WVU Sports Hall of Fame
Written by John Antonik
Dr. Leland Byrd was West Virginia University’s fifth athletic director, serving the Mountaineers from 1972 to 1979.
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He received all three degrees from WVU – bachelor’s (’48), master’s (’53) and doctorate (’67).
On the hardwood, the "Hammer" was praised by many as one of the finest left-handed cagers to ever play for the Mountaineers. Byrd played for his father Roy Byrd at Matoaka (W.Va.) High in Mercer County before enrolling at WVU in 1944. Because of World War II, the 6-foot-3-inch guard was allowed to play as a 17-year-old freshman. That year, he helped lead the Mountaineers to a 12-6 record under John Brickels and an invitation to play in the National Invitation Tournament in New York City’s Madison Square Garden where West Virginia lost its first-round game to George Mikan-led DePaul. (In those years, the NIT was the preeminent tournament and the NCAA was in its infancy.)
Byrd also led West Virginia to NIT trips in 1946, where the Mountaineers reached the semifinals before bowing out to eventual champion Kentucky, and in 1947, when West Virginia again made it to the semifinals before losing to Utah.
In 1947, Byrd scored a season-high 25 points against Temple, had 19 in an NIT first-round victory over Bradley, and 22 in the semifinal loss to Utah to receive all-tournament honors and earn a spot on the Helms Foundation All-America team, then only the second cager in school history to earn All-America recognition. That same year he was also named West Virginia Amateur Athlete of the Year. The Mountaineers that season under coach Lee Patton were ranked as high as No. 2 in the country and finished the year ranked 12th.
WVU won all 57 of its home games during Byrd’s four-year career, and posted overall records of 12-6, 24-3, 19-3 and 17-3. The 1946 squad owns the distinction of being the first West Virginia basketball team to win 20 games in a season. Byrd averaged 11.5 points in 87 career games and reached the 1,000-point mark in his final game against Pitt on March 6, 1948, defeating the Panthers, 52-36. This marked the first basketball player in WVU history to score 1,000 points in a career.
In 1958, 10 years after last facing Byrd and the Mountaineers, Pitt legendary coach Dr. H.C. “Doc” Carlson called him one of his “favorite” West Virginia players.
“Leland Byrd was the blankety-blank who always beat us,” Carlson said. “I remember one time I looked out there on the floor and (his) shoulders seemed to be slumping a little. We had a four-point lead and there wasn’t a lot of time left. I told my boys it looked like we would win this one because we had Byrd down.
“But the first thing you know he stole the ball and scored, and then he broke up another play and West Virginia tied us. That finished us.”
West Virginia won seven out of eight times against rival Pitt during Byrd’s playing career, the only loss coming during his freshman season in 1945.
After graduation in 1948, Byrd was chosen in the first round of the NBA draft by the New York Knicks. He spent one month with the Knicks before being drafted into the U.S. Army for a year. In 1950, he returned to WVU to study for his master’s degree, but was drafted again, serving as 1st Lt. Special Services at Red River Arsenal in Texarkana, Texas. It was there he met and married Elizabeth Louise Machen in 1952. Upon discharge from the Army, the couple moved to Morgantown where Byrd completed his master’s degree in 1953.
Byrd’s first coaching/teaching position was at Hinton (W.Va.) High School, where he served as head basketball coach and assistant football coach from 1953-1955.
From 1955-1966, Byrd was at Glenville (W.Va.) State College, serving as head basketball coach, assistant football coach, athletic director and head of Physical Education. During that time, his teams earned respect as one of the top programs in the West Virginia Conference. Byrd also took a year sabbatical during this time toward completing his EdD.
In 1966, Byrd accepted a position as assistant athletic director at Miami Dade Junior College North, and in 1969 was named athletic director at Miami Dade Junior College South, a post he held until 1972.
In 1972, at age 44, Byrd was hired to replace the retiring “Red” Brown as WVU’s director of intercollegiate athletics.
For the next seven years, West Virginia’s athletic program enjoyed considerable growth under Byrd. Women’s sports were elevated to varsity sports from team sports his first year, and the operating budget doubled by the time Byrd left in 1979. The football team, led by Bobby Bowden, participated in two bowl games, winning one, and the basketball program benefited greatly from Byrd's decision to hire Gale Catlett in 1978. Catlett, a former Mountaineer cager and Cincinnati coach, was awarded the first multi-year contract ever at WVU. At the time, it was considered one of the most creative contracts in the country. Catlett went on to become the school’s all-time winningest coach.
Perhaps Byrd's crowning achievement came a year or more after he left WVU to become executive director of the newly formed Eastern Collegiate Basketball Leagues, referred to as the Eastern Eight. In 1980, 50,000-seat Mountaineer Field opened to great fanfare in the Mountain State and quickly elevated WVU football to big-time status. In 1978, Byrd was directly involved in planning, designing and securing the funding for the new stadium.
Byrd served as executive director of the Eastern Eight from 1979 to 1982, when it expanded from eight to 10 teams and changed its name to the Atlantic 10 Conference. A more comprehensive men’s program was established as part of the Atlantic 10, and women’s sports were also added to the conference scheduling.
In 1984, Byrd left the conference to become athletic director at Western Michigan University. In 1988 WMU won the All Sports MAC Conference Championship title and the football team participated in the 1988 California Bowl.
Byrd retired from WMU and intercollegiate athletics in 1992.
Over the years, he has earned many honors, including induction into the West Virginia Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1986; the WVU Sports Hall of Fame in 1991; and the WVU School of Physical Education Hall of Fame in 1989. He was also named the School of Physical Education’s outstanding alumnus in 1996. He was also active on many NCAA boards and committees and was on the board of the U.S. Information Agency.
In 2010, the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at WVU introduced the Leland Byrd Leadership Award which is presented to the top WVU men's and women's basketball players for leadership both on and off the court. In addition to his professional career, Byrd was an Eagle Scout, president of the WVU Junior Class and a member of Mountain honorary.
Today, Leland and Elizabeth reside in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and Morgantown. They have five daughters, all born in West Virginia, and 7 grandchildren.