Exclusive Q&A: Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne talks football, COVID-19 and finances

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Since March 2020, Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne has had to deal with unprecedented challenges, including his own bout with COVID-19. With one game remaining in the college football season, Byrne discusses the challenges and decisions that led to this point in an exclusive Q&A with The Tuscaloosa News.

Q: Alabama is on the verge of playing a Big Ten team, Ohio State, for a national title. In August, when the Big Ten announced that it would not have fall football, did you foresee that as a possible scenario?

A: At that point, because of the news from the Big Ten, no, that wasn’t at the top of my mind. But I also knew that if the Big Ten reversed course, Ohio State was a very good team, very capable of getting to this point.

Q: What are your memories from that time as three conferences (the ACC, SEC and Big 12) were working parallel to each other?

A: There were a lot of Zoom calls with other athletic directors. There was very steady leadership from our commissioner and, it appeared to me, from the other two commissioners involved. I remember Commissioner (Greg) Sankey saying many times in those weeks that “the more patient we are with our decisions, the better those decisions will be.” That proved itself to be true. 

Q: How large a part did financial considerations play in those decisions?

We were going to lose our shorts either way, whether we played fall sports or not. People say that "they are only playing because of the money," and it’s an easy narrative, but we knew there were going to be financial hardships no matter what we did. I can’t give an exact figure yet. We still need to quantify that after the season. But whatever path we chose, we needed to listen to the medical experts first and to follow their advice. That was always our primary concern.

Let me make one other thing very clear: the majority of our student-athletes wanted to play. COVID was always a part of the discussion but there were also other factors. We did not know what the academic effects or, frankly, the mental health impacts of shutting down for a season would be. We felt like by keeping our student-athletes on campus that we had a much better chance to educate them about the virus and how to control the spread. Our biggest issue with coronavirus was the first couple of weeks when classes resumed and the students came back. By far, our highest number (of cases) was early on. I’m not saying we haven’t had positives since then. We have. But it’s been a much lower number.

Q: So you feel like the decision to play a season was a good one?

A: Yes, absolutely. I think the narrative for some people is that perfection is the only option. Sometimes it isn’t an option. Sometimes perfect isn’t possible, so you choose the best option. In our case, it stabilized. That was because the players were educated by our medical personnel, and that’s what gave them the highest chance of understanding how the virus was spread. So it’s frustrating when the narrative is “perfection and only perfection will do.”

And I truly believe that the time and the effort put in by our medical staff in testing and educating could not have been replicated if we had just said “don’t compete and/or send them all home.”

Q: You contracted COVID-19 in October. Did that change your perspective at all?

A: As you know, we have been very proactive here since the spring. We have great respect for the guidelines. I tried not to just “talk the talk” but also to walk the walk in terms of masking and social distancing. I caught it, I’m pretty sure, on a 5-minute car ride when I took my mask off to drink some water. In my case, it didn’t go to my lungs but I had the worst feeling of fatigue I have ever had and it lasted for two months. It allowed me to tell people who said “it’s just the flu” that no, it’s not just the flu. And it reinforced my belief in the example that we were living by and teaching.

TIDE UNSTOPPABLE:Commemorate Alabama’s run to the 2021 College Football Playoff final with our new hardcover book

Q: Coach Nick Saban had a false positive in October but tested positive in November. What was your level of concern?

The day he had his first positive, we were the only two positives that day. I started feeling poorly after that, but I immediately touched base with him. He said, “I feel fine” and I said, “Coach, I don’t feel so good,” and we both went into quarantine. I knew mine wasn’t a false positive. We were fortunate that his was false, but then five weeks later, we found out that he was positive. He had some new therapeutics that helped him and he stayed isolated. He is such a leader, he showed his respect for the virus by the way he handled it.

Q: With one game left in the entire season, the coronavirus hasn’t gone away. How are you handling things in the College Football Playoff?

A: The fans aren’t able to listen to the phone calls that we have, and there are a lot of phone calls. But there has been a real collegiality with the athletic directors of the other (playoff) schools. Obviously, we want to win and they want to win. But we also all know that there is a value in the meaning of college athletics. It’s been an imperfect environment, but there is also so much good that takes place. College sports brings people together, not just in stadiums but emotionally, and people need that. I remember this summer when I would wake up at 2 in the morning to watch South Korean baseball on television, to watch how they handled the games but also just to get a chance to see live sports again.  

At the same time, we have had very few complaints about tickets. We are in the national championship game and there are only about 16, 000 tickets, so our allotment (3,750 per school) is far fewer than we usually have. But our fans understand that this is the right thing for this year. We are very appreciative of how understanding our student-athletes and fans have been to allow everyone to move forward as safely as possible. 

Q: On Tuesday night, Alabama had a Heisman Trophy winner. What did that mean to UA?

DeVonta Smith has been the ultimate team player. He has never made it about himself for one second. All he did was work to develop into who he is. He made one of the biggest plays in program history as a freshman and I have never once heard him bring it up. So I don’t think this is going to go to his head for one second. He has been fantastic as a football player and a student. His acceptance speech was so sincere. I’ve been around athletics my entire life, and he is as impressive of a young man as I’ve ever been around. The entire team has been a special group.

Alabama is not for everybody. You have to be willing to buy into the team concept. Coach Saban has the ability to recruit five-star players, but he also has the ability to take three-star and four-star guys and develop them, have them come together and work collectively. He is as good a leader as I have ever seen in any profession.

Q: Can you find room for another Heisman in the Mal Moore Complex?

A: (Laughs) The plans are already underway.

Q: When you wake up Tuesday morning (after the championship game), the page turns and it’s 2021 from an athletic standpoint. What happens next?

Obviously, we have a lot of other sports going on. Basketball is underway. Gymnastics, swimming, track, golf, tennis, rowing, they are all going or about to get going. We can’t let our focus on COVID-19 slip. We have to monitor our financial situation, not just for this year but for the next several years. 

I’m ready for a few days off, like a lot of people. But I’m not sure where they are going to come from. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhur––