A look at the unique leadership style of the NCAA’s first executive director
Walter Byers never liked public attention when he was in charge of the Association, and he certainly doesn’t enjoy it in retirement more than 21 years later.
These days he quietly, and privately, raises cattle on his Kansas ranch. He made his feelings about the state of modern college sports clear in his 1995 book “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.” Having had his say, the NCAA’s original executive director says no more.
Self-promotion has no place in Walter Byers’ world, so he would be the last to worry about his lasting image. If people concern themselves with his disdain for the media; with his quirky, out-of-fashion sideburns; or with whether he banned coffee at the desks of the national office, he would not care. If others believe that he somehow created a coldly efficient organization that somehow reflected his own personality, he would dismiss it as psychological mumbo-jumbo.
The fact is that Walter Byers was a leader of immense substance who was fiercely loyal to what college sports should stand for. He was relentless in his pursuit of quality, and he worked tirelessly and successfully on behalf of the Association.
Much of the record after Byers’ 1987 departure was created by reporters who were charmed by the more open ways of his successor, Dick Schultz. By contrast, Byers was cast as eccentric, reclusive and even angry.
Any of the terms may have an element of truth, but those who associated with him day in and day out over his 36 years of service say that they do not begin to describe the essence of a complicated and effective leader – or what it was like to work for him.
Walter Byers often walked to the edge of excess, but he almost always stopped short. He was driven, but not obsessive. He was tough, but not abusive. He was confident, but not arrogant. He was demanding, but usually reasonable.
“He challenged people to get from them, for their own benefit, the most that he could,” said Lydia Sanchez, Byers’ assistant from 1971 to 1984. “He pulled it out of them, and sometimes not in the most gentle fashion.”
Indeed, memories of the stern leader still burn brightly.
Forty-one years have passed since the 1968 Convention in New York City, but a select group of NCAA administrators can still recall how their diminutive executive director assailed them one January morning for what he considered sloppy work. They included future conference commissioners Chuck Neinas, Wiles Hallock and Tom Hansen. Others present were Gene Duffy, the NCAA championships director of the day; Arthur Bergstrom, one of Byers’ early chief lieutenants; enforcement director Warren Brown; and Louis Spry, eventually the Association’s chief financial officer and a publications specialist at the time.
“He chewed everybody,” Spry said. “He had something on everybody in the room. It was pretty much, ‘If you don’t like the way this is working, don’t let the doorknob hit you in the ass on your way out.’ When he walked out, we all kind of just looked at each other and just shook our heads, and nobody said a word.”
Said Hansen, now the commissioner of the Pacific-10 Conference: “He cut us to ribbons.”
Certainly, that aspect of the Byers’ reputation has no trouble surviving. He had a temper, and he was willing to use it. However, there was a sense of urgency in the first half of his career that is hard to appreciate more than 50 years later. When Byers was presented with the opportunity to create an NCAA national office in 1951, he probably knew even at the age of 29 that he had found his life’s work. But he was given few resources, either in terms of staff or money, to deal with the monumental task that faced him. Success would have to come from his imagination, his own effort and the hard work of those around him. Once he found a winning formula, he never abandoned it.
The list of assignments for Wayne Duke, Byers’ first administrative hire, included publications, press releases, basketball tournament and College World Series administration, Executive Committee and Council minutes, television administration, Convention administration, relations with coaches associations, and countless other time-consuming duties.
“But you could never be concerned about working long and hard because Walter was the first guy to do it himself,” Duke said. “And we did work long and hard.”
If the pace was brutal, it was surprisingly sustainable, at least for Byers.
“One of the things I’ll never forget,” Hansen said, recalling a period 20 years later, “is coming back from the Convention – and this isn’t just once, but a number of years – but we would have been there for five or six or seven days, and we were operating on very little sleep over that period. And we would land in Kansas City on the 7th, 8th or 9th of January and it would be cold and dark and miserable. We would get back at 5 o’clock at night, and he would immediately go to the office and start working.”
For Byers, the work was hands-on. High-level written work was closely scrutinized, and memos and reports from Byers’ closest subordinates were subject to tight review.
Sanchez recalled how one staff member’s report was returned with Byers’ notation “Pablum” written neatly in the margin with his trademark green ink. NCAA News editors became familiar with the term “puff piece.” Everything was supposed to have substance, be correct and get directly to the point.
“He would ask me to prepare a document that in my mind was worth five or six pages,” said NCAA Executive Vice President Tom Jernstedt, who joined the staff as director of championships. “I’d send it to him in draft form, and it would come back in about three paragraphs. And I thought I was always fairly concise.”
