The worst thing about Byers' invisibility is not that it conveys the idea of a man who keeps his own counsel, a charge that his staff denies. The worst thing is that his low profile communicates the idea of a business with something to hide. "He has a very tight organization," says Betty Byers. "It's like the FBI. Things just don't get out. What's going on is pretty secret."
Santini still has what he calls "a J. Edgar Hoover-like impression" of the NCAA. "He [Byers] marches to his own drummer, and anybody who gets out of step in terms of his system, internally or externally, could find themselves on the Byers list," says the congressman. Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, an admirer of Byers who works closely with him on television negotiations for the basketball tournament, says: "Byers has been responsive to coaches when they've done it through channels, rather than as men on a crusade, like Dale Brown."
Well, here's news: Men on a crusade are part of Walter Byers' constituency, too. Brown has been down in Baton Rouge kicking and screaming and complaining about NCAA rules and regulations for years, yet Byers has never acknowledged him. Maybe it was shyness, maybe it was a belief that talking to the troops isn't part of his job, but it still comes across as institutional arrogance. In this respect alone does Byers falter.
Nobody knows exactly what Byers will do in his retirement. Perhaps he'll head for the Flint Hills and become a full-time rancher. The Seven Cross ranch has been through some tough times recently, as have many other farms and ranches across the country, but Byers vows: "When I pass it on, it will be sound for my heirs." Still, most close friends doubt that he can be happy ranching on a full-time basis. It's doubtful that he could hit the lecture circuit; he doesn't have the personality for it. Perhaps he'll write a book. Possible—Byers admits that he has thought about it, though he says it won't be an autobiography. Lord knows, whatever the book is, it will have all the commas in the right place.
"I obviously have some things in mind," said Byers last week, "but I'm not prepared to discuss them." In other words, get off it. Whatever he does, he'll do it quietly, efficiently and strictly on his terms. You can be sure of that.
"The challenge of life and what makes it exciting is to learn something from an experience and to develop and improve yourself through that experience, and to move on to the next job," Byers says. "That's what makes you a better individual."
Meanwhile, a six-member committee led by Wilford Bailey, Auburn's faculty representative, is in the process of selecting a new executive director. Byers has made it clear that he "does not want to play any part in the selection of my successor" and will leave it to the committee. The new executive director is expected to be in place by the spring of 1987, so that he will have some time to study Byers while the master is still on active duty.
The new leader will not, however, be another Solitary Man. At this point in its history the NCAA needs someone with a little more warmth and charm, someone who's willing to stroke a few egos, someone who's willing to sit down and schmooze with the college presidents.
But Byers won't be forgotten that easily. His mammoth empire, however flawed, endures. And so will the legacy of the emperor who seemed to have an invisible touch.