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.
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 Carrè, that he peruses The Wall Street Journal each morning. The window to his soul never opened.
"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."
Meanwhile, as Byers was pushing intercollegiate sports into the American mainstream, he was also instilling a machinelike efficiency in Kansas City. Around NCAA Central, the trains ran on time. Everyone worked half days on Saturdays. (Even today a skeleton staff comes in on Saturdays.) Byers gave up golf shortly after he got the job, and he didn't expect anyone else to do NCAA business on America's fairways, either. Once, he tried to sell Duke a set of clubs he had received as a gift. "Walter," said Duke, "I'll buy them if you give me some time off to play." Byers turned away and said, "Never mind."
One of his early innovations was a booklet called NCAA Office Policies-and Procedures. Frequently revised, the current edition of Policies runs to more than 100 pages and details exactly what the Solitary Man expects of his employees. And what he expects makes Felix Unger seem a slob by comparison. Some examples:
•"Male administrators are to wear suits or sport coats and slacks, shirts and ties. Women administrators and nonadministrative employees are to wear dresses, suits, skirts or slacks and blouses. All blouses must cover the waistline and below at all times." (Rule 6.1.1 Office Conduct.)
•"All office drapes, including thermal drapes, are to be drawn at the time the occupant leaves his or her office for the day." (9.3.1 under The NCAA Buildings.)
•Smoking is not permitted except in the lunchroom during lunch periods (Byers gave up the habit in 1954). Beverages (coffee, milk, soda, juice, you name it) are not permitted at desks. At one time NCAA employees could take breaks, but Byers cut them out. "I thought it was a good idea, but people abused them," said Marge Fieber, who retired last year after having worked for the executive director as his personal secretary for 8 of her 33 years with the NCAA.
"Look, I operate under the premise that some people work because they enjoy it and some people work only because they have to," said Byers. "So I hope that we hire people who enjoy work and who enjoy doing something constructive. If I hire those kinds of people, they stimulate each other. Now, if you believe that, and I do, then you should give them a good place to work because it facilitates the process."
It also leads to the conclusion among some NCAA critics that a bunch of Stepfordites, Puritans and Byers worshipers are manning Mission Kansas Control. Says Donna Lopiano, the women's athletic director at the University of Texas and the former president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which operated independent of the NCAA until 1982: "Byers runs the NCAA with stern corporate efficiency. It's motivated by his administrative style, which is sterile. Walter doesn't want human beings who make mistakes. He wants robots."
Yes, there is an unmistakably antiseptic air to the offices in Mission. The Solitary Man hires carefully, and NCAA staff is, for the most part, made up of careful people who do careful things. "I still make notes of all my phone calls," said one former employee. "Walter taught me that." Says Charles Alan Wright, a noted University of Texas law professor who chaired the NCAA's Committee on Infractions from 1978 to '83: "It may be true that the NCAA office is run like a plantation, but if so, the slaves seem happy with their lot."
Byers had a life away from the office—at one point, he admits, he was drinking too much and now limits himself to an occasional beer—but nobody knew much about it.
He and Marilyn were married in September of 1946 and had three children: Ward, now 37; Ellen and Frederick, called Fritz, 31. The kids did well, as Baby Boomers were supposed to do. Today, Ellen, the law professor, is married to an FBI agent; Ward is an employee of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the father of two children; and Fritz, a lawyer in Toledo, recently was married. Dad was on the road a lot, but he never brought the NCAA home with him; he was always able to compartmentalize. "The NCAA was not a great part of the children's lives," says Ward.
Walter and the boys shot hoops in the driveway. A former rink rat, Byers helped coach his sons' youth hockey teams. (Remember, though, don't press him on this top-secret subject.) He also was an all-city center in football. But Byers did not stress athletics with his children. "Though intense in his pursuit of quality," says Ward, "I don't remember him being an intense competitor when he played with us. He watched us play, but he never promoted sports over everything else."
In 1977, Byers married Betty Sooby, whom he had met several years before. (Ward Byers and Betty's son, Brad, were fourth grade classmates in Shawnee Mission public schools.) Byers, whom admirers have called "brilliant" but never "warm," required Betty to sign a prenuptial agreement. It prevented her from seeking alimony or property settlement in the event of divorce. Byers first filed for divorce against her in May 1982. Betty counterfiled and was granted a divorce on Dec. 16, 1982.
