TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Some recognize him in time for a photo or handshake, maybe for a “you’re doing a great job” or a “Roll Tide, GB!” Others recognize him too late, and as he whisks by, they’ll whisper to a companion, “I think that was the athletic director,” and the other replies, “What’s he doing up here with us?” Up here is Section LL and KK in the upper reaches of Bryant-Denny Stadium. On this chilly Saturday afternoon, there you will find Greg Byrne, glad-handing and picture-taking with befuddled Alabama ticket holders wondering why the leader of their athletic department is interacting with the commoners in the nosebleeds and not the dignitaries on the field.
Before he climbs steps and crosses ramps to get way up here, Byrne marched the one-third of a mile from his office to the stadium. He sidled up to fans at crosswalks, high-fived students and directed game-goers to their appropriate gates. He fist bumped stadium entry workers, encouraged game security officers and even greeted visiting fans with a hearty “Welcome to Alabama!” All of this came after he met in his office with millionaire boosters and before he socializes on the field with some of the nation’s best high school football players. Amid this all, he’s making time to spend with family members, occasionally checking Twitter and feverishly texting as part of daylong conversations with operations officials.
Meanwhile, the man hired to protect him during these maddening long game days is just trying to keep up. Mike Harris sometimes loses the man he’s tasked to guard amid a sea of Crimson and White. Byrne is known as a fast-walker, his long-legged strides covering what seems like twice the ground of a normal man. His traditional pre-game march in and around Bryant-Denny Stadium sometimes traverses five miles in a matter of less than two hours, and he’ll politely remind those in his wake that they’d better keep up. “You look up and he’s gone,” says Harris, a 17-year member of the Alabama State Troopers assigned to Byrne. “Good thing he’s 6 foot 6. He towers over everyone.”
Welcome to life as a major college athletic director on football game day. Sports Illustrated requested and was granted access to follow Byrne—and his security guard—for more than eight hours Saturday, as they weaved through crowds much larger than normal. Alabama hosted LSU in a showdown between top-three, unbeaten SEC western division rivals in an event dubbed as the biggest regular season college football game since the two met in 2011. There was something else: U.S. president Donald Trump attended the game. While Alabama appreciated the visit, it added an additional layer of anxiety to an already encumbered game-day operations crew. Despite all of this, Byrne kept mostly to the same routine. In fact, he was busy enough on Saturday that he didn't even get to see the President. After all, why hang out with the leader of the free world when you can rub elbows with fans in the nosebleeds, some of whom refer to you by role and not by name. “You see that man,” says one Alabama fan to his young son, gesturing toward Byrne, “that’s Coach Saban’s boss.”
Greg Byrne hasn’t eaten anything in about 15 hours. This is how he likes it. He subscribes to a diet that calls for fasting from 8 p.m. to noon the next day. In six months, he’s lost 10 pounds. But on this busy Saturday morning, Byrne is breaking his diet, eating a small peanut butter-flavored energy bar about 90 minutes before noon. He apologizes for this, which is incredibly unnecessary, but that’s his style. Later in the day, someone asks him the secret to being a successful athletic director and he dispenses three words that you’d expect from a man who apologizes to a virtual stranger for breaking his own diet. “Treat people right,” Byrne tells the person.
Byrne, 48, is on his third stop as a major college athletic director, a once-rising star in the college sports world who has expectedly risen, a path taking him from Mississippi State to Arizona to now Alabama, where he’s the boss of one of the game’s best coaches ever and the captain of the fifth-richest athletic department in the country. Though he’s over the proverbial hill, Byrne is one of the new athletic directors in college sports—for his approach, not his age. The athletic director role has evolved over the years from the gruff ex-football coach to the invisible businessman to the savvy fundraiser to, now, the tweeting, fan-friendly marketer. Not only are these new ADs active on social media—one even accepts all direct messages—but they are comfortable from behind the podium and they work a crowd like a campaigning politician. They are the face of a program, someone who communicates with a legion of fans, whether through social media or pregame visits to the far reaches of Bryant-Denny Stadium. “I think everything evolves. College sports is no different,” Byrne says. “I think it’s important for me that in my leadership style that they don’t view me as locked away in some tower. I enjoy interacting with our student athletes and fans.”
In many places, long gone are the days of athletic directors you never saw, those buried in an office and shielded from the public. “Nothing wrong with the coach and ex-coach or a traditional candidate,” Texas AD Chris Del Conte says, “but the profession has become more professionalized.” Del Conte and Byrne are not the only administrators subscribing to this new athletic director model. In fact, Byrne and Del Conte lead a group of ADs who have for the past few years met annually in a type of summit. The participants of this summit are kept somewhat secret, but at least two other members are known: Florida AD Scott Stricklin and Virginia Tech’s Whit Babcock. Babcock says Byrne initiated the first of these meetings about five years ago in Chicago. “It’s a chance to let your hair down a little bit and talk to people who walk in your shoes,” Babcock says.
