Oct. 29, 2010
• Coaches Corner: Mick Byrne
MADISON, Wis. -- Sustaining the success of the UW men’s cross country program – 11 consecutive Big Ten championships heading into Sunday’s conference meet – has not been a burden for head coach Mick Byrne. Not when you consider Byrne won 17 straight league titles at Iona College before coming to Madison three years ago. And not when you consider Byrne’s engaging take on life.
Asked during his Monday news conference about the pressure of continuing the winning streak on the Zimmer Championship Course in Verona, the glib 54-year-old Byrne replied, “Yeah, there’s pressure on the kids. But there’s none on me, of course.”
With a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, Byrne speaks from the heart in a thick Irish brogue.
“Didn’t matter if I was at Iona, or here, a lot of that pressure is internal – you put that on yourself,” Byrne said. “I went to work every single day at Iona believing we were going to win the national championship. And the most important part of that equation for me was getting after it every day, and that’s what I teach my kids. You can have that goal (to win a title), but the most important part of that goal is the pursuit of it. I teach that every day when I go into the locker room.”
Byrne is the sum of his parts – his experiences as an athlete, coach, and teacher. And that dates back to when he left Dublin, Ireland, when he was 18 years old to compete at Providence College.
By his own admission, he was a “city kid” who didn’t struggle with his new environment as much as one of his friends, John Treacy, who was from rural Ireland (years later, Treacy would go on to win the silver medal in the marathon for Ireland in the 1984 Summer Olympics at Los Angeles).
There was one thing Byrne hadn’t counted on.
“Being told that I had to go to school,” he said.
That was a shock.
“A whole bunch of kids at that time were leaving Ireland to come over to the States and run at different universities,” he said. “You never connected the academic part with the running part. I remember we had to take a course at Providence in the ‘Development of Western Civilization.’
“It was a brutal course. I remember getting a 47 on my first exam and I was celebrating. I thought it was fantastic because, in Ireland, 40 is a passing grade. Different scale. All of a sudden, Mick Byrne had to buckle down and do the school work.”
In retrospect, did he live up to his own expectations?
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “Looking back now, it was a lot to do with my lifestyle. I had a very tough first year. In fact, I went home for Christmas and I wasn’t going to come back. I didn’t like it (school). I wasn’t running well. And I felt like I wasn’t going to get better.”
Byrne pointed out that he was raised in Dublin with a great deal of freedom in terms of parental supervision. He was one of seven kids. “In fact, I don’t even know if my parents realized I was in America until I wrote them a letter,” he kidded. “It was just a different life back then.”
His parents did take notice and wound up convincing him to return to Providence. He had a much better second semester and everything began to fall into place, athletics and academics. In that order. Byrne started having success as a runner. And it spilled over to all facets of his life. “Once the running part starts improving, you feel like everything else is coming together,” he said.
How did that chapter in his life shape Mick Byrne, the coach?
“Enormously,” he said. “When I’m riding my guys and giving them a hard time about living the right lifestyle, I always follow up by saying, ‘When I was your age, I didn’t have someone to tell me that what I was doing was counter-productive to what I did from 2 to 4 every day in terms of training.’
“If there was one thing we did as a group of young Irish athletes, we trained real hard. It was nothing for us to run 110 to 115 miles a week. It was just something we grew up with. We got after it.”
You will hear that often from Byrne.
Getting after it.
But there’s a caveat.
|2010 Big Ten Championships
Wisconsin hosts the 2010 Big Ten Conference Cross Country Championships this Sunday, Oct. 31, at the Zimmer Championship Course.
• Women's Race: 10:45 a.m.
• Men's Race: 11:45 a.m.
• Big Ten Championships Central
“There’s more to it than just getting after it,” he said. “What I teach to our kids is that it’s a lifestyle, and it’s not just what you do from 2 to 4, it’s what you do with the other hours that’s important. I’m always on their case about studying. I’m always on their case about partying. Let’s face it, around here there’s a huge (party) culture. It’s the simple little things that an 18 to 20-year-old doesn’t think about. So the experiences I had in college taught me that it was all about the lifestyle.”
For 24 years, Byrne knew only one lifestyle – he was the head coach at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., about 40 minutes north of Manhattan in Westchester County. The Gaels won 17 consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles and made 12 trips to the NCAA championship. From 2003 through 2007, his teams finished second, third, fourth twice and seventh in the national meet.
Besides his coaching duties, Byrne taught global studies for seven years in a local elementary school and six years at the high school level. “Coaching is teaching, isn’t it?” he asked rhetorically.
That teaching experience is still paying off.
Especially when he applies it to recruiting.
“Every single recruiting class is different from the one before,” he said. “I think teachers can become stale very quickly if they’re bringing the same lesson plan throughout the day to different classes. As a coach, I learned I can’t bring the same plan to every single group because every group presents something different and unique. You have to tweak it as you go from year to year. Some of the things we do now are completely different from what I would have done 20 years ago.”
So why did he leave the security of Iona College, where he was a Hall of Famer?
Guess what? He gets asked this question all the time.
“I just got to the stage where I felt it was time to look around and time to move on,” he said for probably the umpteenth time. “I always recruited against the big universities and I just felt it was time to do something different. A lot of people can read into that, which would be a huge mistake.
“I was 51 when I made the decision. Some people said I was crazy and having a mid-life crisis. Truth be known, it wasn’t any of that. I just felt this was a good opportunity for me to do something else. It reinvigorated me about the sport of track.”
Did he feel like he had a better chance of winning a national championship at Wisconsin? “A lot of people thought that – because I didn’t do it at Iona, that’s why I came here,” Byrne said. “And there’s nothing further from the truth. I still live every day with the philosophy that the most important thing is coming to work, rolling your sleeves up, and getting after it.”
The transition has been tough on his family, Byrne acknowledged. Especially since his wife, Mary Joe, who’s a PA in cardiology, and his 14-year-old son Cian, who’s a freshman in high school, did not make the move to Madison. They’re still living in City Island, Bronx.
“We’ve adapted, that’s a really good word,” said Byrne, whose oldest son, Aidan, is attending the UW. “We’ve adapted to the long-distance relationship. She has worked 24 years at her job. And for me to ask her to turn everything upside down in her life … well, she wasn’t ready for that. I can drive to Milwaukee, jump on an Air Tran flight and once I land at LaGuardia (Airport), I’m home in 15 minutes.
“For me, the toughest part was Cian. He was 12 when I did this. And I’d call him every night and talk to him. Emotionally it was tough. Sometimes tougher than others. Obviously there’s a wear and tear on him, and I worry about that sometimes. Mary Joe is very independent. Always has been. Very strong. Not the type of women who needs me around every minute to do things together. Let’s face it, she has been in this (coaching) business 27 years, she’s used to me coming and going.”
Mary Joe will be here for Sunday’s Big Ten championship meet.
“I still enjoy getting after it,” Mick Byrne said of his commitment to the Badgers. “Can we win a national championship? Absolutely. Been done before here. No reason it can’t be done again.”
And that’s no blarney. Though all bets are off when Byrne and UW basketball coach Bo Ryan share a room. Especially when they’re telling East Coast stories and getting after it, so to speak. “I love when I’m around him,” Byrne said. “He kind of reminds me of a little bit of myself.”