Greg Byrne not afraid to make his own mark as Alabama's new AD
Greg Byrne has been around intercollegiate athletics for nearly his entire life. From riding on his father’s shoulders during grass-roots fundraising events to hobnobbing with high-profile boosters and entertainers, Byrne wears who is he with ease. Those who know him best say he is a people person, comfortable enough in his own skin to move easily within social circles, including getting the blessing of the highest-profiled and most powerful college football coach in the country (Nick Saban), interacting with average, blue-collar fans and wining and dining the wealthiest of boosters at black-tie events.
Byrne was born to be an athletic director.
His father, veteran athletic director Bill Byrne, kept his son around the family business so to speak, and Greg soaked it up.
A brief year’s-hiatus away from college athletics in his early 30s was enough to convince Byrne that his life’s work was meant to be running an intercollegiate athletic department. And having spent a good portion of his professional life in the Southeastern Conference with stops at Kentucky (2002-05) and Mississippi State (2006-10) in various roles, when the the opportunity literally came calling for his chance to ascend to the top of University of Alabama's athletic department, he answered swiftly and with authority.
There was no campaigning or lobbying behind the scenes for the job. In fact, Byrne didn’t have an inkling the job was coming open until a phone call from Turnkey Search, a sports and entertainment executive search firm, let him know of Alabama’s interest.
In a quick turn, he visited with high-ranking Alabama officials and then was summoned to the home of Nick and Terry Saban to get the blessing of the most important man and family in Alabama athletics. The meeting went swimmingly and Byrne accepted Alabama’s overtures and offer to become it’s next athletic director. He officially begins the job March 1.
So why would a rising star in the world of college athletics leave Arizona, where he was quickly making his mark as an adept fundraiser and a man who could get things built, both literally and figuratively, to come to a place in Alabama where things are running quite smoothly?
Well, to understand that answer you have to understand the man. Byrne sees beyond football, although he fully understands that for the athletic department and university to realize its potential it needs a healthy football program. Still Byrne has a sincere desire to see each of UA’s sports program reach the summit to where Saban has staked for the football program year in and year out.
His mentor, friend and former boss Larry Templeton said knowing Byrne, he can guarantee he did his due diligence about Alabama’s inner workings, from both the athletic and academic leadership side.
“I think he’s fortunate that he’s coming into a machine that’s well oiled and understands the commitment,” Templeton said. “The best thing he’s got is all the leadership of the University of Alabama is on the same page.
“What Greg will do is he’ll come in and listen to that and he’ll fine tune. Greg won’t come in there and make dramatic changes to something that’s not broke. Now if there’s a program that needs some work, he’ll get in the middle of it and he’ll want to go compete for national championships. I think he has a great pulse of this generation of student-athletes.”
Templeton is the one who brought Byrne back into college athletics after a brief foray into the private sector that revealed to him that he wouldn’t be happy unless he was doing the job he’d watched his dad do at Oregon, Nebraska and Texas A&M.
After finishing runner-up for the athletic director job at Utah State, Byrne had an internal battle questioning if he was indeed doing what he was meant to do. A friend at Kentucky began a start-up business and Byrne got involved it in for a year.
“It was the best thing I ever did because I was miserable,” Byrne said. “I didn’t enjoy going to work everyday, which was actually at my house. My dear friend John Currie, who was the AD now at Kansas State, he called me and I told him how much I missed it. He told me there may be an opportunity at Mississippi State. I was going to be in Birmingham the next week for business, so I called Larry Templeton and I drove over and I saw Larry and he almost hired me on the spot.“…I’m always going to be thankful for him. It was a great, great learning experience so when I got back in at Mississippi State, my appreciation, my patience skyrocketed. When I stopped worrying about when I was going to be an AD, then all of a sudden Larry says he’s going to retire, six months later I was the AD at Mississippi State. Who would have thunk?
“It was a great life lesson for me. When I went to Arizona, I didn’t pursue Arizona. I didn’t pursue Alabama. I didn’t even know Alabama was going to be open. And so as my patience grew, the opportunities presented themselves in time just by staying focused and working hard.”
