MSU Athletics is in the midst of a renaissance. Football is getting national attention for the first time in a long time, the baseball team is regaining prominence among the SEC elite, and basketball is getting lots of hype as well. In some of our less-popular sports, we recently made waves by hiring probably one of the best assistant softball coaches in the country.
The leadership in the athletic department deserves a lot of credit for this resurgence, and much of it boils down to one thing: boldness.
For years, fans grumbled at the underwhelming, lackluster performance of our previous AD, Larry Templeton. In an era where young ADs were taking steps in the right direction, Templeton seemed to get in the way more than anything. When he announced his retirement, fans were genuinely excited about the prospect of a fresh face for the athletic department.
Enter Greg Byrne.
Byrne grew up in college athletics. His father served as athletic director at Oregon, Nebraska and, currently, at Texas A & M. Greg himself had some experience when he came to Mississippi State. He had already served in associate AD capacities at Oregon State and Kentucky.
Byrne's first big decision once he took over at State was to find a replacement for Ron Polk. Polk was a legend in college baseball and at Mississippi State. He had already named is heir apparent, Tommy Raffo. Instead of taking the easy road, Byrne launched a full on search for a new baseball coach and settled on former Polk player John Cohen, who was the head coach at Kentucky at the time. Polk protested, pitched a fit in the media, and even demanded that his name be taken off the stadium. But in the long run, it was definitely the right decision.
Fast forward 6 months. State has just come off a disappointing season under 5th year head coach Sylvester Croom. The previous year, he took the Bulldogs to the Liberty Bowl and came away with a victory over Central Florida. Now, State was coming off a 4-8 season.
Croom made headlines when he was hired as the first African-American head coach in the SEC. Byrne could have taken a lot of flack for letting him go so early (officially, Croom resigned). Instead, he forged on, led a coaching search that had everyone guessing, and walked off a plan with Dan Mullen, the offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators and the man mostly responsible for molding Tim Tebow into the quarterback he had become. Byrne even earned the nick name "The Ninja" for his ability to lead the coaching search mostly out of the spotlight.
So what do these two coaching searches have in common? They show an attitude of boldness that has now permeated to every facet of Bulldog athletics. The football team played to a season of sold out home games. Season ticket sales have hit record highs over the last 2 years. Some are even saying that State is a serious contender in the SEC West now.
Greg Byrne left Mississippi State for Arizona after 2 years on the job, but he left his attitude in full force and it has carried over to our current administration, starting with Scott Stricklin.