Maybe it was just his nature, or maybe it was because Byers thought college athletics had no margin for error if it was to be taken seriously as part of higher education. Whatever the motivation, the impression of carelessness was to be avoided at all costs.
Duke recalled Byers walking by his desk and picking up a freshly printed Television Committee report. “He just flipped through it, and somewhere in the middle of the book, it was supposed to say ‘The spirit and purposes of this resolution...’ Well, there was a typo, and it came out, ‘The spirit and purposes of this revolution...’ And he found that one typo and said, ‘We’ve got to reprint this.’ That was typical Walter.”
Rather than resenting such tight oversight, staff members embraced it.
“He was the only person I’ve ever known, certainly one of the few that anyone ever knew, who was both leader and manager,” said longtime senior staff member Ted Tow. “He had the vision. He could see that things got done, and he could do them himself if he had to, and he did.”
The one thing he did not do was promote himself or the national office. Whether it was simply a shortcoming or whether it was by design is subject to interpretation.
“Walter was very much a loner,” Duke said, “and I think if Dave Cawood (a former Association public relations executive who died in July 2008) were here to tell you about it, he and I would come out in the same place, which is that Walter ought to have been a better PR man than he was.”
It was not, however, the prevailing view among staff members of the day.
“Walter had plenty of ego,” Spry said, “but I don’t think he craved the limelight. He was pleased if something got done the right way. I don’t know how many times I heard him say, ‘Good administrators don’t get their names in the paper.’ ”
In fact, that expression was something of a national office mantra. Byers was good to his word, usually scheduling only one news conference a year, at the annual Convention.
Did the image of the Association suffer as a result of his attitude? The modern-day consensus seems to say yes. However, the extended assumption of Byers’ aversion to news conferences is that he avoided all journalists all the time, which was not true. While he stayed away from reporters in the aggregate, he did interact with prominent writers whom he respected, such as Wilford Smith of the Chicago Tribune in the early days and Gordon White of the New York Times later on.
Further, even if the image of the Association had chinks by the time Byers left in 1987, the ongoing public impression of the Association over most of his tenure was most likely neutral, which is exactly where Byers wanted it to be. Still, Byers’ refusal to provide broad journalistic access lives on as evidence of his stubbornness or eccentricity, along with minor-league matters such as no beverages or food at employees’ desks, or Saturday morning work schedules for national office staff members.
The ban on food and drink also included a restriction on smoking, which also was out of step at the time but seems rather prescient now. The prohibition on drinks and snacks always seemed to be a bigger concern to people outside the office than to the employees themselves. “I would have enjoyed having a soft drink at my desk,” Jernstedt said, “but I respect the fact that he thought it was inappropriate, and I deferred to his experience.”
As for Saturday morning work, it was more of an inconvenience for staff members than a burden.
“Chuck Neinas and I used to talk about this all the time,” Duke said. “If we weren’t involved in college athletics, we would have gone to see a football game. But we worked on Saturdays.”
Byers never apologized for the policy, although he eventually relaxed it. A co-worker later told Hansen that he broached the subject of required Saturday work with Byers, and the simple response was: “We needed to do that to get the job done.”
And the job always did get done. In his excellent description of Byers in the NCAA Centennial book “In the Arena,” NCAA historian Joe Crowley noted that during Byers’ tenure, the Association’s membership grew from 381 to 1,003 and that the number of championships increased from 11 for men to 74 for men and women. His first television contract was for $1.1 million; the value of the last one that Byers negotiated was $74.2 million. He created a rules enforcement program largely from scratch. To get what he needed, Byers used every available tool, from inspiration to petulance to support.
In the formative times, Duke remembered that Byers motivated through a series of expressions. “Walter had various credos that he used,” Duke said. “ ‘First Things First: Take Care of Your Homework and Things Will Take Care of Themselves.’ And another was ‘Performance Commands Respect.’ To this day, I use that one. They don’t sound corny to me – I’ll tell you that. Walter believed in them.”
In case inspiration didn’t work, Byers could turn to his blustery side. Duke recalled how he had planned to go to a Missouri football game in Columbia one Saturday on television-related business even though Byers wanted him to stay home to produce a report. “It’s the only time I remember him being really ticked at me,” Duke said. “He was like ‘Damn it! I’ll do it myself!’ It was like growing up with your dad and you’re trying to get out of cutting the grass and he says ‘Damn it! I’ll do it myself! You go ahead and play ball or something.’ Well, Walter said go ahead and go. And I said, no, I would stay. And he said ‘No! Go!’ ”
But while Byers may have pushed the staff, he also supported it.
