But why is the Solitary Man so solitary? The official reason out of Mission Control is that Byers feels he can function better, more objectively, if he's taking care of business in the home office instead of shooting the bull on the road. He honestly believes that, and to a certain extent he's right. Another reason, though, is that Byers is an intensely private man who is uncomfortable in the spotlight. "My dad is not a glory-seeking person," says his daughter, Ellen Byers, 35, a professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka. "In his value system, that is just not something he'd want to spend much time on. He would consider it exploiting his role and the trust given him by the universities."
Another reason is that Byers is perhaps more than a little paranoid. He has been known to register at hotels under an assumed name, and he has instructed his children and closest circle that his home phone number and whereabouts on the road are never to be given out.
"Why he's so private I don't know," says Betty Byers, who was granted a divorce from Byers in December 1982. (Byers' first wife, Marilyn, who has since died, divorced him in 1971.) "Maybe that caused some of our problems because I'm a people person, and he definitely is not. I don't think he is really comfortable in a group of people unless it's connected with the NCAA.
"I couldn't tell you who his closest friends were. I'm not sure there were any. I don't think Walter would let anybody get that close. He didn't have a buddy. He's a loner, definitely a loner. He is very happy with his own company.
"Not many people know Walter Byers, and maybe I could say I had the privilege of knowing him. But I'm not sure he really wanted me to."
Byers has been treated neither roughly nor with kid gloves by the press. Rather, he hasn't been treated much at all. He grants interviews sparingly and, when he does, he sticks to the issues. He does not fall for the feature-angle feints and keeps an interview on his intended course. PEOPLE magazine need not call.
In 1984, the NCAA seemed to be on the ropes, as body blows rained down from the Supreme Court (which had limited the NCAA football television monopoly), the rival College Football Association (whose challenge led to the Supreme Court's decision) and the district court in Nevada (which had ruled in favor of Tarkanian in the well-publicized due process case). Suddenly, many university presidents were wondering why they were sitting in the backseat and Walter Byers was driving.
Asked about the NCAA's problems at the time, Byers skillfully turned the interview away from critical questions about his administration to his own probing thoughts about an "open division" in college athletics, an idea that meant a dismantling of the present concept of amateurism to accommodate the big-money climate of the '80s. It was heavy stuff, especially coming from a steadfast proponent of amateurism.
Byers dodges questions with the best of them, sometimes with an icy stare, sometimes with humor. Last week, when asked about his salary, he told SI's Bruce Selcraig, "I'd have to look it up. I think that's not relevant. Tell your editors you pressed me and I was obdurate."
As a conversation with Byers moves toward more personal topics, he grows fidgety, evasive. At one point in the interview two years ago he jumped up and said with mock seriousness, "Do you know that I retired as an undefeated amateur ice hockey coach in Kansas City?" It was a light comment and was taken as such, but Byers immediately clammed up when pressed for details. He went over to adjust a fan and said, "Look, I'll take one more of these personal questions, and that's it." Later he revealed that he doesn't jog, that he has read Shogun and a lot of John Le Carré, that he peruses The Wall Street Journal each morning. The window to his soul never opened.