"I was in love with him and probably willing to do just about anything," Betty says. "I didn't realize there was anything about divorce in there. You don't go into a marriage thinking about a divorce. He really shouldn't be married. He can't share. He can't trust."
The one constant in the private life of Walter Byers—a life so orderly and routine that Betty said, "You could almost set your clock by it"—has been his Seven Cross ranch in the northern reaches of the Flint Hills in Pottawatomie County, halfway between Topeka and Manhattan. The ranch covers more than 6,950 acres, about 3,000 of which are owned by Byers; he leases the rest. With the help of ranch foreman Vern Boswell, 60, Boswell's son, Ken, and one other ranch hand, Byers runs about 1,100 head of cattle, the majority suckling calves and yearlings. There are 61 miles offence on the gently rolling property, and Byers and the hands put up 2,000 bales of hay annually. He is mostly a self-taught rancher, but it's apparently in his blood. Byers, a small Texas town just north of Wichita Falls, was named after Walter's grandfather, who once owned a 35,000-acre ranch between Wichita Falls and the Red River. Walter's father, Ward, a Kansas City real estate man, was the one who purchased the original 774 acres of the ranch back in 1924. Walter inherited the property in 1968 after his father's death.
For the last 20 years he has kept meticulous notes (for Byers, there are no other kind) in a stockman's journal: time of his arrival, weather, grass conditions. "It's very meaningful to him," says Ellen, "because his father and grandfather were in ranching, and there is, I'm sure, a sense of preserving history."
Around the ranch Byers is able to relax. "You'd never know he wasn't ol' farmer Brown," says Vern Boswell. "When he comes out he doesn't put on a fancy shirt. He's strictly a cow man. You'll see him in his blue jeans, his western hat and his high-top Tony Lama boots, probably with some spurs on." Local folks just call him Walt and don't give a damn about the graduation rate at UNLV or the pulpit-thumping of Dale Brown at LSU. Byers does a little reading—Betty recalls that he went through "a Shakespeare period"—looks after the cattle, rides an aging quarterhorse named Levi, talks about the rain, muses about the relative worth of Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem grass, and reads such journals as Grass & Grain. He was considered "a city guy" when he first started ranching, and his neighbors weren't eager to help out. But Byers was eager to learn. "Well," said Vern, "get your butt in a pickup and I'll show ya'." Now, says. Boswell, "He's very, very knowledgeable." Vern Boswell is probably the only man who has told Walter Byers to get his rear end in a pickup.
From all accounts, Byers is a different person when he's home on the range. "He can change his whole personality out there at the drop of a coin," says Betty. "It was interesting, but a little hard to deal with. I looked forward to those weekends because I felt Walter had left the NCAA and we were closer."
But even around the ranch, he keeps the world at bay and rarely opens up. There's a great deal of mutual respect between Byers and the elder Boswell, yet the foreman learned of Byers' impending retirement from the newspaper. Many of Byers' closest associates, like Jernstedt and Dave Cawood, the NCAA's assistant executive director for communications, have never been invited to the ranch. Nor has Duke, though he has known Byers for almost 40 years. None feels slighted either—that's just the way the Solitary Man operates.
The ranch is not only his refuge from the present, it's also his link to the past and his legacy for the future. His three children have bought a 500-acre addition to the ranch known as Four Corners. Now Byers has everything he wants at the ranch—serenity, security and preservation of his own history.
By all accounts he never wanted to be anything except what he is. Certainly he could have run for office, if not on his personality, then at least on his record. A conservative Republican, he does have a passing interest in politics, a subject he will discuss from time to time. But there is no Happy Chandler in the man. Captain of industry? Surely his bottom-line efficiency and experience make him a candidate. But there is no Lee Iacocca in the man.
Tub-thumping moralist of the American way? Byers would seem to be a likely recruit, what with his long experience as watchdog of amateurism, his belief in the ultimate purity of intercollegiate athletics and his leadership of the NCAA's aggressive drug-testing program. But that Sunday suit doesn't quite fit him either. Though he and his family used to attend a Protestant church in Kansas City, organized religion is no longer a major part of his life. The only Bible in evidence around Mission Control is Byers' office handbook. There is no Oral Roberts in the man.
