COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M athletics director Bill Byrne retired Tuesday, a year before his contract was due to expire, and acknowledged that he had little say about when the school opted to leave the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern Conference.
Byrne became A&M's AD in 2002, and the school won 45 Big 12 championships in 13 different sports during his tenure. But his legacy will always be tied to the school's move to the SEC, starting in July, even though Byrne said he was not involved in the final decision.
"Those are decisions that are made above my pay grade," Byrne said. "My dad was a soldier, my mom was an Army nurse, and you're taught to salute and carry on. That's what we'll do."
Byrne's contract was to expire in August 2013. He will become a special adviser to A&M President R. Bowen Loftin, who is traveling overseas.
Loftin, in a conference call from Qatar, disputed Byrne's account of the Big 12 departure process, saying he spoke with Byrne frequently about it and considered his opinions.
"Bill and I talked about all the things we've gone through over the last three years, especially the transition to a new conference," Loftin said. "His input was sought, and it was carefully listened to and carefully evaluated. It was never ignored.
"Clearly, the decision ultimately was mine in terms of making a recommendation to our board (of regents) for our decision for going to the SEC," he said. "But again, Bill was heard, his opinion about how and why it should happen."
John Thornton, the associate AD, will serve as the interim AD until a full-time replacement is found through a national search. The school hopes to have the new AD in place by the start of the fall semester.
"A&M is at a point in its development of athletics which I think is very good for bringing on a new AD," Loftin said.
The 66-year-old Byrne joined A&M after serving as the AD at Nebraska from 1992 to 2002. He was hired by Robert Gates, the former university president and former U.S. defense secretary, and Gates was among the many people Byrne thanked in a prepared statement as he stood on a podium in front of nine national championship trophies.
"In almost 30 years as an athletic director, you take a lot of pounding on the job," Byrne said. "And I was tired, and I was ready to go. It was time."
But women's basketball coach Gary Blair, the first coach Byrne hired at A&M in 2003, hinted that Byrne was forced to retire and A&M should've let him serve to the end of his contract.
"It's a year too soon," Blair said. "Even though it might not have been Bill's choice, he was a soldier, like he said, and he would've helped us through that transition. I think he should have been allowed to retire at his own pace.
"You should be allowed to finish what you started," Blair said. "What he has started has never been done by any other athletic director at Texas A&M."
Byrne made "Building Champions" his mission statement when he arrived, and A&M won 17 team national titles during his tenure, including the first for the women's basketball team under Blair in 2011. The softball team, women's swimming and diving teams, and track and field teams are national powerhouses, as are the women's soccer team and the equestrian team.
The football program, meanwhile, has struggled to return to the same level of national prominence it enjoyed in previous decades, and Byrne called that his biggest disappointment. The Aggies are an ordinary 58-54 since Byrne took over, and last year's 6-6 regular season fell short of expectations and was marked by several close losses.
"Last year was an absolute crusher for me," Byrne said. "We lost four games by nine points. I thought we were so much better last year, athletically and (with) team speed. But we didn't win the close ones. That was really a crusher."
The regular season ended with a 27-25 loss to Texas on Thanksgiving, the Aggies' last Big 12 game and the 118th meeting between the bitter rivals.
The game is a deep-rooted tradition in the state, and many had hoped it would continue, despite A&M's conference move. But the Longhorns said their schedule is full through 2018 and made it clear there wasn't a lot of room for discussion.
Much of the fallout was blamed on Texas' decision to start its own Longhorn Network to televise its sports teams. Byrne was among those opposed to the move and he disagreed with his Texas counterpart, DeLoss Dodds, on whether Texas A&M was offered a chance to join the Longhorns in the venture.
Byrne kept the message positive Tuesday and turned the focus more toward the athletics program's unprecedented growth over the last 10 years.
A $36 million multipurpose indoor football facility opened in 2008, and a $26 million renovation to the baseball stadium was completed earlier this year.
Byrne said the athletics department's foundation now boasts about 15,000 donors and was nearly debt-free.
"If you listen to what has happened over the last 10 years, our students, our coaches and all of you, expect to win when the Aggies take the field," Byrne said. "I think that's one of the best things we've done here is change the culture."