Greg Byrne was introduced as the University of Alabama’s athletics director in mid-January and started work on March 1. He left the same position at Arizona to join the Crimson Tide, and headed the athletics program at Mississippi State before that.
The Pocatello, Idaho, native is the son of an athletics director and knew early on he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Byrne, who will turn 46 later this month, sat down with TideSports to talk about his vision for UA athletics, in particular the football program, and topics such as scheduling and his relationship with head coach Nick Saban.
Q: Let’s start with your office here. You’ve been in this office for a little while and had a chance to get settled in. I couldn’t help but notice the notebook on the wall. How old were you when you did that, and what’s the story behind it?
A: That was my fourth-grade career report at Flying Hills Elementary School in El Cajon, California, outside of San Diego. My dad was working at San Diego State and most kids wrote about being a doctor or a firefighter or a veterinarian. I wrote about being an athletic director.
My dad was retiring (in 2012, as athletics director) from Texas A&M, (my parents) had built their home that they were going to retire to and they were going through a bunch of old file cabinets and my mom found that, and so she got it framed for me. It’s been a real conversation piece.
Q: So when you look back, are there things that you’ve used from that?
A: Actually, back then I think I wrote that they get to go to games, get to be around the coaches and I probably called them players and they talk on the phone a lot and go to lunch. (Laughs) So probably not a whole lot of insights from a fourth-grader.
Q: That actually sounds like a pretty good job description.
A: There’s some truth to that. Back then, of course, we didn’t have desktop computers, we didn’t have cell phones, but you still do talk on the phone a decent amount. You write a lot more emails now more than anything.
Q: But you do get to hang out with coaches and players.
A: You do. You get to be around the coaches and the players. Now you do it as the athletic director so you’re not doing it as a fan. You become a fan, obviously, but still you have to always balance your fandom with your professional responsibilities.
Q: I don’t know if you come in through a side door or if you come in through the front door and go up the stairs…
A: Yeah, I go to the stairs right over there (next to his office).
Q: So you don’t come down the hall with all the national championship team displays and the Heisman Trophies and all that?
A: No, but I get around. I’m probably in that area three, four times a week. Sometimes multiple times a day.
Q: And your office overlooks three football practice fields and you’ve got a little balcony here where you can watch over them. How much appreciation do you have for that? I’m sure you’ve been around, you knew Alabama football is pretty big, but from the inside does it look bigger or not?
A: I can tell you I had great appreciation coming in from the outside because I’d been around it quite a bit. Mal treated me very well, Coach Moore. I had tremendous respect for Coach (Bill) Battle (Byrne’s predecessor), Coach (Paul W. “Bear”) Bryant – certainly never met him but I’ve met Mr. Bryant Jr., Paul Jr. (the late coach’s son) – and had been in some meetings with Coach Saban a few different times, so part of the reason why I wanted to be here when Alabama called was because it’s Alabama, and the respect that I have and Regina (Byrne, his wife) has as well.
My respect has done nothing but increase since I’ve been here. The way we are united as a university is something that is very special, from the leadership of university with Dr. (Stuart) Bell and the trustees to the campus embracing our athletic department, our football program, and the way the student body and the community and the state – even the country: Brad Bohannon, our new baseball coach, who had a lot of experience in the SEC before recruiting (here) said it’s just amazing the doors you are able to get open now nationally because he’s calling from Alabama. What a strength that is of ours that you don’t take lightly, that you’ve got to make sure we do everything we can to maintain that and, hopefully, continue to improve it.
Q: What is your relationship with Nick Saban like?
A: It’s been great, and I’m not saying that because it’s the right thing to say. From the first time he and Miss Terry (Saban’s wife) and Regina and I sat down on a Saturday in January, the week after the Clemson (national championship) game, he’s been outstanding.
We usually talk at least once a week. Oftentimes it can be a very short discussion, or sometimes it will be a little longer depending on what each of us has to talk about. But on top of that, the way I’ve watched him run his program, one of the things I’m convinced of is that I think whatever he did professionally, personally, because of his focus, because of his drive, I think he would have incredible success as a leader in really anything.
Q: So when you meet with him on that weekly basis, does he come to your office or does he come to yours?
A: I usually stop by and see him on Sundays.
Q: He’s pretty busy on Sundays, too, but he makes time for you.