No, in the end the Solitary Man has forced us to judge him on his terms. And those terms are: What kind of job did I do? Here is an assessment:
CONTRIBUTIONS TO SPORTS
Byers' salary was last reported (in 1983) as $78,450. In May 1982 contracts were in effect that would have brought him about $200,000 in annuities, pensions and deferred compensation; it's almost certainly a higher figure now. In addition, a noncompetition contract will pay him $10,000 annually one year after retirement as long as he doesn't "perform services for any other athletic organization without the written consent of the NCAA." He's worth every penny.
Byers did for the NCAA what Arnold Palmer did for golf—he made it attractive to the mass market. He had (and still has) uncanny foresight and an unusual comprehension of every side of an issue. Quite early, Byers saw the importance of television for sports and the absolute need to extract a revenue base from the basketball tournament. Consider this from Lopiano, a critic: "The NCAA was nothing until Walter Byers."
INTEGRITY IN OFFICE
In November 1985 The Washington Post disclosed that since 1978 the NCAA had provided more than $600,000 in no-interest mortgage loans to its staff, the largest amount going to Byers through a loan of $118,000. In addition, Byers and Louis J. Spry, the NCAA's controller, received loans at preferential rates from United Missouri Bank of Kansas City, where the NCAA deposits much of its money. The Post reported that the Spry-Byers loans were worth $500,000. Although the loans clearly represent preferential treatment, they are commonplace in corporate America and not illegal. After the article was published, a rankled Byers took issue with some of the Post's figures and pointed out that his loans (with an outstanding balance of about $244,500 at that time) were not personal but were made to the Byers Seven Cross Ranch, Inc.
But are the loans palatable considering the NCAA is a public institution charged with the trust of 991 members? Though the loans were mentioned in footnotes to the NCAA's annual report, they were a mystery to several prominent NCAA officials, among them president John R. Davis and secretary-treasurer Wilford S. Bailey. A man with Byers' insight and business acumen should have avoided even the appearance of irregularity.
Law professor Wright says that the NCAA loans constitute "a perfectly legitimate fringe benefit for keeping upper-level staff people." Part of the NCAA's official rationale for the loans, according to an NCAA Executive Committee document, is that "it would be less expensive to benefit the executive director by such a loan rather than to tender him a corresponding salary increase." But Wright considers the bank loans "the more questionable thing. That doesn't look very good. I'd feel better if Lou and Walter borrowed their money from somewhere the NCAA doesn't keep its money."
On another front, there are university coaches and administrators who swear that Byers has it in for them, that he uses the power of his office through the NCAA's investigative and enforcement divisions to settle personal vendettas. Certainly, that would constitute a breach of integrity. But unless there's a John Dean out there in Mission, this charge can never be proved. In fact, Byers' associates, past and present, mention his integrity and dispassion above any other qualities. "It was not a game to see how many notches he could put in his belt," said Warren Brown, the NCAA's first full-time investigator, who worked under Byers from 1966 to '77. "I never heard from any council member that he tried to lobby or influence a penalty or finding." One individual with close ties to NCAA investigations recalled that on one occasion Byers felt that a penalty given to Oklahoma was too light. But the executive director didn't attempt to change it.
Brown had this to say about his ex-boss: "You had respect for the man because he wasn't trying to gain anything personally." That's true. It gets back to the essence of Byers: He was never trying to be anything except the executive director of the NCAA, so his decisions, at least in that context, have to be respected. Even with the loans and the isolated charges of vendetta by certain schools, Byers deserves a high mark for integrity.
USE OF POWER
Byers takes disingenuousness to dizzying heights when he claims, as he frequently does, that he is a man with little power. "It doesn't matter what I think," Byers once said. "We're here to try and facilitate what the members want to get done in intercollegiate athletics." On other occasions he has advanced the idea that he is somewhat of a marionette, moving only when the member institutions pull his strings. Hogwash. Simply the duration of his reign—4 years longer than Clarence Campbell ran the NHL, 11 years longer than Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ran major league baseball, 15 years longer than Avery Brundage ran the IOC, 18 years longer than Maurice Podoloff ran the NBA—has given Byers great power. And if he doesn't want to call it power, if he wants to hide his whip behind the bylaws of the NCAA, then call it influence. It comes down to the same thing. "It's hard to know what changes are attributable to Byers," says Wright. "His influence is often hidden."
