Mike Byrnes, photo by PhotoRun.net
The tributes for one of the most beloved and colorful people in American athletics have been many.
Mike Byrnes is one of the most colorful characters in our sport. An innovator, a provacteur, Mike Byrnes made the sport better with his presence and his lifelong love of the sport of athletics.
Elliott Denman wrote this heartfelt tribute about Mike Byrnes.
Updated 12/30/15, updated to recognize Tom Cuffe is from Staten Island
A critical element in the complex formula built into the process of staging a successful track and field meet, Mike Byrnes knew, was getting the media – print and electronic – to pay some attention.
So, with the National Indoor Scholastics, now named the New Balance Indoor Nationals, ready to burst out of the starting blocks some years ago, and some brilliant talents ready to run, jump and throw in the meet, Byrnes prepared appropriately for the expected media deluge.
Byrnes, one of the Founding Fathers of the national scholastic track vision now so fondly embraced, thus commissioned the printing of a zillion-or-so working media tags, fitted them out on lanyards, and gave a meet staffer the full-time assignment of passing them out to the hordes of writers, photographers, and TV crew-members who’d be expected to descend on the venue and clamor for desk space, photo angles and athlete access.
“Reporting for action, Mr. Byrnes, ready and willing to keep peace in the mixed zone, and wherever needed,” said that staffer.
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. The mass media brigade never materialized. It became more of a corporal’s guard. Just a handful of the ink-stained wretches – all who’d already claimed lifetime dedication to the sport – actually turned up to ask for their lanyarded-tags.
I know all this to be the truth, the whole truth, because I was that staffer who wound up stuck with all those unclaimed lanyards and passes which, last time I looked, were still occupying space in my garage already chock-a-block with remnant-souvenirs gathered from other meets, local, national and international, staged over the last four or five decades.
Never mind that the meet didn’t come close to generating the press attention it surely deserved. Never mind that a flock of future Olympic candidates were doing dazzling deeds in the meet years before they’d be turning in similar exploits in much bigger arenas. Never mind that the audience consisted almost primarily of family members, the most steadfast of fans and coaches…and the athletes themselves, either waiting patiently to warm up for their own events, or cheering on their teammates after their own events were completed.
Oh, and some bus drivers, readying to rev-up for long trips home.
Well, Mike Byrnes never really cared that much – that the rest of the world never cared to give that much attention to his events…or to
Such is the situation track and field lives in these days.
The mainstream may be flowing in another direction, yet there are more young people wrapped up in the sport than ever before, and their fortunes guided by some of the best-prepared, most-dedicated coaches you’d ever want to meet. On the competition level, standards have never been higher and venues available to achieve these golden feats have never been better. And there is more good information out there on track than ever before – thanks to every form of electronic advance.
Mike Byrnes’ response to all this benign neglect by the outside
world would always be: “so what?”
“We know they’re wrong and we’re right.”
And likely, in much saltier phraseology.
Anyone who ever had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Mike Byrnes knew that he was on to a very good thing and was soon likely, as Byrnes was, destined to spend his lifetime dedicated to the cause.
He left us the morning after Christmas 2015, some three months shy of his 84th birthday.
He left behind Joan, his dear wife of 35 years, his children and his grandchildren.
And a whole other family of friends, athletes, coaches and fans, who’d traveled the sport’s highways and byways with him, forever in awe of his capacity to get things done, to inspire others to get things done, and then look back in delight at all these experiences – often expressed in lively terminology – on that shared journey.
He’d been a star runner in his North Carolina days – who, it was said, at one point even outran the famed Jim Beatty, first man ever to run a sub-4 mile indoors.
He’d been a brilliant coach – at Long Island’s Wantagh High School – for 31 years. (Whose teams even included two future Olympic
racewalkers, Steve Hayden and Dan O’Connor.)
He’d been a brilliant innovator – of workouts designed to let athletes (Wantagh people and just about anybody else who’d ever come his way) climb the heights.
And of meets and road races and whatever else it took to bring out their best, and the best in their sport.
When Long Island’s organizing bodies couldn’t find a way to match up the best out of the public school, parochial school and private-school ranks in a single meet, he was there to match ’em all up in the Long Island Meet of Champions.
With few real road racing opportunities on Long Island, he helped create the Wantagh four-miler. The LI road racing scene would grow and grow and today is topped by the 10,000-runner-plus Long Island Marathon.
With few competitive track and field opportunities available summertime, he launched the Long Island summer series.
With little organization in place to do all this, he helped formulate the Long Island Striders, who morphed into the Long Island Athletic Club teams that would make their mark all over the landscape.
LIAC’s reach would extend far beyond Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Remembers Vince Cartier, the former Scotch Plains, N.J. High School mile great, whose 4:06.6 stood as the national record in an all-high school race for 38 years, “when I saw (ex-Manhattan College star) Brian Kivlan running in one of those LIAC shirts, I wanted to run in one of them, too. So Mike got me one.”
