In January 2005, a law office technology firm known as Rocket Science Inc., hired 33-year-old Greg Byrne as its National Director for Sales and sent him off to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to swim with the big fishes of the software industry.
There's a joke in there somewhere, right? The CEO at Rocket Science hiring a 33-year-old novice, an assistant athletic director at Kentucky, to direct sales for a $300 million a year company?
"Greg is well-respected, well connected, and, well, he can do it all," said Rocket Science CEO Roe Frazer III. "He is very entrepreneurial."
Ultimately, Byrne missed the passion of college athletics, left the software firm, and 18 months later was hired as Mississippi State's assistant athletic director. Bulldogs AD Larry Templeton was so impressed by young Mr. Byrne that he interviewed him on a Tuesday and hired him on a Thursday.
A year later, Templeton retired, and Byrne, at 36, became an athletic director in the almighty Southeastern Conference, the youngest AD of all BCS conference schools.
It wasn't rocket science, but today, at 38, in his first month as Arizona's athletic director, Byrne remains in orbit.
He is fazed neither by his relative lack of experience nor the daunting assignment of re-establishing the momentum in an athletic department that began to shimmy when Lute Olson walked away, and, essentially, took athletic director Jim Livengood with him.
He has heard the you're-too-young-to-be-doing-this line forever. Average age of the other nine Pac-10 athletic directors: 56. It has provided good conversation.
When UA president Robert Shelton and former UA athletic director Cedric Dempsey interviewed Byrne in a Phoenix hotel two months ago, Dempsey revealed that a reference suggested Byrne wasn't ready for a job of Arizona's scope.
"The source told Mr. Dempsey that the spotlight was too big for me," Byrne said Tuesday.
Too big? Byrne's MSU football team last season averaged 53,792 fans in Starkville, Miss., which is about 50 times smaller than the greater Tucson Valley. The Wildcats averaged 52,555.
It's not often that someone in a position of prominence leaves his post after two years - after the controversial firing of a football coach and a celebrated clash with the school's legendary baseball coach - and isn't widely criticized.
But on the March day that Byrne announced he would leave MSU to become Arizona's athletic director, he received 979 e-mails. On one of the most chaotic days of his life, Byrne closed the office door and spent four hours answering the e-mails one after another.
"Two of them said they were glad to see me go," he remembers. "The rest were positive."
Arizona's new athletic director is stepping into a financial brouhaha. As such, he is booked to meet hundreds of donors and potential donors through July, at which time he will take his first breath and go on an Alaskan cruise with his wife, Regina.
"My goal," he said, "is to get to know 750 donors by the football season."
Byrne's reputation is already as something of a RoboAD. He's up at 5 a.m., sliding headfirst into a job that never ends. It isn't a job for sissies.
"There's pressure, yes, sure," he said. "I don't want to disappoint people. I take it very seriously."
So far there has been a serious lack of golf and glamour. Byrne has already attended more than dozen 2010-11 budget meetings with the head coach of each Arizona sport. He has absorbed the litany of this-has-got-to-be-done-soon requests for everything from replacing those god-awful yellow seats at McKale Center to redoing the antiquated urinals at Arizona Stadium.
Regina is house-hunting. Their plan is to buy a mini-McKale.
"I want to get to know our student-athletes, and that means I want them in our home," he said. "We're going to have a family environment here. This isn't an 8-to-5 job for me; it's a lifestyle job. My family is as committed as I am. Our together time will be at ballgames."
It's unlikely that Byrne will evolve into a celebrity AD like, say, Mike Garrett of USC or Jeremy Foley at Florida. Last year, rather than sit in the big-money seats at MSU's basketball arena, rather than foster an image as a high-roller, Byrne and his family chose to sit "up high," he said, in the cheap seats.
One thing Byrne established in his years at Mississippi State was that the guy paying $12 for a football ticket was as necessary and important as the guy paying $12,000 for a loge seat.
That's how it works in Tucson, too. It is a city of $12-a-ticket Joes.
Byrne did not come from privilege. In the 1980s, when his father, Bill, was the athletic director at Oregon, Greg drove a truck on a mint farm ("graveyard shift," he said with a grimace), moved sprinkler pipe and sold popcorn at a Cineplex.
"My first promotion at the movie theater was when the owner gave me a garbage bag and a broom and told me to scrape gum in the parking lot and clean up the trash between movies," he said. "I got $3.35 an hour.
It wasn't rocket science. He learned how to fly anyway.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org