Certainly it's safe to say that Byers has been able to control the important NCAA Council for most, if not all, of the time. And the Council is the major decision-making body within the NCAA. Half of its 44 members are appointed by the various conferences and half are elected from an NCAA-backed slate of delegates. Not too much room for error there. "The NCAA in Mission is a strong central organization that has control over its members," says Illinois athletic director Neale Stoner. "If you think the members put together the legislation, you're crazy." It would be going too far to say that Byers has a wire into every council member. But by and large they are "his people." And they are everywhere, not just in Mission. For example, the presence of Duke in the Big Ten and Tom Hansen, his counterpart in the Pac-10, who worked under Byers for 15 years, cannot be overlooked. They head the two major conferences that did not break off from the NCAA to join the rival College Football Association. Their allegiance to Byers may be entirely proper and understandable. But Byers cannot pretend that a useful old-boy network does not exist.
In that context, then, he must be held responsible for some of the excesses of the NCAA. Byers is a stubborn man and seemingly unable to sympathize with schools embroiled in NCAA investigations. It is one thing to adopt that position as sheriff in Dodge City, Kans., quite another to hold it as NCAA executive director in Mission, Kans.
In his 1984 findings in the Tarkanian-NCAA trial, Judge Paul Goldman wrote, "In short, the NCAA now seems to say: 'If you want to play ball, you must join us, obey our rules and surrender any [Goldman's emphasis] claim you may have under the Bill of Rights.' This Court disagrees with that attitude, as any fair-minded person must." In another section, concerning the methods of some NCAA enforcement personnel, the judge wrote, "These NCAA practices might be considered 'efficient,' but so was Adolf Eichmann and so is the Ayatollah." And, in 1978, a 17-member U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was also highly critical of the NCAA's investigative and enforcement tactics, particularly as they pertained to due process.
True, the congressional hearings were largely the result of stumping by Nevada Congressman Jim (the Great) Santini, a close friend of Tarkanian's. But Santini doesn't speak for Judge Goldman, nor did he speak for the other congressmen on the committee who rendered the majority opinion against the NCAA.
More important, several universities—and not just the oft-penalized ones like SMU—have complained about the cloud that falls over their institution when the NCAA swoops in to investigate. Educators like C. Peter Magrath (formerly president of the University of Minnesota, now president of the University of Missouri), John A. Fuzak (retired associate dean of the College of Education at Michigan State and a former president of the NCAA council) and Thomas Day (president of San Diego State University) have harshly criticized the NCAA's heavy-handed investigative and enforcement procedures.
How does Byers respond? "I don't think the 'cloud factor' is a factor at all," he says. "I dismiss that, along with what I call the 'coaches' piety p.r.' And that is, 'Oh, the rulebook is so complicated that I just can't understand the rules.' " Eight years ago, Byers told the congressional subcommittee, "I think all the criticisms are surface and have no substance to them."
There you are. With swift and sure strokes Byers gives the back of his hand to legitimate concerns of at least a part of his constituency. He does not like to mention the fact that, yes, the NCAA was forced to change some of its procedures after the congressional investigation.
True, there are schools that deliberately cheat, but there are also schools that have been victimized by the ambiguities and the trivial nature of some of the NCAA rules. And there have been coaches who were honestly tripped up by their own good intentions. "There should be more understanding by the NCAA that coaches are vulnerable to the player because they've developed empathy," said James Zumberge, president of USC. "The coaches have seen where some of these kids come from."
But Byers doesn't want to hear about empathy and shades of gray; he deals in black and white. To a certain extent, the Solitary Man has stood behind a bully pulpit located in an ivory tower.
The NCAA has frequently fought legal battles against the release of its internal documents. It says "no comment" so often that the phrase should be engraved on the front of Mission Control Kansas. The organization doesn't respond well to criticism. It doesn't like mavericks.
Byers is the reason for all this.
