By Phillip Whitten
COLLEGE STATION, Texas, December 4. IN what may turn out to be a sad day for the proud tradition of Texas A&M swimming, SwimInfo has confirmed that Bill Byrne will be named the new Athletic Director for the Aggies. Byrne currently occupies the same position at the University of Nebraska.
Byrne is leaving as the Huskers' football team completes its worst season in decades, with a 7-6 record.
"I looked at Texas A&M as another place to do the things I love to do, and that's build programs," Byrne said to the Lincoln, Nebraska press yesterday afternoon.
Based on his record, Byrne's priority has been the dismantling of swimming programs. At the University of Oregon, where he was A.D. before his stint in Lincoln, Byrne eliminated both men's and women's swimming. The Ducks had had a solid Division I program before Byrne wielded his ax.
In Nebraska last year, he killed men's swimming, destroying a 70+ year-old program that had produced several Olympians and numerous All-Americans and Academic All-Americans. All but one member of the women's team left in protest, and Byrne hired Olympian Pablo Morales to rebuild the women's program.
Byrne cited Title IX and budgetary woes for his action in Nebraska, explanations that do not stand up to even casual scrutiny. He could have taken any number of other actions to deal with the Title IX balancing act, including cutting a handful of nonplaying players from the Huskers' 200-man football team, the nation's largest roster. (Pro teams, which play a longer schedule against more physical opponents, carry 53 players.)
"The budgetary problems were nothing but a fabrication," one source within the Nebraska Athletic Department told us. In fact, SwimInfo reported, at the very time Byrne was crying poverty, he was completing negotiations for an $8 million gift for the Athletic Department from Alltel Corporation. The gift, we reported, would be announced in late August, 2001 — several months after the swim program was cut, so it would appear that the gift came after the cut was made, and just before football season, so as to have maximum impact on Nebraska fans.
Byrne denounced the story as untrue, though NU Chancellor Harvey Perlman declined to comment and Alltel deferred all comments to Byrne, tacitly acknowledging the story.
In August, the NU Athletic Department announced the $8 million gift, precisely as SwimInfo had reported.
Shortly thereafter, Byrne announced he was distributing a record $1.2 million in bonuses to his staff, including a hefty six-figure bonus for himself. (The men's swim team budget was about one-third of the bonuses.)
The Texas A&M swim teams, both men's and women's, are solid — both teams are nationally ranked. The Aggies have a first-rate facility that has hosted major international meets and will host an NCAA Championship in 2004. Still, if history is any guide, Byrne's appointment may mean these programs are in jeopardy.
Aggie swim coaches, athletes and alumni should immediately begin taking defensive action (outlined in "How to Save Your College Swim Program," published by USA Swimming). At the very least, such action will strengthen the program in every way, most importantly, financially.
Menwhile, with Byrne's departure, Nebraska alumni should begin action to reinstate the men's program in Lincoln.