Sweet Home Alabama: Byrne Rolling With Tide

By Justin Toscano

There may be a stark difference between the SEC and Pac-12 conferences, but Greg Byrne believes he was prepared for the latest move.

During his days as the University of Arizona’s athletic director, Byrne always said that Tucson and Eugene were the closest the Pac-12 would come to the SEC. So, when Byrne was hired to be the new athletic director at the University of Alabama in January, he was comfortable with the exciting situation he was walking into and the pressures that came with it.

“Just like Tucson and Eugene, most of the SEC schools are in college towns,” Byrne said via Skype in an interview with Sports360AZ.com’s Brad Cesmat. “It is the only game in town and the university is the center of the community, and the passion and the interest that comes along with that 24/7, 365 is pretty special and unique.”

Since arriving at Alabama, Byrne has spent most of his time getting a feel for the layout. He has met coaches, staff members and student-athletes. He has also ventured off campus to meet some of the Alabama faithful throughout the state.

“I told a few folks that I’ll be glad in about a year from now when I got a few more names down and my arms around what we’re doing and what will be doing in the future as well,” Byrne said.

However, Byrne has already made the first big move of his Alabama tenure. He awarded Alabama head football coach Nick Saban a three-year contract extension. Saban’s now eight-year deal is scheduled to pay him $65 million total, not including incentives, and will run through Jan. 31, 2025.

There are certain coaches who are considered to be overpaid in college football, Byrne said, but Saban isn’t one of them. Saban — now set to be the highest-paid college football coach in the country after the extension — has led the Crimson Tide to four national titles in his 10 seasons with the program. His five total championships are one off from typing legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

But Saban’s impact is felt off the field, too. Byrne said the university’s enrollment has grown from 18-19,000 students when Saban started to now 37-38,000.

“I wanted to send a message to him about how much I value the job that he’s done and at the same time send a message to our fan base that Coach Saban is going to keep coaching here and I think he’s made it pretty clear that he’s going to finish his coaching career here, which we’re thrilled about,” Bryne said of the extension.

Byrne said there are currently no plans to schedule Arizona State or Arizona as future Alabama football non-conference opponents.

Right after Byrne arrived at Alabama, he attended one of the school’s baseball games. He ventured to the outfield where the students sit and started conversing with a few of them.

One was from Alabama. Another was from California. Someone else was from New York.

It was then that he first truly experienced the magnitude of Saban’s impact.

“It’s created the University of Alabama to be a brand not only in the state of Alabama and the Southeast, but a national brand and a lot of times internationally as well,” he said.