Greg Hansen: At age 8, Byrne knew he had AD in his DNA

2010-03-25T00:00:00Z 2013-09-10T16:58:50Z Greg Hansen: At age 8, Byrne knew he had AD in his DNAGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 25, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Bill and Marilyn Byrne grew up in rural Idaho, met on a hayride while freshmen at Idaho State, got married and had two boys, Bill III and Greg.

She was a teacher. He worked as a fundraiser in the ISU athletic department.

You can almost see the white picket fence around their home.

As professional opportunities improved, the Byrnes moved from Pocatello to Albuquerque and then to San Diego when Greg, then a third-grader, was asked to write a paper on what he someday wanted to be.

"Greg wrote 'I want to be an athletic director,' " Marilyn Byrne remembered Wednesday morning at McKale Center. "That's not what a typical 8-year-old would want to do. But even then, he knew; he was so taken by what his father did."

By the time he was 13, Greg regularly absorbed the father's dinner-time conversations about hiring coaches, selling basketball tickets and wishing that the Oregon Ducks could find a way to win more football games.

"I would sit at the table and read the NCAA News," he remembers.

Greg Byrne didn't want to be a ballplayer or sing in a rock band. During the time his father was athletic director at Oregon, Greg was a skilled big man at Sheldon High School. He was 6 feet 3 inches tall and began to wonder if he had what it took to play college hoops.

When he attended George Raveling's summer basketball camp at Washington State, Raveling began to call him "Colfax."

"Colfax is a small town near Pullman," Byrne says now. "George would say 'you can't jump any higher than the thickness of the Colfax phone book.' "

It wasn't until he was 33, married with two young boys, that Colfax Byrne wondered if he had chosen the wrong profession. He had worked in athletic departments at Oregon State, Oregon and Kentucky and it occurred to him that he wasn't living a normal life. He rarely had a weekend free and the thought of spending more time at home and less time stressed out about the Dear Old U would be worth a shot.

So he left the Kentucky Wildcats and gave up his reputation as a Boy Wonder in the business of college athletics. He would sell litigation-preparation software for a firm owned by a wealthy UK booster.

Byrne had been briefed not by an attorney, but by Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, who warned that it was fine to try something else, but if he ever wanted to return to college athletics, at the same station, he'd better make it a quick trip.

Six months later, Byrne wanted back in. He missed the passion and energy of college athletics, and no one had forgotten him. Mississippi State immediately hired him as its director of athletic fundraising. A year later he was MSU's athletic director. He was 36.

On the day the Bulldogs introduced their young AD to the Mississippi community, Marilyn Byrne sat in the audience the way she did Wednesday at McKale Center. She remembers being somewhat awed and totally proud.

"What really struck me that day, is how much Greg knew about the business," she says now. "I had no idea. He has really paid attention."

Greg Byrne is very good on his feet. He might be 38, but he carries himself like a man unaffected by silly factors like age and agenda. He is Arizona's new athletic director because he so impressed UA president Robert Shelton and Cedric Dempsey, the former executive director of the NCAA.

This is the man Dempsey identified and Shelton hired to run the UA's $55 million athletic industry.

"I don't know how important age is; I was 33 when I got my first athletic director's job" at Pacific, Dempsey said. "Greg has a strength about him that really attracted me. He's articulate. He has impressed others. I talked to most every conference commissioner and Greg's name kept popping up."

At Shelton's request, Dempsey recommended a group of people he judged worthy of further scrutiny. Many of those were sitting ADs at BCS conferences earning in excess of $500,000, people he has known since he was Arizona's athletic director from 1982 to 1993. He also returned a list of what he calls "up-and-comers," a more affordable group that included Byrne.

Dempsey phoned Byrne, left a message and was encouraged when Byrne returned the call.

"It's funny," Dempsey says, "but Greg didn't call about the job himself; he called to recommend two other people. But I stayed with him and remained in contact for two or three weeks. He really struggled with the decision. I can tell you this: He didn't do it for the money. He did it because Arizona is a better job."

The trick now is for Byrne to sell the UA as much as he sold himself, and to make sure that running the UA athletic department remains a better job than the one he just left.

 

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