Byrne is one of the more aggressive administrators in the industry. He is the son to longtime college athletic director Bill Byrne, who some herald as bringing Oregon athletics out of the “dark ages,” says former Ducks football coach Rich Brooks. Greg Byrne served as Brooks’s ball boy at age 12, turned down small-college basketball scholarship offers at 18 to attend Oregon and, at one point, served as a valet and bellman at a Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix before joining his father’s line of work. He was meant for this. In fact, in his office in Tuscaloosa hangs on the wall a framed research project that Greg produced in the fourth grade titled “Athletic directors and assistant athletic directors,” his name below it in the kind of penmanship you’d expect from a 9-year-old. He received an ‘A’ on the project, and now four decades later, he’s the AD at Alabama. “I planned this a long time ago,” laughs Bill Byrne, in town to watch Alabama play LSU from his son’s suite in the press box, “but really, it’s part of the family business.”
Byrne’s oldest son Nick, in fact, is already working in athletics as a development coordinator with Mississippi State. Greg left the family business for nearly two years in 2005 to become a salesman for a technology company, a father’s attempt to have weekends free while he and wife Regina raised two young boys. “He didn’t have the passion for it,” says Marilyn Byrne, his mother. The passion returned long ago, as seen in his game-day schedule. Before his walk to the stadium, Greg grabs an outfit accessory off the hanger, a Crimson plaid sports coat. It is subtle yet stylish, and its stripes match his Navy blue pants. The ensemble is topped off by a hounds-tooth tie and… blue Nikes? “I wear tennis shoes on game days,” he says. Greg puts in roughly 18,000 steps on a normal home game day. That’s about eight miles. Moments before heading out, Greg cranks the volume up on a television set showing ESPN College GameDay, broadcasting live from Alabama’s campus. He wants to hear the picks of the broadcast team. As soon as Lee Corso pulls a hidden Tiger head from beneath the desk, Greg flips off the television and strides toward the door. “OK!” he exclaims. “Let’s go!”
Nick Saban isn’t the only savvy recruiter on Alabama’s campus. Greg Byrne isn’t too far behind. This is part of his home game-day schedule, schmoozing with both prospective football and basketball players on the field just before kickoff. “We’ve got 90 recruits here with offers,” an Alabama staff member says. “I’ve selected three for him to speak with.” One of the three just so happens to be South Carolina defensive end Jordan Burch, the No. 2-ranked overall prospect in the 2020 class.
Byrne’s pitch to recruits is pretty simple. Come to Alabama and we’ll develop you in the three most important areas of life: academically, athletically and personally. “At some point ball is going to end, OK?” he tells one. Byrne is attentive enough at the recruiting aspect of his job that he assembled his office strictly for hosting prospects, he admits. Maybe there’s a reason these two guys—Saban and Byrne—get along so well. “I tell people that it’s a partnership,” Byrne says. “He’s been awesome.” Saban is 68 going on 50, Byrne likes to say. He watches Saban coach during practice from his second-floor office window and is left scratching his head. How does he have so much energy? In the fall, the two men meet each Sunday afternoon. They are somewhat opposites in how they express their emotions. Saban is known for his explosive anger, at times using profane language. And Byrne? “If you hear a ‘Gosh darn it,’ you’re in trouble,” smiles Jeff Purinton, Alabama’s executive associate athletic director.
On this Saturday before these two titans meet, Byrne displays all of the characteristics of the new athletic director in college sports. He’s not stuck in his suit, not boozing with donors in some fancy club level, but he’s out with the people, parading around the stadium like a politician running for re-election—right down to knowing everyone’s name. That’s the hardest part of the transition to a new school. Sure, you’ve got to learn the customs and traditions but try memorizing thousands of names. Just as he’s describing that challenge, up walks a man, “Hey Greg!” Byrne doesn’t miss a beat, “Hey, Hunter!”
Moments later, Byrne is at the highest possible point in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the west side upper deck. He began the pregame and sometimes in-game tradition of visiting random parts of the stadium during his first AD role at Mississippi State. He even takes the custom on the road, milling about among traveling Alabama fans from the visiting section. “The only thing that changes is our attire,” says Mike Harris, the 39-year-old Alabama trooper who’s spent every season since Byrne arrived in 2017 assigned to him on game days. Byrne and Harris are in short-sleeve collar shirts on those sticky September and October days in the south. And even then, they do enough walking that Harris sometimes must change shirts halfway through the day. This Saturday is cool, the temperature barely cracking into the 60s and the sun shining brightly.