“Mike was a great guy, and a great character, too.”
Thus, Cartier was quickly recruited to “The Island,” too.
With high school track interest continuing to soar – but no real outlet for athletes to test their talents far beyond their state borderlines – Mike Byrnes teamed with fellow visionaries Tracy Sundlun and Jim Spier to create the first National Scholastic Indoor Championships. And they were miracle workers in finding the funding and scouring up support for the meets – now indoors, outdoors and cross country – that have since produced magnificent, record-smashing performances that have paved the way to college scholarships, national and Olympic glory, and a whole lot more.
With the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation now in place to serve as anchor for all this, track and field can now claim to have the largest not-for-profit benefactor of high school athletes of any sport in America.
One of the happiest assignments that NSAF executive director Jim Spier gets to do each year is confer the Mike Byrnes Coach of the Year Award on “the most deserving” high school coach in the nation.
But one of the saddest tasks that all NSAFers – and friends – must now face is saying goodbye to Mr. Mike Byrnes.
As veteran marathon man, Paul Fetscher remembers it, “the one thing that stands out in my memory is a simple but heartfelt gesture that meant the world to me. My senior year in high school, I’d lost my father to ALS.
“The next day, I missed the only race I ever missed in high school or
college. It was our (Carey High School) meet against Wantagh. That evening a spray of flowers arrived at the funeral home..” Its message was: ‘Our victory today was hollow without you.
Wantagh cross country team. ‘
“Now, 53 years later, I still cherish that gesture. Mike Byrnes was a class act. I will never forget him.”
Said former Staten Island runner (former Duke and Monsignor Farrell coach) Tom Cuffe, “the stories about Mike are absolutely wonderful and pull at the heart strings; what a tribute to a man for all seasons. He inspired many, he changed the face of our sport and he was truly larger than life. “
As famed announcer and NSAF Board member Larry Rawson wrote Joan Byrnes, ” I’m sad , but comforted by all Mike achieved …a coach’s influence often never ends. In Mike’s case, with so many athletes , it never did . How many of his athletes became coaches themselves and spread his gospel or carried his teachings of goal setting and hard work to their children?. What a legacy ! .. We remember. “
Famed track historian and TV network statistician Walter Murphy put it this way, “the sport lost another giant when Mike Byrnes passed away. (He was) a long-time coach, a great story-teller…and a great friend. “
As Peter Cava, former TAC Director of Media Information said, “the world’s going to be a little smaller and a lot less fun without Mike. He was an excellent dinner companion, a wonderful raconteur, and a real track and field man. I’ll miss him forever. Rest in peace, Mike. See you at sundown.“
Said veteran Bay Shore (L.I.) coach Steve Borbet, “please pass along our condolences to Joan and the Byrnes Family, from the Borbet Family. In 1966, I rode home from Buffalo, N.Y. sitting between Coach Byrnes and Coach (Irving “Moon”) Mondschein. Ten hours of talking track, and I had not even started my own track career yet. Little did I know I was sitting between two legends, and that I would later become a track coach for 43-plus years (and also receive the Mike Byrnes National Coach-of-the-Year Award in 2012,)”
Kevin Tumey, former Wantagh athlete and Byrnes pupil who now leads one of the nation’s leading timing services, paid a visit to the ailing Byrnes last week, then wrote, “when I was with (the weakening) Mike and told him about Steve Borbet’s honor at the Hall of Fame meet (at the Armory Dec. 19), Mike smiled.”
Honored journalist, coach and runner Marc Bloom wrote, “Mike was one of the giants, but he never carried himself as one of the giants, but more like the kid who loved a good laugh and couldn’t wait for the next race. Mike always saw possibilities when others may have thought, ‘no.’
“Speaking with Mike a week ago was a difficult conversation. Speaking with him a month ago was a delight–the same Mike, self-deprecating, looking for a laugh. There are too many memories to recite going back almost 50 years, but my longest reach takes me to the old LIAC meets way out on the Island, well into the ’60s. Mike was meet director, coach, whatever else, and he could not be more helpful to a young reporter pecking away at his story well into the night.Rest well, buddy.”
“Mike had no equal in our track world,” declared IC4A track administrator and historian, Larry Byrne. “I can vividly recall being at his side in the famed NYC Armory on 10 February 1973, when he cheered on his school’s (Wantagh’s) distance medley NYC Armory on 10 February 1973, when record clocking of 10:21..8, over heavy favored Power Memorial…merely one of the numerous achievements he produced.
“Needless to add, how we all shared in his ‘story telling’…often embellished beyond fact. But that was Mike, and he will be missed more than any of us can imagine. “
“And so, with a heavy heart, we all bid him goodbye, au revoir, auf weiderschein, sayonara…and Godspeed to a happy hereafter.”