A: He does, he does. Absolutely.
Q: Moving forward on football, let’s talk about scheduling. We have heard that in the future, marquee home-and-homes might be something that is being worked on. What can you tell us about that?
A: Home-and-homes are on the radar screen. The formula that we have right now has worked very well for us, and we want to be extremely respectful of that, and at the same time, two things evolve – I know Coach Saban has said publicly that we’ve discussed it – and there’s a couple of things to keep in mind. One, scheduling has to be a two-way street where we might want to schedule somebody and that may not be something they want to do; and there may be a school out there that we decide we don’t want to play for whatever reason.
And the other challenge is how far out in advance you have to go with those home-and-homes. There are schools that have games (scheduled) into the 2030s now, so we’re exploring at what those options can look like, and what that right model is for us as scheduling continues to evolve.
Q: Is there thought of dropping the traditional FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) game that usually comes late in the season, the week before Auburn (like Saturday’s game against Mercer)?
A: No. Well, you never know how the SEC schedule will evolve, too, so I can’t say that will always be the same time every year, but I do think from a scheduling perspective that gives your program – obviously whoever we play we’re going to have great respect for – if we’re fortunate enough in those games to have success on the field, you can sometimes get some guys out there, get some experience playing who don’t always get those opportunities. That can be good for the development of your program.
So the FCS part of the schedule, coach and I haven’t had any discussion about that. And unless he brings it up, I don’t anticipate it.
Q: On the home-and-homes, who would you personally like to see Alabama play?
A: Oh, I don’t want to show my cards quite yet on that one. (Laughs)
Q: I can understand that, but I want to ask about one in particular. The one that there would seem to be the biggest obstacle playing in a one-off at a neutral site is Notre Dame, because of them being tied into NBC – they’ll let them play home-and-home, where they get to televise one of two, but not a solo game if they don’t get to televise it. Is that something that could possibly happen?
A: I saw Jack’s comments about that – Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame’s athletics director) – and so obviously that, as you’re going through programs that make sense, that’s one that could make some sense, but a lot of factors go into that.
Q: Another thing that is an issue that the sport is facing is attendance. It’s hard to beat big-screen, HD television and not fighting the crowd and all that. Especially with what they’ve done at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta with fan-friendly pricing of the actual game experience – a $2 bottle of water versus a $6 bottle of water – what is Alabama looking at to enhance that?
A: We actually have our contract coming up on our concessionaire, so we are doing a deep dive into our program. We are looking, on top of that, though, we are looking at the entire game-day experience for our fans. Knowing that attendance across the country is a challenge, I saw another prominent school that’s had recent success that’s said they’re having a hard time keeping their students at the games. We’re dealing with the same thing.
We actually sold more tickets to Alabama football games this year than maybe any time in our history. We can track what percentage gets used, though, and we’re down right now. They’re sold, but we’re down from where we were. Since 2010, when Bryant-Denny (Stadium) was last expanded, the percentage of seats that are being actually used are down, so we need to pay attention to that.
So take that a step further, I’ve really been impressed with the customer service our ticket office, Tide Pride, gives. That has to be the case. We understand that when you have 100,000 people show up on a Saturday evening or afternoon, you’re not going to park everybody right next to the stadium five minutes before kickoff and walk right into the stadium. There’s a sacrifice that you have to go in understanding, but with that said, you want it to be as efficient as you possibly can. You can’t have unlimited busses going back and forth but making sure they’re running as efficiently as possible, the ones that you have. Understanding that having our gate attendants warmly greet our fans walking in, having the concessions and restrooms be good – we’ve got some work to do there. Bryant-Denny Stadium is on a very small footprint for 100,000 people, and if you look around, there’s not a lot of other places to expand that footprint. So what can we do to modernize that experience from a restroom/concession/ingress/egress, that’s a very, very expensive proposition that I don’t know what that is yet, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to look at what we do.
So I think the reality is stadiums right now – you look at the NFL, they’re at 60-, 65-, 70,000 in most of their venues. We’re different than the NFL, and at the same time, too, I think it’s important to look nationally at how people are consuming their sports. It’s still extremely popular and there’s no place more popular than the University of Alabama, and we need to make sure we don’t take that for granted.