It’s a big game, sure, but Byrne above anything else is more nervous about a tradition he plans to bring back: playing country music hit “Dixieland Delight” during the third quarter. Vulgar chants from students during the rendition of the song led Byrne to shorten it or completely stop it from being played. He took some heat for it, so there is a new plan: infuse white noise to drown out the obscenities. Just before the song booms over Bryant-Denny Stadium, Byrne alerts everyone in his suite to listen. He hopes—no, prays—that enough white noise has been added. After all, this a nationally televised game on CBS and his parents—his parents!—are sitting right next to him. Two minutes later, he and Purinton exchange high-fives—the song was a success.
And so too was Donald Trump’s visit to Tuscaloosa. The president arrived just before kickoff and left at some point in the third quarter. Trump occupied a suite near the 50-yard line belonging to an Alabama booster who donated heavily to his campaign. Byrne was the first person at Alabama athletics to learn of Trump’s plans to attend the game. He received two calls at 6:30 a.m. Sunday from an unknown number, ignoring them both, because weekend mornings are his only real downtime during the week. “I got a text after the second call,” Byrne says. He called the number back and got the news. The president plans to attend the game. He told Saban that afternoon. There were no real issues during the visit. Some private planes carrying donors had to land in Birmingham or Columbus, Mississippi, instead of Tuscaloosa. Many fans adhered to the school’s warnings and arrived early. Secret Service agents were in town as early as Monday, five full days before kickoff, and the U.S. government brought metal detectors to station at each gate. The government first proposed to bring 60 metal detectors. The school convinced officials to more than double that. “Thankfully,” Byrne says, “they brought 150.”
At an Alabama home game last year, Greg Byrne noticed his Twitter notifications dinging more than normal. He scrolled through them to learn that toilets in one particular bathroom of Bryant-Denny Stadium were clogged and overflowing. Within seconds, he alerted attendants. Toilets were unclogged. The mess was cleaned up. Problem solved. “You can’t manage by Twitter, but you can get a feel of the common themes,” Byrne says. “I don’t sit and read all my mentions, but I do look at them occasionally to try to help get a feel for any trending things.”
Byrne says he gets about 75% of his news from the social media site these days, and he’s recently taught his father Bill to tweet. Greg has embraced Twitter, just like dozens of athletic directors across the nation. Among his close-knit group of colleagues, Scott Stricklin at Florida and Texas’s Chris Del Conte are most active. “Some topics are too nuanced for 240 characters,” says Stricklin. “I have some unofficial rules. If someone uses an alias or profanity, I’m not going to respond to them.” Del Conte takes a different approach. He has open direct messages. “Greg and Stricklin were doing social first,” Del Conte says. “I was like ‘That makes me nervous.’ I started looking at it. I spend a lot of time worrying about donors and stuff, but I think social for me is communicating constantly with our fans about their program. I opened it up to everybody. My wife will say ‘What are you doing?’ The idea is you’re taking the mystique out of the office. Our main job is to support you. We’re all in this together. Their voice matters.”
Social media has impacted some programs more than others. At UCF, athletic director Danny White attributes the Golden Knights’ success to the athletic department’s aggressive push on social. “I don’t think we would have accomplished what we accomplished here the last few years without social,” he says. “We’ve doubled our donor base in three years, doubled our season-ticket base.” Whit Babcock at Virginia Tech calls his social media game “a work in progress.” He is far less active than his colleagues, but one tweet he posted in August became somewhat of a viral sensation. A North Carolina radio station posted a tweet rhetorically asking if Tech coach Justin Fuente’s job was in danger. Babcock, not mentioned or tagged in the station’s tweet, replied to the post with one word: No. “I need to have a burner account,” he laughs. “I think of funny things that I want to say but… I enjoy when you take a little heat and then come back to win the game. Social is a necessary part of the game and there’s no manual on how to do it.”
Byrne used social media to cap the day, firing off a post about two hours after the game that featured a dozen game day workers
LSU eventually won Saturday’s game, 46-41, over the Crimson Tide. Byrne watched the Tigers secure the victory by snaring an onside kick in the final seconds. Outside of the result, things went off without a hitch. He received no wild Twitter notifications of clogged toilets. The president’s visit sailed smoothly in and out. Byrne even got to meet a pair of NFL celebrities, Terrell Owens and Ray Lewis, both in attendance watching the game from the sideline. After the game, he visited the Alabama locker room before conducting a meeting on the field with operations officials, and then it was off to home where he planned to eat pizza—as long as it was before 8 p.m.