A Q&A With MSU AD Greg Byrne

Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne talked one-on-one with Gene's Page Friday morning about taking the athletic director's position at the University of Arizona. He takes us step by step through the entire process, from the time he was first contacted until he walked into Dr. Keenum's office and told him was taking the job. Also, he shares some of his thoughts about his time at State.

Take us step by step about how this all came about, from the moment that Arizona first talked to you about the job to the moment you walked into Mississippi State President Mark Keenum's office and told him you were leaving to go to the University of Arizona.
"I had gotten a call the first week in January by another sitting athletic director asking me to recommend him for the Arizona job. He said he was interested in the job and he knew that I had a relationship with Dr. Cedric Dempsey, the former athletic director at Arizona who is also the retired president of the NCAA. He was the president of the NCAA before Myles Brand, who just passed away, was the president. I've known Dr. Dempsey since I was in the 6th grade. He was a mentor to my dad.

"I knew the job was open so I told him I would be happy to. I called Dr. Dempsey and didn't hear from him for a few days. He called me while Regina and I were driving back from the Memphis airport after attending the national championship game in Pasadena. He told me that he was glad that I had called and that he had to recommend three names to the president and he wanted to know how I felt about being on that list. It took me a little while to break into his conversation because he was telling me all about the job. I said, 'Mr. Dempsey, I'm not calling about myself, I'm calling about another AD.' He asked, 'who?, and I told him. And he said, 'ok.' Then he said, 'well, I would really like to recommend you. How do you feel about that?' I said, 'I don't think I'm interested in that.' We talked for a little bit longer and he said, 'please consider it.'.

"When I got back (to Starkville) I immediately told Dr. Keenum about it. I had told Dr. Keenum that I wouldn't play games with things like this. I get frustrated when I see a coach's name get used publicly and you know they are just trying to get a raise at their current place. And I'm not going to be that way. So, I told him what happened and that I just wanted him to know. I also told him that I didn't think anything would come of it.

"I didn't hear anything (from Arizona) for a few more weeks. Then, I got another call from another athletic director from another school asking me if I would be willing to recommend him for the job. I told him I would send an email and see where they are and let him know. I sent (Dr. Dempsey) an email telling him I didn't know where he was with the job but that this person is also interested. I immediately received an email back telling me that they wanted to interview me this weekend. I actually told them, 'no, I don't think I'm going to do it.' I went to Dr. Keenum and told him about it. I told him that they had come back again. He said, 'we want to get your contract back to four years again.' He was great about it."

He wasn't just going to give you an extension but a raise as well, right?
"Yes, he was going to give me a raise also."

Without saying a number was it a significant raise?
"I felt very comfortable with what he was talking about."

Ok, go back to the step by step question.
"Arizona continued to talk to me by phone and email."

Did you tell Dr. Keenum that they were keeping in contact with you?
"I didn't tell him every time they contacted me but I told him they were continuing to keep in contact with me. I also told him that I was really torn going through this both from a professional and family perspective and the appreciation that I have for Mississippi State. And also the pull from the family side and the professional side from there, too. It's a great opportunity professionally, just like Mississippi State is.

"I told Arizona that I wasn't going, that I was planning on staying here and I told Dr. Keenum that. But they continued to keep the door open for me."

At that time had you received your raise and your extension?
"No, but it was in the works."

Ok, you can continue your answer.
"Every time I told them no I really struggled with it from both sides. It was a challenging, challenging decision. And they continued to keep the door open for me and continued to pursue me. I finally felt like I couldn't close the door on them. I went to Dr. Keenum and I told him that I needed to go visit and talk to them. And I did. Regina and I had a very quick and quiet trip to Arizona. While we were there we decided we were going to take the job."

When did you go out there?
"That was a little over a week ago."

You and Regina came back to Starkville. What did you do when you got back?
"We came back and the next day I went to see Dr. Keenum as soon as he was available."

What was Dr. Keenum's reaction when you told him you were taking the Arizona job?
"He was as professional as you can be. He understood my thought process and why I struggled with this so badly. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him. He knew this was not something that I was seeking at all. Regina and I absolutely love Mississippi State and the people here. That is not going to change."

What did Arizona have that Mississippi State didn't?
"It's not what Mississippi State doesn't have. It was a combination of a professional opportunity at a school that I hold in very high regards and, from a family perspective, it is a place that is going to get us close to a lot of family. It was those two things combined."

