Byrne goes west, MSU goes on

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – He wasn’t in Starkville long, but Greg Byrne left a stamp on Mississippi State’s athletic program that won’t soon fade.
After two-plus years as MSU’s athletics director, it was announced Monday that Byrne was resigning to take the same job at Arizona. Byrne said that he didn’t go looking for a new job, but it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“It took several conversations, and much prayer on my part, but their overwhelming interest was apparent as time moved along,” Byrne said in a statement. “The combination of a professional challenge and a personal commitment to my family made this position very attractive for me.”
Byrne, who did not respond to requests for further comment, will be introduced at a news conference on Wednesday in Tucson.
Byrne, 38, is a graduate of Arizona State and worked in the athletic departments at Oregon and Oregon State, also Pac-10 schools. He has family in that region.
“My emotions today range from the highest highs to the lowest lows,” Byrne said. “While I am excited about a new opportunity, I am heartbroken to be leaving a lot of friends.”
Byrne actually informed MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum of his new job Friday evening.
“It was very emotional for Greg. It was very emotional for me, too,” Keenum said. “I had developed a very good friendship with him. I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done for my alma mater.”
Keenum said he tried to convince Byrne to stay and offered a “generous package of financial incentives.” Keenum said a “national search” would begin immediately.
Byrne will make $390,000, plus performance incentives, at Arizona. He made $302,500 per year at MSU.
Byrne replaces Jim Livengood, who left to become AD at UNLV after learning his contract would not be renewed at year’s end.
Byrne arrived at MSU in 2006 as associate AD for external affairs – essentially, head of the Bulldog Club and fundraising. He succeeded Larry Templeton in February of 2008 and proceeded to put his mark on MSU athletics, both on the field and on the financial books.
It began with his hiring of baseball coach John Cohen, which enraged the retiring Ron Polk. Polk, who coached the Bulldogs for 29 seasons and had wanted assistant Tommy Raffo to succeed him, has never spoken to Byrne and has refused to even discuss him in recent interviews.
Cohen, an Mississippi State alum, saw MSU finish last in the SEC in his first season, but he signed a strong 2010 class and is looking to replicate the success he had at Kentucky.
“I really appreciate the energy and vision Greg had for MSU,” Cohen said in a statement.
Byrne then replaced football coach Sylvester Croom with Dan Mullen, an assistant under Florida coach Urban Meyer. Mullen has used his boundless energy and spread offense to jolt life back into MSU football, leading the Bulldogs to a 5-7 mark and Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss last season.
State shattered its single-season attendance record at Davis Wade Stadium.
Mullen said when he was hired that Byrne and his “vision” convinced him to take the job.
“Greg made a huge difference at Mississippi State, and we will continue to build a football program upon his vision for what Bulldog athletics should be – relentlessly competing for championships,” Mullen said in a statement.
Byrne has proved himself a very capable fundraiser. A news release from the University of Arizona said he has been directly involved in raising more than $120 million in gifts in his career, which has included a stint at Kentucky as lead fundraiser (2002-05).
Arizona President Robert Shelton told Arizona reporters, “It’s no exaggeration to say that he is one of the rising stars in athletics around the nation.”
Similar challenge
When Byrne looks at Arizona, he sees Mississippi State. His new employer has a bigger budget – $52 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year. MSU’s is just a shade under $36 million.
The Wildcats went 8-5 in football last season and played in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. The baseball team is nationally ranked. The men’s basketball squad, a traditional power, missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years and is on self-imposed probation for violations committed by former coach Lute Olson.
“My new position offers many of the same challenges we faced here at Mississippi State,” Byrne said. “We will attack those challenges in the same way we did here.”

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.