Walter Byers dies at 93, first NCAA executive director

Walter Byers dies at 93, first NCAA executive director
Walter Byers testifies before a House panel on education in Washington on April 2, 1973. (Charles Gorry / Associated Press)

Walter Byers, who as the first executive director of the NCAA 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, Kan., son Fritz said Wednesday.


Though he guided the organization for decades, he came to view the organization later in life as arrogant, autocratic and "self-righteous," and urged lawmakers to enact an athletes' bill of rights.

He also raised the issue of player compensation in the mid-1980s, a notion that was all but ignored at the time but now is being freshly debated.

A main part of Byers' job when he started as NCAA executive director in 1951 was to help member schools maintain strict control of all revenues the athletes generated. At the time, the figures weren't too impressive. Today, the deals for football and basketball rights are worth billions of dollars.

He helped invent the now widely used term "student-athlete," which he acknowledged was intended to disguise the fact that players had become de facto professionals.

Byers was a major 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. 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 on television contracts, treating the networks as partners and improving relations.

"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, Mo. -- 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," said Tom Jernstedt, an NCAA executive for almost 40 years, "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 defender 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 policymaking 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 amount will change with each conference.

In his autobiographical book "Unsportsmanlike Conduct -- Exploiting College Athletes," published after he retired, Byers blasted the NCAA and urged that it be reformed.

"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 came into conflict with many wealthy alumni as well as some of the most popular figures in collegiate athletic 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.