Dallas—it's Saturday afternoon, March 29, 1986. The Solitary Man looks neither right nor left as he emerges from the elevator and makes his way across the crowded lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. It's the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Super Saturday—the semifinals of the basketball tournament are being held at nearby Reunion Arena—and the joint is jumpin'. But not the Solitary Man. He passes through the chaos almost unnoticed. And those who do recognize him are loath to approach, for Walter Byers suffers intrusions about as well as he suffers fools, which is not gladly.
The thing is, Byers should be wheeled through the Hyatt lobby in a jeweled chariot. Coaches and athletic directors should prostrate themselves at his feet, while Byers, smiling and waving, signs autograph books, raises his fist and kisses babies. After all, this is his scene, he created it. He was there at the beginning. It was Byers who did the foundation work for the tournament, and it was he who pried the big dollars out of the television networks. Forty-three million! That's the revenue, mostly from TV, to be generated by the 1987 NCAA basketball tournament—about 76% of the NCAA's $57.4 million operating budget in fiscal '86-87. That's the legacy of the Solitary Man.
But you won't see Byers pressing flesh in the lobby on Super Saturday. And you won't see him presenting the championship trophy in the victors' locker room after the final, either. He usually watches the championship game on the tube, back home in Kansas.
Byers is the only executive director the NCAA has ever had. He came aboard in 1951 when he was 29 years old, and his job didn't even have a description. Byers more or less made it up as he went along. Last August, at the age of 64, with a contract that extends until 1992, Byers revealed that he will retire early, probably in September 1988. Byers has always joked—yes, the Solitary Man has a sense of humor—that he was from "the George Meany school of retirement," in reference to the late labor leader who retired at 85. And, indeed, Byers' announcement surprised many of his associates, who felt that he would have to be dragged out of office by his cowboy boots.
Two things you should know about Byers: He almost always wears cowboy boots, and he always wears a toupee.
In his essay "Roosevelt Has Gone," Walter Lippmann wrote: "The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on." Byers will leave behind such men at the NCAA's corporate headquarters in Mission, Kans. One is Tom Jernstedt, assistant executive director for championships, an able man with conviction and will, as well as an unflagging allegiance to Byers. Jernstedt was once considered a logical successor to Byers, but it now appears that the organization will hire from the outside, "possibly a strong CEO-type from private industry," according to one insider.
"The thing that really intrigues me about the guy is that he continues to be more imaginative than anyone on the NCAA staff," says Jernstedt of his boss. "He's been in this job for 35 years and, still, he's always looking for a new and better way to do something."
The men and women who work directly for Byers agree with that assessment. That isn't surprising, of course, considering that following the party line has become an art form at the NCAA under Byers. But somehow one gets the idea that their respect for Byers—sometimes almost reverence—is authentic. In his 3½ decades, Byers has achieved something most corporate managers can only dream about: an office staff that does not whisper about him at the water fountain. Of course, under his buttoned-down, overly regulated, nose-to-the-grindstone administration, Byers has a staff that wouldn't dare whisper at the water fountain.
Yet, Byers' domain is larger than Mission, Kans. He is, and must be, a symbol of the NCAA not only to the Jernstedts, who see his organizational genius and probing mind up close, but also to his persistent critics, the Jerry Tarkanians and Dale Browns of the world, the Momuses who wonder if the Solitary Man is of flesh and blood. Well, that's not entirely true. "I did catch a glimpse of him once when we were in the same elevator," said Tark, who in 1984 defeated the NCAA in Nevada's Clark County district court after he challenged its sanctions against his basketball program at Nevada-Las Vegas. Indeed, it seemed to many in the Byers kingdom—major-college football coaches, big-time athletic directors, inquiring reporters—that Byers is a sort of Wizard of Oz, an invisible button-pusher hiding out somewhere on the Kansas plain. "Does he really exist?" Rev. Timothy Healy once asked, only half in jest. "For all I know he's a figment." This from the president of Georgetown University, an institution that went to the Final Four in 1982, '84 and '85.
Of course, no leader can be all things to all people, and that is as true for a Walter Byers as it is for a Ronald Reagan. Unquestionably, Byers' skillful stewardship has made a kingdom out of what once was a dot on the American sports scene. And he has done so with only a smidgen of personal controversy; the no-interest and low-interest loans given to Byers and other NCAA execs that were reported in The Washington Post in November 1985 are the only breaths of scandal ever attached to Byers. But meanwhile the Byers administration has to be considered a public relations failure. The Great Communicator he is not. In many quarters the NCAA is perceived at best as a colorless, unfeeling Kansas address and at worst as a faceless executioner. Byers' insistence on staying behind the scenes, his steadfast refusal to spread balm on the wounds of any college or university that has been scarred by the NCAA's enforcement division, is a major reason for those perceptions.