March 28, 2010 12:32:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- With Greg Byrne''s recent decision to resign his athletic director post at Mississippi State, the facilities upgrades and plans he initiated to push the program forward will be paramount in building the MSU brand.
Byrne''s two-year reign at MSU saw the fan experience improve, Bulldog Club membership grow, and the ability of athletes to train at the highest level become a reality.
The ideas Byrne brought to the table weren''t radical as the high-spending world of college athletics required MSU to find ways to boost the athletic department''s image and to enhance game-day atmosphere.
MSU''s lower-than-average operating budget compared to other Southeastern Conference schools doesn''t leave much wiggle room for expansion.
Building a winner across the board, however, takes imagination and innovation, attributes Byrne brought to MSU.
He and former athletic director Larry Templeton brokered the 10-year media rights deal with Learfield Sports, which created Bulldogs Sports Properties, in 2008. With that deal, rights include TV agreements for coaches'' shows and play-by-play opportunities, corporate sponsorships, coaches'' endorsements, and official athletic Web site advertising. BSP also handles all signage on campus.
The revenue generated from that deal coincides with the upgraded video boards at Davis Wade Stadium and Dudy Noble Field. In addition, the Learfield agreement helps pay the salaries for the football, men''s basketball, and baseball coaches.
The Learfield deal is just one component of the money-generating machine Byrne helped steer at MSU. His relationship with donors, from single pledges to multi-million dollar foundations, was key in raising funds for the $12 million basketball practice facility that is under construction and the $1.4 million track that''s set to break ground soon.
But implementing and planning six-figure-plus endeavors in a sagging economy can put any school in a bind when it seeks donations. Byrne, though, said the support for MSU hasn''t tapered.
"We try to be considerate with where the economy is as far as where we are with ticket prices and donation prices," he said. "We have not had a lot of push back, but, at the same time, we''ve tried to be sensitive to the situation we''re in. If a family says, ''Hey, this is not the right time for us,'' we''re very respectful of that."
In June 2009, Byrne, MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum, assistant AD Mike Nemeth, and select athletic department personnel toured six universities to gain ideas for MSU''s upgrades. The tour included Byrne''s old stomping grounds in Oregon and Oregon State and Baylor, Nebraska, Missouri, and Arkansas.
Byrne wanted to get a better idea of how MSU''s athletic department could work alongside the university to develop a campus master plan. At the time, he said it was still in an "infant" stage. Along with improved connectivity, Byrne wanted to get a better idea of costs for the future, especially with football.
On the tour, he saw the continuity he was looking at Baylor.
"They were one of the ones that had a really good flow from one facility to another," Byrne said. "They also did a really good job with their graphics because you knew when you entered a facility what it was for. It was a job well done."
Ultimately, the biggest draw for an athletic department is to having winning programs. To have winners, you must have the top talent on the field and on the court and running the programs. Byrne made it a point to be competitive with coaches'' salaries, but also in facilities that would draw the best athletes to Starkville.
MSU football coach Dan Mullen left the University of Florida for his first head coaching position with the Bulldogs, due in large part to the plans Byrne had for creating the ideal student-athlete experience in Starkville.
"He''s had a very open mind in updating what we have now and also a plan for the future," Mullen said. "He and I spent a lot of time together in creating a plan of where we see ourselves going in the future as an athletic department -- not just in football, but in all sports.
"He has a vision of how we utilize what we have to make ourselves the best, whether it be looking into expansion at the football stadium, and, obviously, we have a new basketball facility going in. Just that vision of making sure we were competing, if not at the top of facilities in the Southeastern Conference."
Upgrades are happening across the board in the SEC. The University of Mississippi recently put the finishing touches on a new basketball practice facility, and Auburn University is set to open a new basketball arena.
Mullen said he has received positive feedback from players and recruits about where MSU is compared to the rest of the league.
"You hear things about our facilities may be much better than someone else''s and other schools might be ahead of us in other aspects of it," Mullen said. "Our goal when a recruit leaves here is how are we at the top of every aspect of the recruiting facility? That was always something we tried to push: That our facilities were the most functional as well as our facilities being the best in the Southeastern Conference."