Q: The model in athletics, in entertainment, has been get as many people in the building as you can and take as much money from them as you can. Do you think that pricing across the board – whether that’s tickets, whether that’s Quad space for tailgating, whether that’s parking, whether that’s hot dogs – do you see that becoming more fan-friendly?
A: I think you have to be very sensitive to that, yes.
Q: You brought up students, but there’s a song they really like …
A: “Friends in Low Places”? (Laughs)
Q: They like that, too, I think, but this is about a Tennessee Saturday night of all things. I’m not sure why they want to sing about that, but it’s been banned, apparently, or it’s no longer played. Is there any chance that comes back?
A: I think if you look at the history on that one, the question kind of answers itself. And to expand a little bit more, we have fans of a lot of different ages at the game, and I have had a lot of people who bring their children to the games who have – even though that was stopped before I got here – who have come up to me and said that would be very difficult to bring my kids to the games with certain things that happen with the games.
We want to have a great, loud, festive environment with traditions that are very important, but also making sure it’s an environment that we can bring our children to.
(Note: The song “Dixieland Delight” is no longer played during Alabama home games because students shout profanities in unison in reply to some of the lyrics.)
Q: So I take that as no more “Dixieland Delight”?
Q: What is your vision for what Alabama football and this athletic department will look like in, let’s say, 10 years?
A: Obviously from a football standpoint, we have incredible history with Coach Bryant and Coach (Gene) Stallings and Coach (Wallace) Wade and all, and we need to make sure we honor that. And I think we do a good job of that, but we also need to recognize that we’re under historical times right now and we need to not take that for granted. I don’t think we are, but I also think that for each and every one of us who wants to see the Crimson Tide perform at the highest levels, being at the games, supporting the program is critical for it. And so we need that to continue.
We need to prepare for what college football looks like 10 years from now. I don’t know if anybody’s got a perfect answer to what that is, but (we need to) do our best to forecast that and understand that and make decisions based off of that.
We want Coach Saban to finish his coaching career here at Alabama, and he sure has given us every intention that that’s what will take place, but we need to make sure we’re in as solid a foundation as we can be when that transition takes place, hopefully many, many, many years down the road. But you’ll always have to be prepared for those next steps with whatever you have, whether it’s business, whether it’s your teams, whether – any organization that’s out there, you always have to be thinking about the future.
From the athletics department standpoint, we want to go compete with Florida to be one of the top athletic departments in the SEC. Coach Saban said it best: Let’s be great at what we do. When I introduced him to Brad Bohannan right after we hired (Bohannan), he said if we’re good in baseball that’s good for Alabama football, it’s good for the University of Alabama. When you think about it this way – and all of the sports are important – if we’re great in football then we’re going to be part of the discussion in the late summer, really throughout the summer, nationally. And we’re going to be part of the discussion throughout the fall and into the winter. And then if we’re good in men’s basketball and women’s basketball, we’re going to be part of the discussion – look at the interest in Mississippi State with their women’s team making the run that they did – then you’re going throughout the winter into the spring if you’re good at men’s and women’s basketball. And then if you’re good at softball, baseball and track, you’re going to be part of the discussion for the spring into the summer, and that’s good for Alabama athletics, that’s good for the University of Alabama, that’s good for Tuscaloosa and the state of Alabama.
Look at (golfer) Justin Thomas being here (for LSU) weekend. You can be the best in the world and come to school here at the University of Alabama. Justin shows that. And what an advantage for us when we can go out and recruit, not just for football but all of our other sports, and say look at the successes you can have by being here.
Q: You mentioned Saban spending the rest of his career here and hoping that will be a long time. Every athletic director says they carry a list of candidates around: If you had to look for a new head football coach sooner rather than later, do you have thoughts of who that might be, knowing that changes over time?
A: The way I’d answer that is, the goal is to keep Coach Saban here for a long time. That’s what our focus is. At the point that he decides to retire, we’ll be as prepared as we possibly can be, but we want that to be many, many years down the road.
Q: And the final question, we’re aware of plans that include some changes around the football stadium – a Hall of Fame type thing in the Walk of Champions area – and some other things like that. What can you tell us about that, what it might look like and a timetable for it?
A: We’re working on a facility master plan collectively for the entire footprint of all our athletic facilities, so recognizing and honoring your past is a part of it. What that looks like, right now we don’t know. It’s too early to say.
Q: Any more statues that you’re sure of at this point?
A: Too early to say.
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.