Pitt 1st-year athletic director Heather Lyke discusses her vision, recent challenges
Previously a major-college athlete and now Pitt’s athletic director, Heather Lyke jogs 5 miles a day. Or, at least, she did before accepting a job three months ago that often doesn’t allow her to leave the office before 11 p.m.
So much to do for the 47-year-old former Michigan softball player, who also serves as a mother of three, a wife and — in her day/night job — leader of 19 sports and approximately 475 Pitt student-athletes.
During a 64-minute roundtable discussion with reporters Tuesday, she talked about her vision for Pitt athletics and the challenges it has thrown in her path. Including:
• The basketball program that is rebuilding — some might say reeling — from the ashes of its first losing season since 2000 and the departure of 10 players, six of them with eligibility remaining.
• The significant matter of trying to fill the empty seats that annually emerge at Heinz Field during football Saturdays in the fall.
• Trying to improve facilities for sports other than football and basketball that she readily admits need help. “Football and basketball facilities are exceptional,” she said. “The others are not. If you want to be competitive, that’s part of the equation.”
• Fulfilling her vision of excellence in all sports. “If you’re not here to get better every day, you shouldn’t be here,” she said. “Our coaches need to know that the expectations to win and be competitive are there.”
• Mentioning the words Pitt football and the College Football Playoff in the same breath without drawing jeers from frustrated fans.
She brought the basketball issue to the forefront during her first meeting with coach Kevin Stallings. It was scheduled for 60 minutes, but stretched into 3½ hours. She came away with the belief that her coach has “a brilliant basketball mind” and is committed to fixing the program.
“My biggest question to him was, ‘Does he want to be here?’ Because if he wants to be here,” she said, “we’re going to help him be successful.
“There was nothing uncertain about his response and his commitment level to being at Pitt. I introduced how I work, and it’s transparent communication. It’s open door. Let us help you. Let us be part of the program and don’t get discouraged.”There is no questioning Stallings’ effort, she said.
“He parks right next to me, and his car is usually here in the morning before I get here and often here after 11 o’clock when I leave.
“His staff is working incredibly hard to get the right kids here in, obviously, a very unique and unusual recruiting situation, one that we hope to never be in again.”
Will Stallings, in his second year at Pitt, get the benefit of a first-year coach, considering the massive rebuilding demands?
“He’s had a year to study it, but yes,” Lyke said. “I do think that he’s going to need a little time to develop it.
“But he’s got to be kind of in the right direction. There are some things that have got to get better. I’ve already seen those things start to happen.”
Those directives aren’t restricted to basketball and include, she said, Stallings making public appearances, continuing to engage donors and even throwing out the first pitch at a future Pirates game.
“It’s a steep climb,” Lyke said.
Meanwhile, she said Pitt football is pointed upward — maybe higher than anyone would have imagined six years ago.
“Closer to the top and on the right trajectory,” she said.
“Coach (Pat) Narduzzi’s vision and energy and what they’ve done the past few seasons have been extraordinary. But I don’t think it’s the ceiling at all. I think we should have the opportunity to compete in the College Football Playoff. I don’t think we are that far off.”
Lyke said she believes Narduzzi has been handed the resources to win. Just as important, she said Pitt has what it takes to keep him if job opportunities arise elsewhere.
“I realize the question, and you never know what comes up,” she said of Narduzzi, whose contract runs through 2021.
“But I think he was very intentional about his decision to come here and very happy about that decision and the timing. He’s very strategic about putting (himself) in a place where he can have that level of success and in a place he wants to be.
“I’m confident that’s where he sits right now.”
Improving attendance at Heinz Field is a problem every coach and athletic director has faced since Pitt moved into the facility in 2001.
Lyke said there will be initiatives aimed at attracting people to the seven home games in a challenging year for ticket sales with no games against Notre Dame, Penn State or West Virginia.
Pitt hopes to target specific groups of fans, enhance the tailgating experience and honor the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins. A James Conner bobblehead giveaway is also planned.
She said fans must step up, too.
“That goes back to the question about Coach Narduzzi and keeping him,” she said. “Every person who loves him and the vision and direction of our program, then come to the game.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review pitt football reporter. You can contact Jerry at 412-320-7997, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .