their softball is right next to it, it's right across the highway from their football facilities. And they've got a number of issues with their facilities and are trying to address some of those right now, just like we are working with our long-range plan."

"We went to Missouri, they have a brand-new basketball facility which is outstanding. They've done some things with their academic center and training room and others that where they have a good ‘flow' to them and connectivity is very good. We're fortunate we have that too because of the connectivity of Shira and the Templeton Center and Holliman Center, one of the things we'd like to do is bring a more continuous look to it, in time."

"Yesterday afternoon we were over in Arkansas, they've done a good job with their Olympic sports. Their football stadium renovation, they had an older facility too and they've continued to make steps to renovate it. Not all at once but throughout. And their baseball park was good to see, they continue to keep that updated, too. And that's what we'll be doing with Dudy Noble in time as far as what our updates are, once we get our master plan up and going."

Q: When will you have that? "The University is in negotiation with the preferred company. If everything goes well it will be about a year process to get it up and running. Dr. (Mark) Keenum wants it to be a master plan with lots of connectivity with the rest of the University and he's 100% right on that. That will give us an opportunity to really work with our themes and have some consistency throughout campus in the look and feel of our facilities."

Q: You mean a year from when you get the master plan? Then what? "Approximately a year. Then you have to prioritize. Some of that we'll do already, we're beginning that process right now. We're hiring a company called CSL, they're going to do market research for us for Davis Wade, The Hump, and Dudy Noble, and give us a good understanding of what the marketplace will support at Mississippi State for seating at those venues. And especially high-end seating: skyboxes, club seats, loge boxes, those different types of things. Because those are the ways that you pay for everything."

Q: When you and coaches go on these trips what specifically are you looking for? "When you go on a football trip you're in and out so quick you don't get a chance to really take a look deep-down at what works well at schools and what doesn't work as well. So we wanted to get a chance for Dr. Keenum to meet with a couple of presidents at different schools; he met with the president of Baylor, Oregon. Then we got to meet the facility folks at each institution. Often times we'd talk to the fund-raisers, we'd talk to the Ads and hear their thoughts on doing the things they did they really liked, here's what if we had to do it over again we'd do it differently. And here are some the real needs, because every school has needs and nobody is perfect in their facility setup. It's something where we could share thoughts and ideas, that we used this architectural company for this facility and really thought they did a nice job. And we heard sometimes the opposite of that, too."

"And we tried to get to places that budgetarily were in our ballpark. Nebraska and Arkansas were on the high end of that, but most of the schools we looked at their budgets were in the 40 to 50 million dollar range. We stayed away form most of the other SEC schools because we had a better feel for what they already have. But a lot of those schools have done a good job that have some similarities to us. For instance Oregon and Oregon State are in a big state geographically, not a lot of population, not the wealthiest state in America. And both have really done some pretty tremendous things in growing their program to where they are today. And Arkansas has invested really heavily in their Olympic facilities in the last ten years or so."

Q: When you get the master plan, how do you plan to pay for these things? "What we need to understand is what the market will support. That's why we're working with CSL. And in time we'll have to look to see if we can do some bonding. And please include this, we are nowhere near being ready to begin serious discussion about bonds. But that's how most schools pay for things. A capital campaign will be part of that, absolutely."

Q: But a campus-wide campaign? "We're obviously going to fit into whatever the University wants to do, whatever Dr. Keenum and John Rush and the University foundation sees fit. But we certainly hope to work together with them."

Q: How soon will the athletic market survey start? "It's going to begin quickly."

Q: What have you and John Cohen talked about regarding the stadium? "John loves Dudy Noble. But any facility you go to you're going to learn things. One of the things we liked at one of the facilities we visited, it had a real openness so you go up to the concession stand or restroom of whatever but you still feel a part of the game, right there by the field. It's more of an open feel to it. We're going to do things with our locker room. We need to address some of the seating things we have at Dudy Noble, and we have an opportunity for high-level seating—club level, skyboxes—which can help pay for construction and improvement. Again CSL will help us understand what the market will support."

Q: Will you be doing things outside the University master plan, before that is finished? "Sure. We're just finishing the women's basketball locker room right now. We're going to make some improvements to our baseball locker room this offseason. We're redoing Dudy Noble's field and the softball field this year. So by no means are we going to wait on everything until we have the master plan. We have to keep moving."

Q: What is the latest on the practice gym? "We need to get Bulldog Club board approval on the final design project, which we have not done yet. We've in final negotiations with the contractor. And then we're finalizing the finance plan, and now that we're back in town I'm going to hopefully do some of that today."

Q: What will it cost? "It's going to be probably 11-12 million dollars. That's moved and ready."

Q: What is the next big step at the football stadium? "I think it's too early to tell for sure what the definite step will be. We need to look at the west side of the stadium, we need to look at north end zone possibilities. Game-day locker room is something we want to update. Those are all needs. Now, what comes first is what we're working through right now."

Q: The scaffolding that's been up at the stadium the last couple of weeks? "Painting the east side, getting rid of the rust."

Q: When you visited those school least you knew you had a bigger scoreboard? "They all had heard about our replay board! Arkansas has already been here to see it, Tennessee has been here to see it. Louisiana Tech came and saw it, they're building a much smaller board."

"If you aren't constantly paying attention to who you're competing against, you're not going to be able to make proper adjustments as need. The thing that some schools have done is say ‘how are we going to be unique?' And I've said it before, we can't be out-worked, we can't be out-hustled. We have to be as creative as we possibly can and try to be on the front end of things. We have to market aggressively, we have to have coaches that understand that and I think we do. And I think the coaches we have here now…John Cohen is not going to be out-hustled; Rick Stansbury is not going to be out-hustled. And Dan Mullen has certainly given that impression too. We feel very confident with what he brings to the table for us."

Q: What is Bulldog Club membership at now? "We're over 8,000. We've had good growth there and that's attributed to the great fans we have and volunteers have helped create that, and our Bulldog Club staff has done a great job. Now what we have to get better at is the major gifts on the capital side, and we're going to get ourselves organized better on that in the next year, too."

Q: What is the latest season ticket count? "33,000 counting students. So we've got to sell some more between now and the start of the season."

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