It would be a safe assumption to make that Greg Byrne’s prodigious fundraising abilities played a large role in his landing the position of athletic director at Mississippi State University (MSU).
The 36-year-old, who will officially succeed Larry Templeton July 1, has known since childhood that he wanted one day to be the head man of a Division I athletics program, and he made it happen by proving that he has the skill set to increase the bottom line through private donations. He did it at Oregon State. He did it at Kentucky. In 2006, Byrne was hired at MSU to head fundraising efforts through the Bulldog Club, a private entity whose money raised funds everything from coaches’ salaries to new facilities.
So when former State president Robert Foglesong announced that Templeton’s contract would not be renewed for the upcoming fiscal year, he initiated a national search that ended with a man who was already on campus. At his introductory press conference, Foglesong all but said Byrne’s fundraising skills were what sealed the deal.
In the big business that has become collegiate athletics, fundraising is life blood. Athletics departments can not survive on public funding alone. Private donors must be targeted and the sale has to be completed.
“The demand for fundraising has increased, and it will only continue to do nothing but get bigger,” Byrne said. “I will be focused on that every single day. I want every person involved (with the athletic department) in identifying donors because we all could be fundraisers.”
Once the donors have given their money, managing it takes center stage. Just like a Fortune 500 company has to crunch numbers and watch the income outgo, so do those who work for a large college athletics program.
“The business principles are very similar to the real world,” said Byrne. “The environment is different. Our main goal, obviously, is to make sure our student-athletes graduate, first and foremost. But you have to pay attention to revenue streams and be efficient in spending your dollars and balancing your budget.”
Efficiency and creativity are a necessary trait because Mississippi’s Big Three — State, Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi — operate with among the smallest budgets in the Southeastern Conference and Conference USA, respectively. State and Ole Miss share a conference with big-money programs such as Florida, Georgia and LSU, flagship universities of states that have large populations and large tax bases. Their budgets can sometimes triple State’s estimated $28-million annual operating revenue.
“It is a challenge,” said Southern Miss AD Richard Giannini. “We have a product to sell, and that’s our athletics program. Fundraising aspect is a tremendous part of any athletic program. It takes a lot of money from our donors to be competitive.”
Ole Miss AD Pete Boone was attending the annual SEC meetings in Destin last week and was unavailable for comment.
In recent years, the demand for high-priced facilities such as indoor football complexes has increased to the point where a university finds itself severely behind if it doesn’t have one. And public money does not foot the bill for such projects, so marketing the merits of buildings like Mississippi State’s Palmeiro Center and Ole Miss’s new indoor facility that sits adjacent to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium takes high priority. Giannini has spent a vast portion of his tenure drumming up funds to pay for improvements to USM’s M.M. Roberts Stadium, home to the football team, and a new clubhouse for the school’s baseball program.
“That’s been the emphasis the past eight to 10 years,” Giannini said. “We’ve raised about $50 million toward those ends, 90% of which was private money.
“It’s an arms race nationally (for new facilities). We had a dire need to upgrade our facilities. We’ve been behind and we’re slowly and steadily catching up. Fundraising, smart money management, which leads to better recruiting, it all goes hand in hand.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .