Byrne Ready For Big Move To Nebraska

He knew he was in a different world when the private jet - splashed with red, of course - swept in to pick him up in Eugene. And then it was on to Seattle for last night's game with the University of Washington.

From watching Oregon battle Texas Tech in the afternoon to Nebraska and Washington in the evening.

Bill Byrne is in the final weeks of nearly nine years as athletic director at Oregon. In November he will take a similar post at the University of Nebraska, replacing the legendary Bob Devaney and inheriting either the crown or the curse of Cornhusker football.

"My sense," said Byrne, "is that Nebraska is the closest thing college football has to America's team. They don't have Notre Dame's streetcar alumni or the Vatican on their side, but they seem to have everybody else."

The newspaper and television reporters from three states met him on his arrival in Lincoln to accept the position.

"My news conference was aired live for an hour," said Byrne. "I'd never seen anything like it."

Yes, Nebraska is different from Oregon.

"Nebraska football," said Byrne, "is Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and the Trail Blazers all wrapped up into one. It is very significant there is no other major school in the state."

This wasn't the first time Nebraska had left an imprint on Byrne. During his second year as athletic director at Oregon, in 1985, the Ducks did the annual bit for the athletic department budget by playing at Nebraska.

"Our team had no chance to win," said Byrne. "We lost 63-0. I decided right there as athletic director I had to schedule games we had a chance to win. We dropped Nebraska and scheduled schools like Utah State, New Mexico and Hawaii.

The team began to win more games, sell more season tickets and, in the end, produce more revenue for the athletic department.

In his new position, Byrne said he could see Nebraska and Oregon resuming their games if they were played in Eugene and Lincoln.

In the past, Nebraska has not wanted to play at 45,000-seat Autzen Stadium when it can play at 76,000-seat Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Byrne suggests that policy might change.

"You have no credibility as a program if you're always playing the best teams on the road," he said. "Oregon needs to bring schools like Colorado, Iowa and Notre Dame to Eugene."

And Nebraska.

Byrne, who grew up in Idaho, can make claim as the most productive athletic director at Oregon since the 1960s when the late Leo Harris engineered the building of Autzen Stadium.

"I do know," said Byrne, "that when I took over at Oregon there was talk about whether we should be in the Pac-10 or not. I don't hear much of that anymore."

The Ducks have rebuilt their track stadium, Hayward Field, improved the football facilities with the construction of the Casanova Center, and held their own in horrendous economic times with good football attendance.

Of course, the person most responsible for stabilizing the football program is Coach Rich Brooks, who will replace Byrne as athletic director next month while keeping his football duties.

Brooks will be scrutinized, much as the Seahawks' Tom Flores. Did he take on too much for one man? Does football suffer for time spent with the tennis team? Does tennis suffer for time spent with football?

These are not problems, however, Bill Byrne must face.

For Byrne, the decision to leave Oregon seemed an easy one.

"I find Lincoln to be a lot like Eugene, in terms of bike paths and trees and things that are important to you. The people seem so honest, so quick with a handshake and a smile. I just don't detect anything phony," he said.

Byrne said his career goals of being in an athletic department that can win national championships pushed him to Nebraska, where the resources are clearly more than he had at Oregon.

In the years ahead, however, Byrne will be no different than any other Cornhusker in trying to determine whether the Nebraska football team, whose last national championship was in 1971, can indeed win another one.

Tom Osborne is as much a Lincoln landmark as a feed silo. He has won at least nine games each season in 20 years of coaching. The Huskers always go to a bowl game.

But as college football and now the Big Eight evolve in favor of passing and speed, can Osborne change? If Kansas and Kansas State continue to improve, can Nebraska still win nine games a year running the ball?

Will the fans continue to relish mismatches against Utah and Middle Tennessee State?

"I can't believe the interest in the subject, in Nebraska football, and most of it is positive," said Byrne, now a lame duck in Eugene enjoying a honeymoon in Lincoln.

One that is likely to last as long as most honeymoons do.