Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA who spent 36 years leading and shaping the organization that oversees college athletics, has died. He was 93.
Byers died Tuesday at his home in Emmett, Kansas, when a urinary tract infection spread into his bloodstream, son Fritz said Wednesday.
A main part of Byers’ job when he started as NCAA executive director in 1951 was to help the schools maintain strict control of all revenues the athletes generated. Then, the figures weren’t too impressive. Now, the deals for football and basketball rights are worth billions.
He helped invent the now widely used term “student-athlete,” which he said was intended to disguise the fact that players had become de facto professionals.
He was a big proponent of having the NCAA oversee women’s athletics as well and that came to fruition in the early 1980s.
“He established something that never existed before,” former Big Eight and Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke said Wednesday from his home in Barrington, Illinois. Duke was Byers’ first hire at the NCAA and the two remained close through the years. “He had to come up with structure for all kinds of athletics, team and individual, at the national level. Before him there was nothing.”
One of the first duties Byers gave Duke was to work with television as a partner to work on contracts and improve the relationship between the entities.
“He had the foresight then that it would all come about,” Duke said. “He took the NCAA from an organization run on a part-time basis to one of the most powerful in sports.”
Byers was 29 years old when he was hired by the NCAA. The offices opened in Kansas City, Missouri – his hometown – with five employees. When he retired in 1987, the NCAA had about 150 full-time employees and its membership had grown from 381 schools to 1,003.
“He was remarkable. Brilliant. A very creative individual but very strong and demanding,” Tom Jernstedt, an NCAA executive for almost 40 years said from his Indianapolis home Wednesday night, “but his employees all had the utmost respect for him because of his work ethic and leadership values.”
Byers gave the then-28-year-old Jernstedt the responsibility for directing the men’s Division I basketball tournament, which would become one of the most popular sporting events in the world.
“In my opinion he never received credit for his leadership in building that event,” Jernstedt said. “In my mind he is the father of the NCAA basketball tournament and he doesn’t get the recognition for that.”
Byers was always a staunch defendant of college amateurism but he revealed in a 1987 interview with the Associated Press that he had first suggested drastic changes in player compensation three years earlier during a private meeting of the policy-making NCAA Council. The council, a group of highly placed administrators from NCAA schools and conferences, refused to listen, he said.
“They looked at me as though I had desecrated my sacred vows. There was not one smiling face in that room,” he said.
Now, the NCAA is refining a plan that would allow athletes to receive money to cover expenses of normal college living. The number will change with each conference.
In his autobiographical book “Unsportsmanlike Conduct – Exploiting College Athletes,” published after he retired, Byers blasted the NCAA – an organization he had defended in highly publicized battles with Congress – as arrogant, autocratic and “self-righteous.” He urged lawmakers to enact an athletes’ bill of rights.
“Against such an array of power stands the young athlete, unorganized and a part of the system for only four to six years before he or she moves on to be replaced by another 18- or 19-year-old,” he wrote.
“Whereas the NCAA defends its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields, they actually are a device to divert the money elsewhere.”
During his tenure Byers was brought into conflict with many wealthy alumni, as well as some of the most popular figures in collegiate history, including basketball coaches Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV and Oklahoma football icon Bud Wilkinson.
“The NCAA was born in crisis and has lived in conflict,” Byers said in an AP interview in 1976.
Byers is survived by sons Fritz and Ward, daughter Ellen, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
No details were available on services.