Did your family members tell you they wanted you to take the Arizona job?
"My family, while they certainly were excited about the opportunity of having us closer to them, they never once told us we had better move there. My dad is like E.F. Hutton. He doesn't offer advice easily. You have to drag it out of him. He and my mom were very supportive of us going to Arizona and they were very supportive of us staying at Mississippi State."

You mentioned your family. What family is near the University of Arizona?
"My grandfather is in Phoenix part of the year. My Uncle Mike, who I am very, very close to, is in Phoenix. My Uncle Jim is in Carefree, Arizona, but he is probably going to move to Tucson. We also have a lot of lifelong friends in the Phoenix area. And we have another set of friends who are probably going to move to Tucson, too. He was the best man in my wedding. So, it's a place where we have strong roots to."

If you hadn't had so many family and friends out there would you have still taken the job?
"It would have still been attractive, absolutely. But I don't know what would have happened without the family (connections)."

You graduated from Arizona State. Now you are taking a job at Arizona, their rivalry. Will that be a problem for you?
"As we both know there are people in this state who have worked at both schools. So, that is not unique any place you go."

So, you don't think that will be a problem for you?
"I think once people see that we will be Arizona through and through and who we are pulling for it will be very clear to them."

But we thought you were a Bulldog through and through as well. Now, you are leaving.
"I am. It was the most difficult decision that I have ever made in my life, without a doubt. We gave, as a family, day in, day out everything we could to Mississippi State. We will be Mississippi State the rest of our lives. We care about this place tremendously."

There are rumors that you were also contacted about the Oregon AD job. Anything to that rumor?
"I had not been officially contacted by Oregon. And I didn't try to find out. I wasn't interested in finding out."

Family ties seem to have played a big factor in this decision. Let's say Mississippi State can find someone similar to you but who has family ties to Mississippi State. Would it be easier for Mississippi State to keep a person like that if other schools came after him?
"I think having family in the area certainly does help. But I have all the faith in the world that Dr. Keenum is going to get Mississippi State a very good athletic director. It would certainly be flattering if they want a person with some of the same qualities that Regina and I and our family brought to the table. I want to see the momentum that we have going (at Mississippi State) continue to grow. There is a saying that a coach doesn't want the coach who replaces him to do a better job than he did. But I want Mississippi State to do great things and I believe it can and will. I asked Dr. Keenum if we go to the Sugar Bowl to allow me to attend, it doesn't matter if it is in the end seat in the last row."

For Mississippi State to be successful what qualities does an athletic director need to have?
"I think that person needs to have tremendous energy, needs to have a passion for working with student/athletes and working with the university. You need somebody who has connections in the coaching world and in the administration world so they will be able to hire people when they need to. You need somebody with a backbone so they can manage coaches effectively. And you need someone with vision and communication skills."

What accomplishments that you achieved while the athletic director at Mississippi State are you most proud of?
"I have thought about that a lot. I am certainly proud, and this is all of us collectively who did this, of where we are academically right now, I am proud of the growth we have had financially, I am proud of all the work our department did, the Bulldog Club staff, our ticketing office, our marketing arm, our partnership with Learfield. I am proud of the coaches we have in place. Really, I am proud of every part of our department, and what they are doing. I am also proud of the way that our staff has bought into customer service.

"But I think the proudest moment of my four years at Mississippi State, including my two years as the athletic director, was when we played Jackson State and when the Sonic Boom came on at halftime and the Mississippi State crowd gave them a standing ovation. I was honored to be a part of that."

What professional opportunities are available for someone who wants to be the MSU AD?
"There is the chance to continue to grow. You are in the SEC. There is the opportunity to be around wonderful people. There is the opportunity to be in a small town where you can know your neighbors and you can develop lifelong relationships such as the ones that Regina and I are going to have for the rest of our lives. And our boys are going to have a lifelong relationship with their friend Hunter who is going to visit us in Arizona."

My last question. Why did you want to be the AD at Mississippi State?
"First of all Larry Templeton gave me the opportunity to be here. And I am always going to be appreciative of that. I could tell right away when I first got here the people at Mississippi State care as much about their institution as any place else. And it is great to be around that kind of passion. So, when the opportunity came along where I had a legitimate chance to be the athletic director I was thrilled with it. There is a real satisfaction being around a place like this where there is such an eagerness to have success and get better. And I'll forever be grateful for the opportunity that I was given."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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