If the future of Pitt football wasn’t already promising enough, the hiring of new athletic director Heather Lyke is yet another step in the right direction.
Simply put it, she’s a winner. She was a winner in college at Michigan where she played first base on the softball team that won the first Big Ten Championship in school history. Lyke won when she was at Eastern Michigan, a place rarely known for winning. She was able to completely overhaul a football program that was one of the worst in the FBS, winning no more than two games from 2012-2015. Last season, the Eagles went 7-6 and made their first bowl game since 1987.
This emphasis on winning, in her mind, should be stressed to only sports like football, but across the board.
“I do believe the importance of comprehensive excellence,” Lyke said. “We have 19 teams here and if we are going to wear blue & gold we want to expect to win. We are going to prepare to have that level of success across the board. Winning is contagious, confidence is contagious and I think it will breed upon within the athletic department the more teams that you have competing at a higher level and continue to grow.”
Coach Pat Narduzzi praised Lyke as the perfect fit for the job.
“It doesn’t matter where the field is, football, basketball, she’s a leader,” Narduzzi said. “She’s the right person for the job in every respect. So it’s not just about a sport, not just about the playing experience, it’s about the whole package. That was what was so impressive to not only myself but the entire committee.”
For Narduzzi, this is exactly the type of person he should want as athletic director. Not only is she a winner, Lyke comes from the same gritty Northwest Ohio roots that he himself was raised on.
“She comes from the same kind of mold,” Narduzzi said. “She grew up in Canton, