Today we lost a pioneer in Track and Field and a great friend. Mike Byrnes, co-founder of the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation, died peacefully in his sleep at 645am this morning, the day after Christmas, at his Culpeper, VA home. He was 83, survived by Joan, his wife of 35 years, and children and grandchildren.
Below is an obituary written by one of Mike’s former athletes at Wantagh High School (NY), Gordon Peterson. Mike was a graduate of John Marshall HS in Richmond and University of Virginia, where he captained the cross-country team. While this story focuses on what he did beyond Wantagh, Mike was an extremely successful coach at the school for 31 years.
Mike Byrnes formed the Long Island Striders (later the Long Island Athletic Club) in 1964 to provide high school and college track-and-field athletes an opportunity to compete during their off-season summer months. The club prospered in the years that followed. During the early 1970s, he and Jim Spier initiated “The LIAC Meet of Champions” on Long Island. “At the time,” Mr. Spier explained, “the public, private, and Catholic schools were not allowed to compete against each other. Mike took the lead, and I created the format so that this new opportunity for wider competition could happen.”
As the LIAC’s membership and popularity increased, the club soon began to win multiple championships in the National Amateur Athletic Union’s junior team competitions. “It reaches into every community,” Mr. Byrnes told the newspaper Newsday at the time. “We have college kids, and we have working kids. I got a kid a scholarship the other day, and he’d been out of high school a year working in a factory. That’s why this thing is so important to me.”
Mr. Byrnes renewed his collaboration with Mr. Spier during the early 1980s at the time Mr. Tracy Sundlun began to transform the Metropolitan Athletics Congress. The “MAC” was the New York City branch of the USA Track and Field organization, the U.S. national governing body for track and field, long-distance running, and race walking in the United States. “The MAC would eventually put on 70 track and field meets annually in the New York City metropolitan area,” Mr. Spier said.
When Mr. Sundlun decided to create the first national high school indoor track meet in 1984, Mr. Byrnes and Mr. Spier joined forces with him to ensure it would be a success. “I told Tracy that I could create a ‘hit list’ of the best U.S. athletes to recruit,” said Mr. Spier, “but we needed a salesman to recruit them. Mike Byrnes was that man.” The National Scholastic Indoor Track and Field Championship was the first meet to offer travel-expense reimbursement to high school athletes.
Mr. Spier and Mr. Byrnes became the meet’s assistant directors for the next 13 years. When Mr. Sundlun joined the Competitor Group in 1998, the two became the indoor meet’s co-directors of what was, by that time, the Nike Indoor Classic.
In 1989, Mr. Byrnes and Mr. Spier established the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation (originally named the National Scholastic Sports Foundation). The non-profit, tax-exempt foundation was created to generate funds for Junior athletes who could not otherwise afford travel expenses to participate in major national and international track-and-field competitions. In so doing, the Foundation sought to develop high school track and field to the highest levels.
Funds were raised initially for athletes’ travel from membership dues and the publication of Track Digest. Mr. Byrnes was the publication’s primary editor. As noted in the Foundation’s history, “All of the work done by Spier and Byrnes was done on a voluntary basis with the ‘up-front’ money necessary to found the Foundation funded by them as well.”
In 1991, the Birmingham High School Dads Club in California approached the NSAF to run a de facto national high school outdoor championship meet with a budget to recruit athletes. Again, Mr. Byrnes did all of the recruiting for that meet and those that followed in California and North Carolina. The nation’s top high school athletes competed.
“It was mainly a two-man show in the early years in Raleigh, with Mike, me, and our wives running the meets,” Mr. Spier recalled. “Little by little, we added staff. As the meets grew, we finally brought in enough money to make a serious impact on helping athletes to attend Junior championships. None of this could have been done without Mike. He was the soul of the organization for all those years.”
These two national indoor and outdoor track and field national championship meets continue to the present day as the New Balance Indoor National Championships and the New Balance Outdoor National Championships each March and June, respectively, and the Great American Cross Country Festival each autumn.
From a total of 500 athletes who competed in the first outdoor championship in 1991, more than 10,000 athletes from across the country competed in the Foundation’s sponsored meets, cross country competitions, and two national championships in 2014. Since 1991, the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation has raised more than $2.7 million to put on its competitions and assist Junior athletes compete at the national and international levels.
The New Balance championship meets have grown into two of the premier scholastic track-and-field sporting events in the country. The 2014 and 2015 indoor contests, for example, are considered by some track enthusiasts as the best high-school indoor meets ever, with seven national records set at this year’s event at New York City’s “The Armory” National Track & Field Hall of Fame facility.
Writing about the Foundation’s work and the sponsorship provided by Nike and, later, New Balance, Mr. Byrnes observed in 2007, “Together we have done something spectacular. We have changed the face of track and field in our nation.”
To honor Mr. Byrnes’ distinguished coaching career and the pioneering role that he played in establishing the Foundation and helping to create the national championship meets, the NSAF bestows its “Mike Byrnes Coach of the Year” award annually to the most-deserving high school track and field coach in the country.
Photos: At top right, Mike Byrnes in 2011, by Vic Sailer, photorun.net. Above left (from left) NSAF Co-Founder Mike Byrnes, COO Joy Kamani and Co-Founder Jim Spier.