“After Neinas left,” Spry said, “I was the recording secretary for the Council, and Ernie Casale, the old AD from Temple, just ripped it. And they started to go on to something else and Walter said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Chair.’ And it was something like this: ‘Ernie, I’m not going to let you attack Lou’s efforts to bring this together.’ He didn’t ream Ernie out or anything like that. He just said, ‘Wait a minute.’ ”
While staff members benefited from Byers’ support, they had to earn it first.
David Berst, now vice president for Division I but director of enforcement during the Byers era said: “He would test the work by having the individual draft responses to difficult questions that were being posed, and he would ask the most difficult questions of me and others in private to see what our answers were. That’s how he measured whether we were living up to the standards that were intended.”
Berst said the exercise was more than just preparation.
“I never took anything personally,” he said, “and he would ask the most difficult things that might upset you personally if you were to take it that way. That was probably one of the ways he would get the measure of the person. He remains in my mind possibly the most intelligent person I’ve encountered, and I’ve been blessed to deal with many, many prominent, skilled people in the law and regulatory fields.”
When it came to enforcing the rules, Berst said that Byers was always hands off, never once suggesting how a case should be processed. In addition, Byers did not worry much about the public relations ramifications of tough decisions, such as in 1987 when Southern Methodist’s football program was suspended for a year in the Association’s only “death penalty” case. The announcement was left completely to Berst, who ended up fainting during the presentation.
“When I fainted listening to the school’s portion of the press conference,” Berst said, “I had the concern that I was going to encounter Walter somewhere. And I remember very explicitly walking up to him (after returning to Kansas City), him giving me sort of a grin and saying, ‘That just adds to the legend.’ That was his only comment, and it was perfectly appropriate.”
However much he supported the staff, Byers was not one to socialize with it. During his 16-year tenure, Hansen recalled one visit to Byers’ home and possibly one Christmas party there. Asked if there were social activities when the staff was made up of only five or so people, Duke said, “No. Never. Never. No, we never socialized. If there was any socializing, it was all on business – you know, a suite at meetings.”
Jernstedt recalled no out-of-office revelry, although he said Byers often would stop by his desk at 5:30 or so to just “shoot the bull.” Sanchez said that “he didn’t go to lunch with the guys and he didn’t play golf.”
But that was Byers. Work was work, and private life was private life. As it happened, his own private life was at times complicated, and some former associates believe that his temperament sometimes was adversely affected by circumstances occurring away from the office.
However, they uniformly reject the notion that he was consistently surly. He had a good sense of humor, one that relied more on repartee than story-telling. Jernstedt said that Byers was happiest when he was around those who would “fire back at him” – people like Harvey Schiller (at the time, the faculty representative at Air Force), Michigan AD Don Canham or Colorado’s Eddie Crowder. “There was a list of them who weren’t really intimidated by him,” Jernstedt said. “Those who came back at him, they were his buddies. Harvey in particular had that ability.”
Finally, Byers possessed a deep sense of devotion to those closest to him. Sanchez recalled how he blocked time, no matter how busy he was, to visit his elderly mother one afternoon a week. “It was something that he just made sure he did,” she said.
And when Sanchez’s husband Rod died in 1995, Byers was there for an unanticipated show of support.
“We had a rosary for Rod in old Kansas City, Kansas, in the small funeral home,” Sanchez said. “Mr. Byers showed. And, you know, for him that would have been a lot. And he stayed during the whole thing. I was shocked when I turned around and saw him there. I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, he did that for me.’ More than anything, it really touched me because, you know ... him? At a viewing? Sitting there for at least two hours?”
Perhaps his appearance shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, nobody ever accused Byers of failing to care. If anything, there may have been times when he cared too much.
But when Byers took the reins of the NCAA in 1951, intensive care is exactly what the Association needed. For the next 36 years, he continued to care, nurturing the organization into a one-of-a-kind success story.
“He is the Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison of the Association,” Tow said. “He is the founding father. The NCAA would not have become what it did with a person of lesser ability in charge.”
Since Byers was most definitely in control, we’ll never know what things would have been like without him. Instead, we live in a post-Byers world where more than 400,000 student-athletes benefit each year by participating under the structure that he helped create.
For his contributions, he deserves the respect of those who follow the path he charted.