He doesn't always win, either. This past summer a federal district judge in Austin ruled that the NCAA must turn over to the court documents from its investigations of SMU's football program; the documents had been sought by two Dallas newspapers and WFAA-TV in Dallas. NCAA lawyers have already made it clear that they will exhaust every appeal before yielding any of the material. "I hope you have a historian on your staff," a lawyer for the Southwest Conference said to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
But it's not just the press that gets the cold shoulder. Byers has an obligation to be more out-front with his constituency, too. He may be genuinely shy, but the Solitary Man carries it to extremes, to the point of weakness.
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.
VIEWS FROM THE TOP
BYERS ON AN OPEN COLLEGE DIVISION: "The idea was not well received within the college community. The reason I advanced it [in 1984] was because the Olympics had just concluded...and clearly the Olympic movement is going to what amounts to an open division in most sports. Would it be in the best interest of the colleges to go to an open division for those programs that develop world-class athletes, forgoing all the administrative and enforcement strain that is put on the system by the [current] rules of amateurism? I think it was a valid proposal."
ON THE COLLEGE PRESIDENTS' COMMISSION: "I think what the presidents think: College athletics will lose acceptance if [the colleges aren't] successful in maintaining their athletic programs within an educational framework. It's in [the colleges'] long-term best interest to do that. I believe it can only be accomplished if the colleges can restrain the unthinking booster who is spoiling the system by improper and under-the-table payments. That's where the big effort is being made right now...with the presidents' commission. This involvement of the presidents not only augurs well for the future, but it [also] marks one of the most significant developments in a number of years. The CEOs are determined to change the course of intercollegiate athletics. I feel good about this, and, if this effort maintains its momentum, the future looks better than it [did], say, five years ago."
ON BOOSTERS: "It's the boosters with what I call a retarded mentality who can't understand that they must work within the system and not corrupt it with improper payments. They're really a minority, but once the brush-fire starts, it creates the temptation for other boosters and alumni to fight fire with fire.... Many of them are successful in their own right. In their businesses, if they have a goal they go out to achieve it, without restrictions, and they bring that energy to making their college programs successful...[it] tends to make them rebel and say, 'Who are they to tell us what to do?' "
ON ENFORCEMENT STAFF: "We have more [investigators] than we've had before. But you cannot police college athletics properly unless the universities are going to make a solid effort to apply and enforce the rules. That's the only way this system will work: if the CEOs give hands-on administration. I'm not one to argue for a larger enforcement staff. I think we've got to put our resources into backing the presidential initiatives. That, if it's maintained, will be far more effective than hiring 10 more investigators."
ON LEN BIAS'S DEATH: "From what I know today, that tragic incident doesn't point to the character of intercollegiate athletics.... I won't be drawn into saying whether [Lefty] Driesell [Maryland's basketball coach]...is a proper steward. I won't do that."
THE NCAA GOES AFTER DRUGS
First the good news. The NCAA's new testing program may eliminate the use of certain drugs in college sports. Now the bad news. It may transform collegiate sports into an Orwellian theater of paranoia.
More than 3,000 athletes playing in 74 NCAA championships and 19 postseason football games will be tested for more than 90 banned drugs, including, to the NCAA's credit, anabolic steroids. In basketball the NCAA will test eight players from each of the 64 tournament teams before or after their first-round games, then test the two teams after the title game. In Division I football 36 players (22 based on playing time, 14 at random) will be tested before and after each bowl game. In track the first three finishers in each event will be tested, plus two athletes chosen at random.
If any athlete tests positive for drugs after a game, his team's performance will be nullified. (Obviously, an NCAA official confided, the most competitive universities may feel compelled to begin their own testing programs. "Can you see a school going to the Orange Bowl," he said, "without having first tested its players, and risk us finding the one kid who tests positive?") It's possible there may be some modifications of the testing rules at the NCAA's January meeting.
Olympics-approved labs in Los Angeles and Montreal will analyze the samples, and there will be a stringent chain-of-custody system to ensure that the testing is "foolproof," to use the NCAA's hopeful words.
Walter Byers, who is genuinely haunted by drugs in college sports, dismisses concerns about the test's violation of civil liberties. If you don't agree to be tested, the NCAA's executive director says, you don't have to play college sports.