The University of Wisconsin’s men’s cross country coach Mick Byrne recently won … his 22nd consecutive Coach of the Year Award.
Upon initial review, one might be tempted to believe this number is a typo, but it’s not.
Before coming to Wisconsin, Byrne spent 24 seasons at Iona College, leading the Gaels to 17 consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) titles and 12 trips to the NCAA Championships where his teams placed second (2007), third (2006), and fourth (2003 and 2005).
Byrne’s arrival to the Badger state pinned him in a situation where he had zero of his own recruits. To go along with the challenges of coaching an unfamiliar group of faces, Byrne faced the pressure to extend Wisconsin’s streak of Big Ten Championships to a record-setting 10th consecutive season.
But Byrne was up to the challenge, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“When I came here there was a lot of success and for me it was just, get off one bus and get on another and keep rolling with it,” coach Byrne said of the transition from Iona to Wisconsin. “The guys knew that I was successful back at Iona and they even knew that some of my teams had beaten some of their teams so it was like ‘OK, he must know something,’ and they kind of bought into it.”
But it wasn’t just about what happened on the track.
“They saw my passion for winning,” Byrne said. “For them being successful in the classroom, and for them learning how to live the correct lifestyle, they jumped on board real easy.”
Ask any coach who has ever switched programs, and rarely will there be one who puts it as simply as Byrne. There is something to be said for having one’s own recruits and — at the very least — for allowing time for chemistry to settle in between everyone involved with the team.
“He didn’t recruit me,” senior runner Maverick Darling said, “but on the first day of practice he told me, ‘We’re going to win a lot of national championships and a lot of Big 10 championships and we want you to be a part of that,’ and he has kept true to that message my entire career.”
Darling quickly realized his relationship with Byrne was extraordinary.
“His ability to relate to his athletes and his ability to really understand what we are going through sets him apart and [is] what allowed for that instant-chemistry.”
When it came to those he actually recruited, Byrne was equally as persuasive.
“I’m from Texas so it took a lot to get me here and he’s the main reason,” senior Reed Connor said. “Madison is a great place, but I didn’t really know what it was besides the cheese.
“Listening to him on the phone in high school, I knew he was a great coach and he hasn’t let me down since I’ve been here. I knew that he cared, that he was passionate about his team and about winning and that’s what makes him a great coach.”
The phone calls back in his high school days were the beginning of a special relationship that Connor said he believes will serve as a positive influence for the rest of his life.
If there were one word to describe coach Byrne in Connor’s eyes, it would be “passion” hands-down, he said.
“He’s passionate about what he does, passionate about his athletes and passionate about winning,” Connor said. “It translates over into the team and you can see it grow each year. Twenty-two straight Coach of the Years is not something you win on accident … and passion is the way he’s gotten it done.”
“I don’t think hip would be the right word, but if there was a different word to describe that then that’s what coach would be,” Darling said with a smile on his face.
Whatever it is this “hip” coach is doing, it’s undeniably working and has been recognized with 22 consecutive Coach of the Year awards, an unprecedented feat that has gone unnoticed by many.
While winning so often and on such a consistent basis can lead to complacency, Byrne stressed he always feels motivated going into each season.
“I have a saying, that ‘If you surround yourself with good people, good things happen,’” Byrne explained. “That’s part of the success — us having good athletes who want to be successful and who want to do what it takes to be successful. They motivate me and when I see them excited, I get excited.
“I get excited about kids that not just perform well on the track, but when you look at the whole person it’s about the development over the four years. The number of kids that I’ve had in school and seeing their growth, I get excited by that and it’s kind of fun to see that light switch go on whether it has to do with their performance, schoolwork or lifestyle. It’s just fun to see a whole person come together.”
The word “fun” gets thrown around a lot with this historically successful cross-country team, and for good reason. Coach Byrne highlighted the importance of making his athletes feel comfortable and not succumb to the pressure of being a Division I athlete.
“When you think about it, some of our kids got into this by accident in high school because of them running on the basketball court or the soccer field or whatever, but when you ask our athletes, it just happened,” Byrne said.
“When you bring them back to that time, when they got excited about it, they have fun and they love to do it. They love winning and I like to keep it simple like that. I think sometimes, as coaches, we just have to step back and, as I say, ‘Keep it simple, and keep it country.’”