Let’s stress the positive first. An academic year in which a collegiate athletic department is frustrated because it didn’t win a national championship can be viewed as a reflection that, overall, that athletic department is in pretty good shape.
That’s the case at the University of Alabama after the final inventory of the 2016-17 athletic year. There were close calls — in football, a matter of seconds kept Alabama from a second straight title. None of the other marquee sports at UA came quite that close, but there were others that were nationally competitive. Softball came within a game of advancing to the Women’s College World Series despite a tough draw. Women’s golf had the potential but didn’t play its best in challenging weather conditions at the NCAA finals. Gymnastics extended its remarkable streak of Super Six appearances. Those performances are “disappointments” only if the bar is set remarkably high.
That’s a solid foundation for Greg Byrne, who remarkably still hasn’t reached the fourth month of his UA tenure – it seems longer somehow. The job of a modern college athletics director is multi-faceted, and Byrne would probably take exception to this simplified characterization, but there seem to be four main functions as far as on-the-field success.
First, give those programs who have steadily built themselves into championship contenders (see those listed above and add men’s golf) every resource necessary to find that extra few inches that make the difference. Alabama’s been pretty good at this.
Second, elevate those programs that are close to taking the next step. This is where Alabama is on the cusp. It might be overreaching to say that UA can consistently dominate the SEC in every sport, or even match Florida’s success at doing so, for complex demographic reasons. But the Crimson Tide has to be competitive in both coaching and facilities. Money is flowing into most of the SEC athletic coffers. Schools that were limited from big expenditures 30 or 40 years ago because their football revenues were limited are now prospering from SEC affiliation, more than ever. The two variables that are controlled by spending are coaching and facilities.
That’s not a one-to-one correspondence because you can always end up with a coach that is worth more than he’s making (Nick Saban), or less (plenty of SEC examples). Still, once you have established parity (or better) in facilities, coaching is where the difference happens. That’s why Tennessee and South Carolina are changing baseball coaches.
In Alabama’s case, there are sports on the verge of national success that need some extra bump from facilities, more so than coaching. Dennis Pursley will have UA swimming and diving on the championship deck eventually, as soon as facilities, which are already on Byrne’s agenda, are completed. Dan Waters will do the same with track and field. I don’t know if a competition stadium is as important in track these days as training facilities are.
While the facility question is basketball is going to involve a tremendous amount of money, Avery Johnson and Kristy Curry are executing long rebuilding projects (next step for both programs: a return to the NCAA Tournament) and — time does not lie — Coleman Coliseum is about to be 50 years old.
Third, don’t let a sport slip away. The SEC is too competitive — fall behind and you might take decades to catch up. That’s not singling anyone out and it’s completely unfair to expect Byrne to have a grasp on teams like soccer and volleyball, which he hasn’t even seen in action yet.
Fourth, if you do face an emergency, fix it. Byrne had to do this with baseball, far before he anticipated when he took the UA job.
The Tuscaloosa News’ annual program ratings — and the five-year trends — show Alabama is great in some sports, growing in others. But there is room for the next five years to be even better, not only because of the golden glow of football.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.