John Cohen remembers sitting in a Kentucky athletic department meeting while he was the Wildcats head baseball coach. As he looks back at that meeting more than a decade later, a total of six Power 5 athletic directors were sitting around the table that day: Mitch Barnhart (Kentucky), Scott Stricklin (Florida), Byrne, Rob Mullens (Oregon), Mark Coyle (Minnesota) and Cohen (Mississippi State).
All came from the tree of Barnhart at Kentucky. Byrne was the first to become an athletic director from that group under Barnhart. The others have since joined, including Stricklin, who followed Byrne as the AD at Mississippi State and then replaced Jeremy Foley at Florida. There were reports that Byrne was contacted about the Florida job, but he said those reports weren’t accurate.
Barnhart has known Byrne since before he was a teenager. From the serious business of fundraising to snow ball fights between the two, they remain close.
Barnhart didn’t necessarily think at the time that an 11-year-old Byrne would follow his dad into the family business, but he did notice a gift for the art of the deal from an early age.
“He was pretty crafty at 11,” Barnhart said. “He got his dad to sucker me into taking him to Monsters of Rock for his first rock concert at Autzen Stadium. My wife and I were on staff, his dad called me and said 'Hey, I've got a job for you.' I said 'What's that?' He said 'Take my son to this rock concert.' I said 'OK, great. What are we seeing?' 'Monsters of Rock at Autzen Stadium.' I said 'Are you out of your mind?' My wife and I took an 11- or 12-year-old kid to Monsters of Rock. He was negotiating even back then."
Then there was a snowball fight on the back roads of Oregon while fundraising. Just before getting back into the car after a stop, Barnhart felt a snowball smack against the side of his head. He looked over and saw a sheepishly smiling Byrne.
“I get sort of ticked off at him and knock him into the snow and he lost his championship ring from the year before,” Barnhart said. “It goes into a snow drift and he can't find it. So years later, some guy calls and says 'Hey, are you Greg Byrne?' He says 'Yeah.' He says 'I found this ring about a year back and I thought you might want it back.' He gives him back his championship ring. When I say fun, we had fun.”
Byrne isn’t afraid to make a hard decision. Perhaps the most difficult decision to make came early in his career when Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk retired. Polk campaigned hard for his assistant coach to get the job. Byrne instead hired Cohen. It’s something Cohen has never forgotten.
“I think that took a lot of courage for him, and I will always be deeply appreciative,” Cohen said. “I also think that he is one of those guys who has vision and he’s going to make his own decisions. But he’s going to get a ton of information before he makes those decisions. You look at his hiring and he’s done a pretty good job of hiring some pretty darn good people.
“Alabama went outside the family and got a guy named Nick Saban. I think getting Grey is that good a hire. I think Greg will do a phenomenal job. I think he has tremendous leadership skills. He has outstanding vision. He has a tireless work ethic. He’s somebody that I truly consider to be a friend. I’ve gone to him many times for advice, especially before becoming an athletic director, and he’s always given me great information and great guidance. I think Alabama got one of the best athletic directors in the country.”
When he moved on to Arizona, he took his fundraising to the next level. Under his stewardship Arizona completed a $72 million upgrade of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility and phase one of an overall $80 million renovation of the McKale Center.
Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea, who has won eight NCAA softball championships, remains impressed with his former boss.“He's done a great job here, brought this department to another level,” Candrea said.
“He's very well-connected. With his staff and student-athletes very personal, well-liked. He's very good with social media and uses that in a good way, in a positive way. That's important now, and you it's not common in an athletic administrator.”
"A lot of the facilities that have been approved and built would not have happened without him. You have to be a good person and have good relationship skills and that matters.
“The one thing I liked about him, I think he'll surround himself with good people and make good decisions. He's very positive and does a good job with the image of athletics. And he's done a good job on the academic side. We just built a new academic center. He definitely has made his imprint here, and we've had some good ones.”
That reputation brought Alabama knocking on his door in Tucson, Ariz. Turnkey Search made the informal contact and Byrne wasted no time in accepting what could be termed his dream job.
“I mean, it’s Alabama,” Byrne said. “As a guy that’s been around intercollegiate athletics my entire life, it’s absolutely the pinnacle.”
Ben Jones and Tommy Deas contributed to this report. Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.