When Bill Byrne sat down for dinner, his younger son, Greg, would pepper him with questions about sports. Typical of a kid whose dad is involved in college athletics.
Except the questions weren’t typical.
“Everything from how and why I went about hiring this coach to planning facilities to scheduling,” Bill recalled, as he spoke last week from his athletics director’s office at Texas A&M.
Such questions explain a great deal about Greg Byrne and his becoming a professional equal with his father. A full year into his tenure as Mississippi State’s AD – he officially succeeded Larry Templeton on June 30, 2008 – Byrne is thriving in the job he’d been dreaming about since at least third grade, when he made clear his vocational intentions in a classroom essay.
Byrne’s whole career – from Oregon to Oregon State to Kentucky to MSU, where he began as chief fund raiser in 2006 – has been a steady climb toward that goal.
From Bill Byrne’s admittedly biased point of view, his son is doing a fantastic job.
“I’m really impressed, and this is coming from an AD who’s been in the business a long time,” the 64-year-old said.
Dad’s not alone. MSU fans have taken quickly to Greg, who earned their respect for standing up to a blustery legend, Ron Polk, when hiring a new baseball coach. He then earned their unbridled adoration – and the nickname “The Ninja” – after replacing beleaguered football coach Sylvester Croom with Dan Mullen, via a covert hiring process.
That Byrne has found the AD chair so comfortable at age 37 is no surprise.
Having grown up in a university setting – going to games, being a ball boy at Oregon, sitting on press row, riding elevators with the likes of Dean Smith – he’s well-acquainted with the machinations of college athletics.
“He was raised in the business, so to speak, so he knows it well,” said Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart, for whom Byrne worked before coming to Starkville. “He’s got great knowledge about it. ”
Is the job everything Byrne imagined it would be? Yeah, pretty much.
“It is true, you don’t totally understand it until you get to sit in the chair, but I certainly felt very prepared for it,” he said. “And the thing I’ve also tried to do is rely heavily on people around me who have expertise in certain areas.”
Byrne probably knows more than he lets on. He did, after all, become a certified football recruiter after hiring Mullen. And he earned a Master’s degree from MSU’s college of education in May.
He’s got quite the rolodex, which includes other ADs, league commissioners, and successful business people.
“I try to spend a lot of time listening,” Byrne said.
He’ll always listen to his father, of course.
Bill Byrne said he doesn’t offer much advice, but simply talks as one athletics director to another. There is no denying his influence on Greg’s career path, though.
“I’m very fortunate for that,” Greg Byrne said of his dad’s career. “I certainly do feel like I had a head start because of this.”
The elder Byrne watched proudly as his son hired John Cohen as baseball coach last year despite the outgoing Polk’s vehement protests (he wanted longtime assistant Tommy Raffo to take over). A lot more eyes were on Byrne as he made the higher-profile hire of Mullen, a quiet 11-day process that left media and fans alike grasping for solid info.
Thus his nickname, “The Ninja.”
“I certainly didn’t think anything like that would stick,” he said.
But it did, a sign of the esteem in which MSU’s fans hold him. He’s made a concerted effort to be a tangible presence among the fan base and State’s student-athletes.
“I’ve spent a lot of time – sometimes, I worry, too much time – out around the state, trying to represent Mississippi State,” said Byrne, who credits his wife of 15 years, Regina, with being his rock as he stays on the move.
It’s Byrne’s personal touch that resonates with fans and alumni.
“He took what Larry had helped lay the foundation for, and he’s taking the time and effort to expand that and reaching out more to the masses than we have in the past,” said Hal Parker, a former Bulldog Club president.
New family tradition?
There is a picture on Bill Byrne’s wall of himself at a fundraising event in New Mexico, and perched on his shoulder is a 4-year-old Greg decked out in Dallas Cowboys gear.
Greg and his older brother, Bill Jr., savored growing up on college campuses. There were no complaints of, “When will this game end?” or, “Another fundraiser?”
Athletics is in the Byrne family’s blood. Greg’s grandfather, Clancy Byrne – still kicking at 94 – played college football. His great-uncle, Ralph Langer, was an All-American basketball player for Creighton in the 1940s. Several other relatives played sports in college.
Now, though, it seems the new family tradition will be on the administrative side. Byrne’s two dark-haired sons, 14-year-old Nick and 11-year-old Davis, aren’t hard to find at MSU games and are intrigued by their father’s work.
“They both have lots of questions and have shown a lot of interest in it,” Byrne said.
During the football coaching search, the few times Byrne was home he was dodging questions from his sons. Other than that, he’s done like his father and welcomed discussions about his work.
Byrne actually veered from his career path in 2005, taking a job at CaseLogistix, a litigation support software company based in Jackson.
“I didn’t enjoy what I was doing,” he said. “I didn’t have the same passion for it.”
But Byrne said it was one of the best things he experienced, because it reminded him of what he really wanted to do with his life, ever since he penned that third-grade essay.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal