The evolution of the athletic director is on display for Greg Byrne every day as he walks to his office. The walls on his way to the office include displays detailing the careers of the University of Alabama ADs before him.
The early days, just over 100 years ago, include men like J.W.H. Pollard and D.V. Graves, who coached football and other sports at UA while also serving as directors of athletics. Football came to dominate athletic departments later, and coaches like Wallace Wade, Hank Crisp and Paul W. “Bear” Bryant all worked as athletic directors as well.
More recently, UA’s director of athletics has taken a combination of administrative and coaching experience. Bob Bockrath’s career started as an assistant football coach at Arizona and Purdue. There were five years after Mal Moore’s coaching career ended where he worked for the athletic administration before becoming director of athletics. Bill Battle, another former football coach, had experience in the business of college athletics with his company before he took the position in 2013.
That brings us to today. Byrne is Alabama’s first permanent athletic director to take the job with no coaching experience. He’s a career athletics administrator. The evolution has taken another step.
“Just like anything else, things have all changed,” Byrne said. “What the model looks like. But you better be able to work with coaches and understand coaches and appreciate coaches, and that’s really important.”
Byrne grew up around college sports. His father, Bill Byrne, spent almost 30 years as an athletics director at Oregon, Nebraska and Texas A&M. But his career began working on the academic side of the university administration in alumni relations.
The change in college athletics made it possible for Greg Byrne and many of his peers to spend most or all of their careers in the industry. That’s a relatively new evolution in the field.
Former Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley spent his entire career working in college sports and never coached. He started in the UF ticket office as an intern in 1976 when former football coach Ray Graves was in charge of the department. He never planned on being an AD when his career began.
“I think that path has changed,” Foley said. “I think once the scope grew, the advent of increased support for women’s program, the size of stadiums, negotiating contracts, negotiating television contracts… The business aspect of this profession took on a higher profile than when I first started.”
Foley’s career began at about the same time college athletics began a shift from a Pangea-like state to its current orientation.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart, one of Byrne’s mentors, began his career in the early 80s. He said there were five major forces in the late 70s and early 80s that set college sports on a course to today.
Nike was created in 1971. It took off before going public in 1980, changing sports marketing and equipment deals. Title IX was passed by Congress in 1972, guaranteeing equal opportunity for women’s sports. Multimedia rights to broadcast games on radio and television became more important in that decade. ESPN went on the air in 1979, changing the appetite for college sports and how it was marketed. The Collegiate Licensing Company, founded by future Alabama AD Bill Battle, was created in 1981.
“Those five things hit sort of all at the same time in the late 70s,” Barnhart said. “When it hit, it brought forward a whole new group of people that said ‘OK, now we’re going to figure out how to move the enterprise of college athletics.’ It was a huge time. I think it really put a lot of interest from a lot of different sectors of people.”
The money grew bigger and bigger. Stadiums expanded. TV deals and equipment contracts came in. Athletic departments were no longer just a handful of sports, but included dozens of programs and hundreds of athletes.
“When I first started, the budget I think was $7 million bucks,” Foley said. “Forty years later it’s $100 million-plus. That all changed, which required people to have maybe a different skill set than before.”
That brought in people with experience in finance, fundraising, contracts and more. But the biggest change may have been in marketing.
Coaches had experience marketing their teams, but not departments as a whole. Professional teams like the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees started to expand on the fan experience at games, upgrading facilities. They looked beyond simply selling tickets, and colleges began to follow their lead.
“As time went on, I think people began to see that there were pieces of this thing that needed to be tied together a little more succinctly than a retired coach could do,” Barnhart said.
Even if those people weren’t prepared to be athletics directors at the time, they grew into the job as years went by. The position wasn’t just for former football coaches anymore.
The current SEC athletics directors are a testament to that. Tennessee’s John Currie and Byrne started their careers in fundraising. Foley’s successor at Florida, Scott Stricklin, began in sports information and media relations. Vanderbilt’s David Williams taught at law school earlier in his career. Some began in coaching, like Arkansas’ Jeff Long and Auburn’s Jay Jacobs, but switched to administration early.
Only two current SEC athletics directors moved into their positions after being head coaches. South Carolina’s Ray Tanner and Mississippi State’s John Cohen were both baseball coaches before taking the jobs.
“I think the sport of baseball itself really lends itself to understanding a little bit more of the inner workings of an athletic department,” Cohen said. “When you’re a young baseball coach, you are a marketer. You’re marketing your program. When you’re a young baseball coach, you work on your own facility. Something is broke? You have to fix it. You have to mow your field. In some respects when you’re really young, you have to work on your own compliance issues, depending on where you are.”
Tanner and Cohen may be the outliers where they were once the norm, but they still bring significant value as athletics directors. Both had long, successful coaching careers. Both were coaches in recent years before moving into administration. Their outlook is still needed in college athletics.
“At the end of the day, this business is about coaches and student-athletes,” Foley said. “Nobody has better perspective on that than Ray and John in my opinion.”
The era of football coaches retiring and automatically moving into the athletic director’s office – or doing both at once – has likely seen its extinction event. The career path for most college athletic directors has changed.
Byrne always wanted to be an athletics director. That may not have been in Foley’s mind in 1976, but Byrne thought about it when his fourth-grade teacher had his class write about what they wanted to do when they grew up.
“I wrote about being an athletic director,” he said.
That’s become possible in the years since then. It’s no longer required for athletics directors to work their way up the coaching ladder and into the position.
The position of athletics director has come into its own. Departments boast budgets into nine figures and hundreds of employees. College athletics has evolved from the 1970s. The men and women leading college athletics departments have evolved too.
“It’s just that the world changed,” Foley said. “The world changed and the job became so big, you couldn’t do justice to both jobs now. There’s only so many hours in the day. The way recruiting has changed and the expectations of coaches with media obligations, talk shows, on and on and on. Plus the advent of 21, 22, 23, 24-sport programs, there’s no way you could do justice to both jobs. It’d be almost impossible.”