The Tenure of Bill Byrne

Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne retired on Tuesday after nearly a 10 year stint in College Station. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop looks back at the accomplishments and the mistakes of the controversial administrator who brought 45 conference titles and 17 national championships to Aggieland.

In an extraordinary time of transition within the athletic department at Texas A&M, yet another changing of the guard has taken place this week with the retirement of athletic director Bill Byrne. And with every transition issue from a new football coach to joining the Southeastern Conference spurring internal debate among former students old and young, the sudden departure of Mr. Byrne is again causing heated discussion among the Aggie faithful.

In this case, there's good reason for the many different perceptions of Bill Byrne's 10-year legacy as athletic director at Texas A&M. His ability to identify and hire good coaches is certainly his crowning accomplishment, along with the accompanying success that resulted in 45 Big 12 Championships and 17 total team national championships. There's no questioning Byrne's success on the field in a large majority of sports. He changed a longstanding culture of mediocrity within Texas A&M athletics and transformed a sleeping giant into a perennial Top 10-15 athletic program. In recent years, Texas A&M overtook the University of Texas as the top overall athletic program in the Big 12 in the Sears Director's Cup, finishing sixth nationally in 2010 and eighth in 2011.

Aside from his successes in non-revenue sports, Byrne also made two critical hires in basketball that changed the course of history for both programs, transforming arguably the worst pair of BCS conference teams in the country into regional powers with a combined 14 trips to the NCAA Tournament and one women's basketball national championship. Then men's program was in a 20 year NCAA Tournament drought before Byre hires Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon took the team to six straight berths and seven straight postseason appearances.

In addition, Byrne took woefully dated and deficient athletic facilities and pumped over $110 million in capital improvements into the athletic infrastructure. Among the major projects under his watch include a major upgrade to the basketball facilities at Reed Arena, a state-of-the-art indoor track facility with an adjacent indoor football practice facility, a major capital upgrade to Olsen Field, upgrades to the golf facilities, and upgrades to the Mitchell Tennis Complex.

But that success didn't come without controversy and missteps along the way, something his detractors are quick to mention when discussing his legacy. While Byrne was quick to remove underperforming coaches in non-revenue sports and replacing them with elite coaches at the top of the pay scale, he was slow to fire head football coach Dennis Franchione, and even compounded the problem by prematurely giving Franchione a large raise and extension after a 7-5 season that included a 38-7 loss to Tennessee in the 2005 Cotton Bowl. In the sport that brings the most revenue and generates the most former student interest, Byrne never managed to lead the football program to a Big 12 title or a BCS bowl berth. In the nine seasons under Byrne's watch, the football team finished 58-54 and only 33-39 in Big 12 play.

Byrne's critics will point to his football record and his lack of investments in the football infrastructure suggesting that he focused more on the non-revenue sports and ignored the bread-and-butter of the athletic department. Of the more than $110 million in capital improvements, only 10% went toward football-only facilities (the indoor practice facility), although work has recently begun on a football village complex. Very few if any improvements were made to Kyle Field during his tenure. Now, the university is facing a monumental task of retrofitting, replacing, and/or expanding the dated structure to accommodate safety specifications and modern conveniences along with the increased demand for seating due to the SEC move. The university was ill-prepared for the massive stadium project and only now is considering strategic options to pursue which will push back completion for another 3-4 years.

Also, despite dramatically changing the on-court performances of both basketball teams, Byrne's inability to parlay that success into a significant increase in the season ticketholder base was a major weakness of his tenure.

Detractors also felt Byrne did not embrace the move to the Southeastern Conference and did everything in his power to support the University of Texas and the proposal to join the Pac-16 two years ago that was eventually rejected by President Loftin and the Texas A&M Board of Regents. This was the first sign of disagreement between Byrne and his superiors. In fact, when SEC commissioner took his first visit to College Station for preliminary discussions in May 2010, Bill Byrne did not return from a planned family vacation to participate.

Internal sources indicated that Byrne lost the support of a number of important donors and former students which was making it difficult for the university to raise funds for the SEC transition costs and stadium upgrade. Byrne's style, while effective in many aspects of the job, was abrasive and put-off many important financial supporters. He revoked many lifetime endowment deals that were made by the previous regime, and his constant "nickel-and-diming" of loyal donors did not sit well with some strategically important athletic department supporters.

Finally, Byrne's administration ran into financial monitoring problems and did not keep the athletic department in good financial standing with the university. The athletic department had to take out a $15 million loan from the university to cover expenses, and the lack of repayment caused tension with then university president Elsa Murano who eventually reorganized the financial management function within the athletic department.

Here are the major highlights of Bill Byrne's nearly 10 year tenure at Texas A&M.

Strengths of Byrne's Tenure:

1. Fundamentally changed the culture within the athletic department winning 45 conference titles and 17 national championships. He coined the term "Building Champions" and delivered on that brand.

2. Hiring of head basketball coach Billy Gillispie that turned around a moribund program that led to six straight NCAA appearances.

3. Hiring of Gary Blair as women's basketball coach that produced the school's first major sport national championship since 1939.

4. Improved video production and athletic promotional presentations.

5. Hiring of Mark Turgeon that sustained the success of the men's basketball program.

6. Construction of the basketball practice facilities and offices.

7. Construction of the indoor football practice facility.

Weaknesses of Byrne's Tenure:

1. Slow to replace football head coach Dennis Franchione and premature contract extension.

2. Lack of capital investment in football infrastructure.

3. Inability to capitalize on the breakout 2007 men's basketball season with mistakes in basketball season ticket pricing and marketing.

4. Inability to build strong personal relationships with most of the large donor base over the long run that limited fund raising.

5. Truncating the baseball head coach search when several experienced, championship-caliber coaches were interested and inquired about the Texas A&M job.

6. Lack of fiscal management that resulted in deficit spending and poor financial monitoring and internal controls.

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