Walter Byers, the man who, for better or worse, created the modern NCAA passed away on Wednesday at his home in Emmett, Kan. He was 93. Byers’ son Fritz said the cause was a urinary tract infection that spread to his bloodstream.
Byers famously left his post as an assistant sports information director for the Big Ten to become the NCAA’s first executive director at age 29 in 1951. The next quarter century saw Byers rapidly expand the NCAA – in terms of its membership, the revenue it took in, and its dominion over its athletes. He took what former NCAA employee and eventual Big 8 and Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke called a “part-time” organization and nearly tripled its membership, from 381 universities upon his hiring to 1,003 upon his exit in 1987. The NCAA’s own rank and file grew as well, as the organization grew from a handful of employees at its Kansas City offices to 150 by the time of his retirement.
“He had to come up with structure for all kinds of athletics, team and individual, at the national level. Before him there was nothing,” Duke told the Associated Press.
Byers saw the value in televising college sports early on, selling a restricted slate of games to NBC for $1.14 million a year in 1952 according to the New York Times. Byers strategy of grouping NCAA football games together got the sport on television, but membership eventually fought to overrule the model he created. In 1984, Oklahoma and Georgia successfully sued the NCAA for control over their television contracts, creating the marketplace that eventually brought Notre Dame its standalone contract with NBC and created individual networks for the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and Texas.
“It is virtually impossible to overstate the degree of our resentment,” Oklahoma president William Banowsky said at the time.
Byers made up that revenue by ramping up the NCAA Tournament, helping turn it into the billion-dollar enterprise it is today. “In my opinion he never received credit for his leadership in building that event,” said former NCAA Tournament administrator Tom Jernstedt. “In my mind he is the father of the NCAA basketball tournament and he doesn’t get the recognition for that.”
Byers was also credited with coining the term “student-athlete,” though he later rejected the amateurism model that to this day serves as the NCAA’s bedrock, admitting in his memoir Unsportsmanlike Conduct that the term was a defense mechanism allowing schools to avoid long-term liability for athletes’ disability benefits. “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,” he wrote.
By the end of his tenure, Byers considered the idea of creating an “open” division, similar to the Power Five autonomy legislation the powers that be are working through today. “I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that there has to be a major rearrangement on the part of the institutions of higher learning as to what they want to do with their athletic programs. I think there’s an inherent conflict that has to be resolved,” he said. “I’m not prepared to go into how an open division would work. But we’re in a situation where we, the colleges, say it’s improper for athletes to get, for example, a new car. Well, is that morally wrong? Or is it wrong because we say it’s wrong?”
Forever reluctant of the spotlight, Byers made few public appearances following his 1987 retirement, and even no-showed his National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2009.
Byers leaves behind two sons, one daughter, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.