MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Dr. Leland E. (“Hammer”) Byrd, 94, a resident of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., died at his West Virginia home on Jan. 19, 2022, surrounded by his wife of 69 years, Elizabeth, and other loved ones.
Leland was known to his family and friends as a true gentleman, who lived his life with class, integrity, generosity and kindness.
At 6-foot, 3 inches tall, he was a mountain of a man in so many ways, especially to his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He raised his five daughters to love West Virginia, taking them to state parks for picnics and adventures and to visit relatives in his southern West Virginia roots. In fact, during those summer road trips he would lead off the singing with “Oh, you can’t go to heaven”, with everyone chiming in on a rhyming phrase until it finally dissolved into laughter. And let’s not forget “Pine Tree, Pine Tree, Pine Tree” and “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” among others.
He adored his grandchildren and great grandchildren, always searching for the perfect gift for them and wearing that warm sweet smile every time he saw them. He loved ice cream and anything sweet – especially his famous jelly cookies — and that sweetness matched his personality.
Most of all, Leland loved his family time, especially the holidays when the whole clan would gather and he would shine and polish the beautiful sterling silver ornaments that he and Elizabeth collected that adorned the Byrd family tree. Then he would lead the charge as the family sang and danced its way to hanging his beautiful 12 Days of Christmas ornaments every Christmas Eve.
On his 90th birthday, his family surprised him with a scholarship in his name at his beloved alma mater, West Virginia University, while his hometown of Matoaka declared it Leland Byrd Day. He was beyond moved.
His wife, Elizabeth Louise, was the love of his life. They met when he was stationed as a lieutenant in the Army at Red River Arsenal (Texas) and she was voted “Miss Bombshell.” They went on to raise a large, loving family.
Leland was born in Lynch, Kentucky, on April 8, 1927, the son of Roy and Cornelia Byrd. He moved to Matoaka, WV, as a young boy and grew up playing basketball for his father at Matoaka High School in Mercer County.
He was recruited to play basketball at West Virginia University in 1944 and went on to become one of the finest cagers to ever play for the Mountaineers, earning a spot on the 1947 Helms Foundation All-America Team. That same year he was named West Virginia Amateur Athlete of the Year.
WVU won all 57 of its home games during Leland’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. Leland 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.
He was also proud that WVU won seven out of eight times against rival Pitt during his playing career, the only loss coming during his freshman season.
Leland received all three degrees from WVU – bachelor’s, ’48; master’s, ’53; and doctorate, ’67.
After graduation in 1948, Leland 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 (and they say you can’t roll a tank, but he did)!
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 he completed his master’s degree in 1953.
Lelend’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, he 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. Leland also took a year sabbatical during this time toward completing his EdD.
In 1966, he 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, Leland was hired to replace the retiring Robert “Red” Brown as WVU’s fifth Director of Intercollegiate Athletics.
For the next seven years, West Virginia’s athletic program enjoyed considerable growth. Women’s sports were elevated to varsity sports from team sports his first year, and the operating budget doubled by the time he left in 1979. The football team, led by Bobby Bowden, participated in two bowl games and the basketball program benefited greatly from Leland’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.
In 1978, he was directly involved in planning, designing and securing the funding for the new stadium. And, in 1980, a year or more after he left WVU to become executive director of the newly formed Eastern Collegiate Basketball League (Eastern 8), the 50,000-seat Mountaineer Field opened to great fanfare in the Mountain State. This quickly elevated WVU football to big-time status.
Leland 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, Leland 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. He retired from WMU and intercollegiate athletics in 1992.
Over the years, Leland 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 and was named Honorary Italian Man of the Year in 2000. 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, a member of Pi Kappa Epsilon fraternity and a member of Mountain honorary.
He was a devoted Mountaineer fan his entire life, still attending basketball and football games – until recent years — and rarely missing one that was televised. He started listening to WVU games on the radio as a youngster while sitting high atop a hill to get a decent reception.
Beyond his family, his lasting legacy will be the many lives he touched as a teammate, coach, administrator, mentor and friend.
Leland is survived by his wife Elizabeth Louise Byrd of Morgantown, WV, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and their five daughters – all born in West Virginia — and their families:
Dr. Deborah Lea Byrd and son, Derek, of Easton, Pa.;
Becky Lofstead and husband, Dan, of Bluffton, SC, and son, Chris Lofstead, of Morgantown, WV, and his two sons, Hunter and Evan, of Wake Forest, NC; daughter, Macall Gardner and spouse, Jason Gardner, of Farmington, NY;
Cindy Byrd of Fairmont, WV, and son, Chris, his wife, Iris, and son, Mateo, of Morgantown, WV; and daughter, Lauren Conner, and spouse, Rusty Conner, and their sons, Carson and Mason, of Fairmont, WV;
Mary Byrd and daughter, Taylor, of Pompano Beach, Fla.;
Nancy Byrd, of Morgantown, WV, whose special care for Dad during his final years was truly something special, and daughter, Christine Grant, and husband, Michael Grant, of Tamarac, Fla.
Leland is also survived by his sisters-in-law, Pat Byrd, of Fort Myers, Fla., and Joan McCamen, and her husband, Bill, of Amarillo, Texas, along with many nieces, nephews and dear friends.
He was preceded in death by his brother, Jim Byrd, and parents, Roy and Cornelia.
A special thank you to his Hospice nurses and aides, true angels.
A celebration of his life will take place at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the WVU Foundation, Inc. earmarked for the Dr. Leland E. Byrd Scholarship Fund (P.O. Box 1650, One Waterfront Place, Morgantown, WV 26507-1650).