The University of Arizona was never going to be Greg Byrne‘s final job destination. That he stayed at Arizona for about seven years is something of an upset in itself.
His accomplishments in Tucson were many.
Football facility upgrades. The move of the baseball program to Hi Corbett Field. The retention of basketball coach Sean Miller and the first stage of improvements to McKale Center. The recently finished construction of an academic center.
Now, he is moving on to Alabama.
At Arizona last season with a struggling football program, the Wildcats struggled to get 40,000 for a home game. At Alabama, attendance for the spring game — the spring game! — has reached more than 90,000.
Think of this: Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is 65. Byrne is likely to be around Tuscaloosa long enough that he will be the one making the most high-profile college football decision in the next several years. Who succeeds Saban?
But, back in Tucson, Byrne leaves plenty of work to be done and ample questions.
First of all, who replaces Byrne?
Athletic director searches are a lot like coaching searches. The first names that come to mind, easily and obviously, are those with ties to the school. Two names to immediately pop up were TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte and South Florida athletic director Mark Harlan. Both worked in the Arizona athletic department under Jim Livengood.
As for Del Conte, maybe he loves Tucson, but TCU seems like a better job. He has overseen nearly $240 million in renovations in football and basketball facilities in recent years, has a Top 25 football program and hired Jamie Dixon as his basketball coach last year. He is paid well and has money to spend.
Harlan, a childhood friend of Rich Tomey — the son of former UA coach Dick Tomey — worked his way up with the Wildcats football program and in the athletic department. He became the Senior Vice President for Central Development at the University of Arizona Foundation before working at Northern Colorado, San Jose State and UCLA, where he was the Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Relations.
USF hired him as athletic director in March 2014. Harlan presided over the rise of USF football under coach Willie Taggart, who left after last season to Oregon, so Harlan quickly hired ex-Louisville and Texas coach Charlie Strong to lead a team that likely will begin next season ranked in the top 20, if not the top 15.
But who knows?
Had anyone really heard of Greg Byrne before Arizona hired him? Same with baseball coach Jay Johnson? Athletic directors at Memphis, Houston, Nevada, Fresno State, etc., could all be in play here. At Arizona, Mike Ketcham is the Senior Associate Athletic Director who oversees the day-to-day operations of football and men’s basketball.
Byrne leaves behind a long to-do list, even though he told Sportsradio 1290 recently that he has overseen $140 million of infrastructure improvements in the past seven years.
“The list is long,” Byrne said earlier this month regarding facility improvements. “We have been doing reviews on some things … and the reality is we still have a long way to go. Arizona Stadium is, obviously, a major issue that we have to find a solution for.”
He also mentioned the second phase of McKale Center improvements (following the completed $30 million first phase), as well as needed improvements for softball, baseball, track, soccer and swimming.
“Other than that, there’s hardly anything to do,” Byrne quipped.
And, oh, what about an indoor football practice facility that Byrne said about a year ago he wanted to move quickly and efficiently?
“One thing I told our coaches is not lose sight on what we have been able to accomplish collectively, but that doesn’t mean you’re satisfied with where you are and you don’t try to move forward.”
For sure, Byrne is moving forward.
He leaves behind more good than bad at Arizona, although his tenure was not without troubling incidents.
Basketball player Elliott Pitts was suspended from the university last year after a finding of sexual misconduct, an incident routinely addressed last season as a “personal issue” before the report came out. A track assistant coach was charged with sexually assaulting a student-athlete.
Meanwhile, Byrne’s signature hire, football coach Rich Rodriguez, enters the 2017 far from the high of the 2014 Pac-12 South title. Arizona won one conference game last season while Rodriguez tries to course-correct his recruiting efforts.
But those won’t be Byrne’s problems any more.