Oregon Unknowns: Ducks still feeling the Byrne

A new Friday series are the OREGON UNKNOWNS, where we look at interesting aspects about our beloved Ducks that few fans know about. Some are amusing facts or stories from the inside, while others are the humorous incidents that we fans rarely hear about.

Emerging out of a dark era in Duck athletics, the University of Oregon needed to find new direction and leadership at the top.  Just a few years after Len Casanova had retired as Athletic Director, the football team had fallen on hard times.  Under coaches Dick Enright and then Don Read, it was during this era the team endured their worst loss in school history (66-0 vs Washington) their longest losing streak (14 games) and the football program was losing money.

Things got so bad that after a 5-0 loss to San Jose State in the ’75 home opener, that UO president William Boyd told a reporter that he “Would rather be whipped in a public square than sit through another game like that.”

Something needed to change.

Coach Rich Brooks was given time to build the Ducks into a winner.

In a coaching search in which Oregon targeted Bill Walsh, Jim Mora Sr, and Monte Kiffin, the Ducks settled on then-UCLA assistant Rich Brooks in 1977.  After four two-win seasons, an NCAA investigation, and the ’83 Civil War, Oregon boldy chose to retain Brooks, but parted ways with then-athletic director John Caine.

The next move turned out to be quite possibly one of the best hires in UO history, in giving Idaho State graduate Bill Byrne his first athletic director opportunity in 1984.

Byrne went to work quickly and proved to be a dynamic fund raiser.  With Brooks and the football team improving on the field, Bill Byrne improved assets and donations of the athletic department to the tune of a $19 million dollar fund raiser to construct new buildings and enhance facilities for the entire athletic department with an emphasis in football.

After his first year on the job, Byrne received the “National Fundraiser of the Year” award from the National Athletic Fundraisers Association.

The pairing of Byrne and Brooks proved to be an effective combination.  Under Byrne’s guidance, donations and attendance rose steadily as the team continued to take baby-steps on the field.  After five years of competitive football, Oregon finally broke through to the post season for the first time in 26 years.  The Independence Bowl win over Tulsa doesn’t sound like much these days, but it was undeniably culture changing and splashy at the time.

After appearing in bowl games in three out of four seasons and construction of the new 102,000 square foot Casanova center, Byrne and Brooks had taken the Oregon football program to a new level of stability, and in turn helped to deliver a boosted sense of pride and excitement among fans that has carried over to this day.

After the ’92 season, then president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), Byrne left to take over a new project as AD at the University of Nebraska where he immediately led the athletic program during what many consider to be their “golden age” collecting 8 national titles and 82 Big 8 and Big 12 conference championships across all sports during his 11-year tenure.

Oregon Athletic Director Bill Byrne, when hired in 1983.

Byrne  continued his aptitude for fundraising and leading positive change at Texas A & M, where Byrne oversaw 85 million in construction and facility upgrades for the Football, Baseball, and Basketball teams as well as one of the nations premier indoor Track & Field facilities.  Byrne also hired current football coach Ken Sumlin, who recruited Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.  While technically retiring in mid-2012, Byrne continues to serve at Texas A&M as a special adviser to the University President.

Are you a former player or know someone that has an Oregon Unknown to share? This is great fun for the fans, and for players to remember again the special times during their Oregon career. Simply email Charles@fishduck.com and share in the fun!

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Josh White

Josh White

Josh White has been a dedicated Duck fan since the Bill Musgrave days. He has attended (and lost his voice at) virtually every home game and many away games since the late 1980's, including 96 of the current 97 game sellout streak at Autzen Stadium. A Eugene native, Josh works full time in Eugene area real estate, helping people buy and sell residential and commercial properties, and also volunteers with Habitat For Humanity, Kidsports and Food For Lane County. He welcomes your feedback. Twitter: @WhiteHouseJosh Facebook: EugenesBestRealtor

  • Wow, what an eye-opener. Thank you so much for this extremely enlightening article. All these years I thought Brooks was responsible for Oregon football’s turn-around (more so behind the scenes than on the field) when in reality it was Mr. Byrne. After reading your column I took the time to look at some coaching stats since 1977 and came to the conclusion that it was Bill Byrne who set the stage for Mike Bellotti who was the true savior of Oregon football.
    Our three steps to greatness were 1) Byrne, 2) Bellotti and 3) Kelly. Brooks shouldn’t even be mentioned.