Byrne Takes New Challenge, Leaves MSU Friends

Greg Byrne insisted he hasn't shed a tear for three days. "And I wanted to keep that going," he added. But Friday afternoon in front of a media crew—of all people—the outgoing Mississippi State athletic had to take a long pause to regain composure, and even dab at the eyes a few times.

"Obviously it's been a pretty hectic week to say the least," said Byrne, as he met with reporters for the first time since Monday's announcement he was leaving Mississippi State to take charge of Arizona's athletic department. "It's been an emotional week. And to be honest almost an emotional month to get through this and wrestle with the decision."

Byrne, 38 and not quite two full years into his tenure as Bulldog athletic director, said he made that decision last Thursday night (March 18) to accept the offer Arizona's administration had been kept coming with for much of 2010. He informed University president Dr. Mark Keenum on Friday—"He's been great, very supportive"—and finally let his head coaches and staff in on the news formally Monday morning. In the days since Byrne has been on the move, not least of all following the MSU women's basketball team in their first two NCAA Tournament wins. In fact he's heading to Dayton for Sunday's Sweet 16 game with Florida State.

But Friday was his first real opportunity for an extended talk with most local media. And perhaps it was the pause in pace, sitting in the Bryan Building conference room, that cracked the control Byrne has kept up. That, he said, and the open displays of appreciation from around and beyond the campus.

"I've been blown-away at the support from Mississippi State family after this. It hasn't been all positive, but the strength of this place is the people and that's absolutely come out in response to this." Even the non-positive responses have been in a sense welcome, too, because they reflect near-total disappointment from Dog folk that the young, active, engaging, and best of all effective athletic director is leaving on such short notice, and after such a short tenure.

Byrne said Dr. Keenum and he have agreed to keep on-the-job into the last week of April, with his tenure at Tucson formally beginning May 1. "I told Dr. Keenum I want to be a supporting as I can through this, and he was gracious enough to say we want you to stay on as long as you can. I want to get us through Super Bulldog Weekend (April 16-18), and help out on some things like the (basketball) practice facility, the facility master plan, and just using some contacts I have in the industry to help out."

The practice gym is unavoidably behind the original October completion goal due to wet weather practically since ground was broken last August. Byrne has said January 2011 is the revised goal. The master plan is part of the larger University study of harmonizing longer-term plans and procedures for additions and renovations to the entire campus, including athletics. But, Dr. Keenum has given the athletic department a little leeway in terms of proceeding on sports facility projects.

That includes a southern regional marketing study by the athletic department which will be used to evaluate both potential new support and fans as well as needs, which would factor into choices on renovations and additions to current venues. "That one is done," Byrne said today. "That data will be given when we sign the contract on the stadium study. That will be given to the architects firm that oversees the project."

Meanwhile Byrne expects to make one and maybe two more short trips to Arizona before May 1. "I'll work for Mississippi State during the day, and make some phone calls at night back there and try to start talking to some of their folk and supporters. I've already had some of those conversations, which have been pretty good."

Byrne had preexisting ties to the Arizona region, but not with the University of Arizona in particular. In fact, he is a 1994 graduate of Arizona State…which naturally raised a few Wildcat hackles at the idea of a rival taking over their program. Byrne is quick to downplay this concern. First, he's already shown the gift of crossing rivalry lines in his career, such as going from Oregon to Oregon State; or from Kentucky to Mississippi State. And no one along the way has ever found reason to question his commitment to any job he's held.

Secondly, that stint in Phoenix needs explaining. "I went to Arizona following Regina," he said of his then wife-to-be. He could have attended Grand Canyon College "for $15,000!" Byrne said. Or, attended the state university at much more reasonable rates. "It was a school of convenience more than anything else! They aren't going to have to worry about our motives in this, and the tone of the emails I've gotten I think they believe it. I want to kick their tails in everything we do, and they do have tails…they're Devils!"

Bulldog fans probably now see Cedric Dempsey as the demonic influence in this case. The former executive director of the NCAA, and Arizona athletic director from 1983-93, was a "real mentor to my dad" said Byrne, the son of current Texas A&M A.D. Bill Byrne. "I've known him since I was 12, 13." When Jim Livengood left Arizona last December for Nevada-Las Vegas, the Wildcats were looking for an athletic director and Greg Byrne's name came up in a roundabout fashion.

Because initially Byrne was contacting Arizona at the request of friends who wanted in on the job, as he explained at the time. "I'm not calling about me, I'm calling about this person." Except Arizona wanted Byrne to become a candidate. "They said well, think about it. I didn't hear from them for a while and wasn't worried about not hearing." Then Byrne went to bat for another friend…and Arizona's president sent the message he wanted to talk.

"I wrestled with it," Byrne said. "I told them I was not interested, they kept pursing and kept the door open." Until finally he agreed to come on inside…and leave Starkville four years after arriving to take charge of the Bulldog Club. This tour with Mississippi State has done much to burnish is still-young resume and bring Byrne to national attention. Locally, it is difficult to overstate the emotional impact Byrne has had on Bulldog fans, which is now reflected in the response to his sudden departure.

"I don't blame them for being disappointed," Byrne said today. "I really, really wrerstled with the emotion of that because I figured people would be. I think there is a lot of momentum, because of the great staff we have here; the volunteers we have; the job our coaches are doing. And I certainly feel that momentum will cont with Dr. Keenum's leadership and his understanding of the role athletics has within a University. I think that will continue and hopefully improve."

Dr. Keenum has indicated to Byrne and others he would like to have the new athletic director on the job not long after Byrne leaves, but there is no strict timetable per se. Nor would Byrne say if he has made a direct endorsement of his successor. "He and I have talked about a few different folk," was as far as Byrne would go. "And obviously I've got all the confidence in the world he's going to get the right person for the job.

"I think it was a good position before, and I think its continued to improve. I certainly feel he'll do a great job finding somebody, he's going to take the time to find the right person."

That person will take charge of an athletic program that is on stronger footing than ever before for Mississippi State…but with no lack of continuing and new challenges. Though Byrne says such things are common to all athletic directors at the Division I level, finances most obviously, he does agree that State has its work always cut out to be competitive in a conference that has won the most major-sport championships and produces the highest league revenues in the land over the last decade.

"It's a blessing to be in the SEC financially, it's also a challenge just because of who you're competing with," he said. Still in his years here Byrne raised the bar in several crucial areas, most notably record season football ticket sales and an all-time membership total for the Bulldog Club. The hirings of Dan Mullen and John Cohen have reenergized both the football and baseball programs as well as the fan base in general. Academically, Bulldog sports teams collectively posted the highest GPA in school records this past fall.

Yet Byrne also offered something different as what he'd consider his "proudest moment" at Mississippi State. It was when the Sonic Boom (Jackson State's legendary band) came out to Davis Wade Stadium and played at halftime, and our fans stayed in the stadium and gave them a standing ovation at the end! I certainly don't have the history here a lot of people have, but I was moved and thought it was a great moment in our history."

Byrne's successor will have some tasks to pick up in-progress. "Continuing to develop the master plan, tackling Davis Wade Stadium and Dudy Noble Field and the Hump. And just the improvements to every sport that are needed. We've already made gains but that will continue." The A.D.'s greatest challenge, football scheduling, is in pretty settled shape now through 2015 so that won't dominate the to-do list of the next director. Which also means Byrne probably will not be able to set up a State-Arizona series any time soon.

Basketball, now… "I haven't talked to Rick and Sharon or the (Arizona) coaches there, but I'd be wide-open. And it would certainly make sense in baseball, I think that would be a lot of fun."

While Arizona presents another step for Byrne, the move itself will be a boon to the entire household of Greg, Regina, Nick, and Davis. "We have as much family in Arizona as we do Oregon. And we've got a lot of family in California. That will get us closer to them. Professionally it's a wonderful opportunity; family-wise I don't know if there is a better place." Though, given the ties the whole clan has developed here, "We certainly hope folks will let us come back and visit."

That's a given because as much as locals hate to see the Byrnes leave, they all depart on good terms after a job well-done if not nearly completed. But then even at his relatively young age Byrne already understands one fundamental about his sort of career.

"Until you retire there's never a finish line. There's always going to be issues and things that need to get done. As soon as you arrive some place, then walk out the door there are things that continue to need to be done."

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