By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – He took on a legend, hired arguably the most magnetic young head coach in the country, and presided over plans to continue building Mississippi State into a more relevant athletic entity.
Greg Byrne has been athletics director at MSU for barely two years, and yet his impact on the athletic program is an indelible one. He’ll be leaving soon, with the last week of April marking the end of his brief but notable reign.
Byrne, 38, takes over as Arizona’s AD on May 3.
In one last sit-down interview with the Daily Journal on April 6, Byrne reflected on his time as MSU’s athletics director. His final days in Starkville are busier than usual, as he continues to go full steam in his current role while prepping – mostly at night – for his next job.
Part of his current MSU workload includes aiding President Dr. Mark Keenum in the search for Byrne’s replacement. Byrne has not publicly endorsed a candidate – MSU is using a search firm – but said, “I’ve offered my opinion on a few things when asked and feel very confident that Dr. Keenum will get a very good AD here.”
If Byrne does have a particular replacement in mind, he shouldn’t be too put off if someone else is hired. He can respect a man’s decision to follow his own instincts instead of taking the easy route.
Not long after assuming the AD’s role from Larry Templeton, Byrne was faced with hiring a new baseball coach. Ron Polk – who is Mississippi State baseball, who put it on the map and has his name on the stadium – strongly lobbied for long-time assistant Tommy Raffo to take over.
Byrne, however, never blinked and hired John Cohen, a former MSU player who had turned woebegone Kentucky into an SEC champion.
Polk fumed and screamed and to this day will not speak to Byrne (or about him), but he supports Cohen, who has strong fan backing and just brought in the nation’s eighth-best recruiting class, according to Baseball America.
“I obviously have a lot of respect and have a lot of love for coach Polk,” Cohen said, “but I think Greg’s a great leader, and I think he did a great job with our department. I think Arizona is very fortunate to get him.”
Lots done in little time
Sure, it was a chance for Dan Mullen to get his first head coaching job, and in the SEC, no less. But to hear him tell, the strongest selling point for MSU was Byrne.
When Mullen was hired as State’s football coach in December of 2008, he spoke of his late-night meeting with Byrne and how it convinced him Starkville was the right place to go.
“It’s really too bad us losing him, that’s really going to hurt our program,” Mullen said. “And I know Dr. Keenum will find somebody good to come in and fill his shoes. But he and I had such a great working relationship that we could always bounce ideas off each other back and forth.”
When Byrne was asked which accomplishments he’s most proud of, his coaching hires were just one of many he mentioned. Byrne also talked about the basketball practice facility that’s being built, the growth of the Bulldog Club, and the football season attendance record.
He said he was proudest of two things in particular: A renewed “sense of real pride” among MSU fans, and the football game against Jackson State last fall. That marked the first time an SEC school played a SWAC school on the gridiron; MSU won, 45-7.
“I was really proud of Mississippi State, as well as Jackson State,” Byrne said. “I was proud of our state, that that game went as well as it did. And I’m not talking about the scoreboard, I’m just talking about the sense of community I think both schools felt.
“And when the Sonic Boom (JSU’s band) played at halftime, that was pretty cool.”
That last phrase – “pretty cool” – is a reminder of Byrne’s youth. It never seemed a hindrance for the first-time AD, whose roots are out West but worked at Kentucky before coming to MSU in 2006 as head of athletic fundraising efforts.
With that youth comes boundless energy and enthusiasm, which can also be found in the programs Byrne has overseen. “Tireless” is one of the many buzzwords among MSU’s coaches.
That trait has allowed Byrne, in his final days here, to keep working on the department’s “master plan,” which he called a “living, breathing document.” It includes an upgraded track and field facility, improvements to Davis Wade Stadium and the football practice fields, a new golf practice facility, and whatever else might arise.
The plan is currently being developed through Sasaki Associates Inc. Byrne said they’re in the data-gathering stage right now.
“There’s always going to be another project, or there’s always going to be something else,” Byrne said. “That’s why we have jobs.”
As sharp as Byrne is – he wanted to be an AD from childhood, because that’s what his father, Bill, has been for years – he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. In his annual review with Mullen – the same day Byrne spoke with the Journal – both men examined areas where they could improve.
“If you ever get to where your list is that there’s nothing to improve on, then boy, I’d be very scared,” Byrne said. “(A)nd there’s people in our industry that sometimes aren’t very good about getting constructive feedback.”
Upon his taking the Arizona job, there were some critics who said Byrne was just climbing up the ladder, unconcerned with how his departure might affect MSU. He has gone to great lengths to say that’s not the case, calling his decision to leave “the most challenging decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
He added, “Regina (his wife) and I both genuinely care about the university and the people, and we’re going to continue to support Mississippi State and support the Bulldog Club however we can.”
As if to put an unassailable stamp on his love for MSU, Byrne channeled Mullen’s cocky side when asked what he’ll miss most about the school.
“Besides the people at Mississippi State – the student-athletes, fans, our staff – I’m going to miss competing against, as coach Mullen calls them, ‘The School Up North,’ because I wanted to kick their tail in everything we did.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Hired John Cohen to be school’s baseball coach, replacing Ron Polk.
– Hired Dan Mullen to be school’s football coach, replacing Sylvester Croom.
– Saw improvements at Davis Wade Stadium including new high-def jumbotron scoreboard.
– Saw football season tickets hit record high in 2009.