OKLAHOMA CITY — Alabama Athletics Director Greg Byrne is no stranger to great softball.
He joined the Crimson Tide in 2017 after working at Arizona since 2010, so he has had the chance to work with Wildcats coach Mike Candrea and Crimson Tide coach Patrick Murphy.
Candrea (.795) and Murphy (.773) ranked second and sixth, respectively, in winning percentage among active coaches coming into the season. Candrea is also the all-time winningest coach in the sport.
With Alabama in the 2021 Women's College World Series, Byrne made the trip to Oklahoma City again this year.
The Tuscaloosa News caught up with him for a Q&A to talk softball, Alabama's success in 2021 as an athletics department, and what goes through his mind when he sees the retirement this past week of a coaching legend in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is about five years older than Nick Saban.
Here's what he had to say:
Question: You've been around some great softball teams. What about this 2021 Alabama group stands out to you?
Greg Byrne: Just Murph has done such an incredible job of building the culture of the program every single year. Even when you have as great of a culture as what he has built, you’re going to have some years that will maybe rise above others. This is just a special team. We’ve got great leadership by the seniors. We’ve got incredible pitching led by Montana (Fouts).
As good as they are on the field, they’re just as good off the field, both from a character standpoint and community engagement. The way they engage the fanbase, too.
Q: During the super regional, Murphy encouraged athletics directors to invest in softball. What would you tell other ADs about investing in softball?
Byrne: We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had a long-term investment back to when Mal (Moore) was the AD. It continued under Coach (Bill) Battle. We’ve tried to do the same thing with the improvements to Rhoads Stadium.
It is a great sport that attracts girls of all ages to be engaged and involved with it. The young women on our team are role models. It’s an incredible community engagement item. It’s an incredible opportunity for the women who get to play the sport. Very few of them are going to play at this level, but they have chances at young ages, through high school, to learn about teamwork, to learn about self-discipline, to learn about adversity and to learn about coming together from all different backgrounds. So this team exemplifies that as well as any.
I echo what Murph said. I think it’s something that is a good investment for athletic departments everywhere.
Q: Talking to people, it seems the new upper decks (at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, the WCWS venue) have taken this event to a new level.
Byrne: The first time I came was 2010 with Arizona; 11 years ago. The upper decks weren’t here. The press box wasn’t here. The outfield seating wasn’t much. To see this continue to evolve, Oklahoma City deserves a ton of credit and the NCAA deserves a ton of credit, too, for this developing the way it has.
Q: In the most recent standings for the IMG College Directors' Cup, Alabama ranks No. 7 in a year dealing with COVID-19. (Final standings will be released on July 2). What is something most people don't realize about the success your teams have had this year?
Byrne: The whole attitude we tried to take as a department, because these are uncharted waters for everybody, we’re trying to research and learn and be open-minded. The approach that we talked to our coaches about and our student-athletes about was: Let’s respect the virus. Let’s respect one another. And let’s do everything we can to move forward safely.
Our kids, our coaches, our staff and our fans have done a good job of embracing that. If you had said two years ago that we would play in 20 percent capacity at Bryant-Denny Stadium and feel good about it, I would have said you’re crazy. But we just all had to adjust. I think because we handled the disruption about as well as we could, and again, it was a group effort by everybody to do it, we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success. Then top that off with some great upperclassmen in a lot of our sports, I think we’re on pace to have a really special year for Alabama athletics.
Q: This past week, a legend in sports retired in Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. As an AD with a coaching legend in Nick Saban at Alabama, what goes through your mind when you see Coach K retire?
Byrne: Coach Krzyzewski is one of the great coaches of all time in any sport. I’ve been around him a few times in my career and what he’s done at Duke. You watch and you try to learn when Roy Williams retires and Mike Krzyzewski retires. You watch what the different schools do.
But as I’ve said since the day I got to town, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we continue to re-invest in our success as a program and keep Coach Saban knowing that we’re continuing to move forward so he continues to coach for as long as he physically wants to do it. I’m still very optimistic that he has a lot of years left in him.