SI Vault
Jack McCallum
October 06, 1986
Reticent, reclusive Walter Byers, the executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, will retire in 1988. But as Byers begins to relinquish his 35-year-long grip on the NCAA, his throne is beset by problems and critics
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 06, 1986

In The Kingdom Of The Solitary Man

Reticent, reclusive Walter Byers, the executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, will retire in 1988. But as Byers begins to relinquish his 35-year-long grip on the NCAA, his throne is beset by problems and critics

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

"Any administrator is going to self-destroy if he becomes totally oriented to his public image," Byers said last week. Does the public perception of Byers as a loner bother him at all? "Not a twinge," he said. But it bothers others, and it has, whether he admits it or not, affected his performance in office.

Two interesting facts about Byers. He is no admirer of the press, even though he started out as a journalist. And, although he's been the No. 1 man in intercollegiate sports for almost four decades, he doesn't have a college diploma—not that he needed one.

Byers spent one year at Rice in 1940 before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he majored in English and minored in journalism. He worked for the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and it was there that he met his first wife, Marilyn McCurdy. Byers needed only nine hours to graduate when he quit school in 1943 and enlisted in the Army; he was eventually discharged because of an affliction known as "wandering eye." It is not particularly noticeable today but, upon close inspection, his left eye appears crossed and his eyes do not "track" correctly; he has worn glasses since he was 18 months old. Those close to him say he doesn't like to talk about his eye condition, but back in 1958 he joked to the Kansas City Star. "The Army was afraid I'd shoot the wrong person. When I went to the Navy and Marines after that, they just laughed at me." After his discharge he went to work for United Press (as it was then called) in St. Louis.

United Press moved him to Madison, Wis., Chicago and, finally, to New York City, where he was editor of the foreign sports desk. Byers' journalistic background is evident in his careful use of language. He rarely stumbles. "We have an intraoffice file on that," he'll say. If he doesn't exactly have the soul of an old newspaperman—once he left the profession, he never looked back—he at least has the heart. He does his work on a vintage black Royal typewriter. "I wouldn't think of using an electric," he says.

By 1947, Byers was anxious to return to the Midwest, so he took a job as assistant to Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson, commissioner of the Big Ten and secretary-treasurer of the NCAA. Byers had responsibility in both organizations, though the Big Ten in those days was far more important. The joint organization headquarters were located in the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago, which was owned by Avery Brundage, then a member of the International Olympic Committee.

"Avery used to come in at two in the afternoon and work till midnight," says Byers. "We'd get in violent arguments about what the colleges were doing. There was nothing that would stop him from giving us his monthly lecture on how professional he thought the colleges were getting."

In 1951 the NCAA broke off into a separate organization; Byers got the job as executive director on Oct. 1 of that year. One of his first actions was to move the NCAA headquarters to a more geographically central place, Kansas City, which, not coincidentally, was also Byers' birthplace. The office was first located in the Fairfax Building at 12th and Baltimore streets, across from the Continental Hotel, then it traveled a few blocks west to the Midland Building on West 11th Street. Finally, in 1972, Byers moved the office to its present location in Mission, a bedroom community that borders Kansas City, in prosperous Johnson County.

Whatever anyone thinks of Byers' long reign, there can be no doubt that the beginning of his administration also marked the beginning of the NCAA's modern era. "The NCAA prospered, in my opinion, because of three factors," says Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, who was the first NCAA employee Byers hired in 1952. "Enforcement, football on television and the basketball tournament. And Walter was the architect of all three."

Byers established the enforcement division in 1952, so long ago, he jokes, "that I remember having conflicts with the schools when Bear Bryant was at Texas A&M." One of his first challenges was the basketball point-shaving scandal of the early '50s, which he personally investigated. Byers also negotiated the first network TV football contract (with NBC, which bid about $1.2 million) in 1952, and he haggled with the networks on every succeeding contract. It was also his idea to establish the automatic conference qualifier, which added spice to the basketball tournament, and it was under his direction that the basketball TV package grew from a $180,000 afterthought in 1966 to the $32 million-a-year bonanza of today.

Neal Pilson, CBS executive vice-president and Byers' frequent bargaining opponent, characterizes the Solitary Man's skills at the table: "Tough, resilient, knowledgeable, intelligent and, in terms of the postnegotiation period, accessible and, at times, difficult. Certainly he's been representing his constituents. He has the ability to exasperate you. He is resolute and, yes, stubborn."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9