A decision that left Mississippi State stunned. Byrne, promoted to the athletic director's post only two years before, did not say in the formal statement provided by MSU the reason for leaving beyond "I am excited about a new opportunity." But it did not take long before word that he will take over at Arizona to surface.
"There is little question that this decision is a good one for my family," Byrne said through the statement. "It places us back in a part of the country with which we are familiar, one that returns us near family and life-long friends. But this decision was more than just family. My new position offers many of the same challenges we faced here at Mississippi State."
Byrne will remain on the MSU job into late April.
Byrne is a 1994 alumnus of Arizona State, and worked with the Fiesta Bowl early in his career. Also, his administrative stops with Oregon and Oregon State give him a long and strong background in the Pac 10 world. That was before he came to the Southeastern Conference in 2002 for three years at Kentucky; then to Mississippi State in June 2006. He was named athletic director on February 21, 2008.
Those two years in charge produced several head coaching hires, none more high-profile than bringing Florida's offensive coordinator to take over Bulldog football. Mullen's hiring was a fast and efficient process concluded in a literal over-night meeting in Atlanta following the 2008 SEC Championship Game won by the Gators.
"We hit it off right form the beginning," Mullen said, "never having met each other before we really hit it off. Which was great, in a professional sense in that we both had a vision of where we wanted the program to go. He had a vision of where he wanted the athletic department to go as a whole; I had a vision of where I wanted the football program to be. We were very much on the same page. So that initial meeting was great."
The results since have been pretty good, too, as far as the 2009 Bulldogs smashing all records for ticket sales and attendance. And if a 5-7 debut season was not as successful as either wanted the trends for State football are all positive.
"He brought a tremendous energy, and vision of the direction he wanted the athletic department to go," Mullen said. "Look at the different coaches he has hired, the direction he has our program going in all sports, and the vision he had promoting Mississippi State as a whole. He will be tremendously missed. Not just by the athletic department but the entire university."
Mullen of course has his immediate duties to attend with camp. Thus Byrne's notice Monday morning contrasted with what the head coach said had been the general mindset. "Spring practice starting tomorrow changes everybody's attitude," Mullen said. "There's a lot more smiles, we're ready to be back out on the field." Which the coaching staff and Bulldogs will be starting at 3:30 Tuesday. This is the second State spring for Mullen and this presumably will make 2010 camp more efficient.
"I just think there's a whole different comfort level. Our guys know what is expected of practice, they know what the tempo how practice is going to be. This time last year guys kind of knew, but didn't know what to expect. Now they know what to expect when they're on the field. There's also that foundation, they've been through a season in the system so there is a little more football knowledge and background. So this is the opportunity where we hope we see some major gains this spring."
Byrne and Mullen had also been discussing possible gains off the playing field…rather, immediately surrounding it. Two years with the Bulldog Club, then in his post of athletic director gave Byrne a very good look at Mississippi State's facilities. Most specifically, what needs doing at Davis Wade Stadium to take care of the increasing crowds that are coming to watch Bulldog football.
"He's had a very open mind in updating what we have now, also a plan for the future," Mullen said. "And he and I spent a lot of time together creating it, a plan for where we see ourselves going in the future. Not just in football, but in all sports. He had that vision of how do we utilize what we have and make ourselves the best." Corresponding with that vision, last summer Byrne contracted a marketing study of potential support both in Mississippi and in the surrounding region for State sports. The full results won't be in for another year, with implications for renovations and even possible expansions of all Bulldog venues.
Mullen could appreciate the overall approach. "Whether it's looking into expanding the football stadium or the baseball stadium, obviously we have a new basketball facility going in. We've had discussion of building new football facilities for us. But just that vision of making sure we were competing with the top facilities in the Southeastern Conference."
So, why abandon one vision for another? Having made his own transition recently from a big winner to a much more adventuresome address, Mullen is a little more sympathetic about the guy who hired him leaving after just one season together.
"A lot of people outside looking-in can see a decision one way, but for Greg and his family and the connections that they have out west there's a lot more that weighs into it than just the professional part of the decision." Mullen knows that as spring practices get underway there will be some off-field questions lingering in the background about the search process for a new boss. But then, that's just part of this profession too.
"But Greg has set a tremendous foundation. And I know Dr. (Mark) Keenum will continue pushing us to excel, to be the best athletic program we can possibly be."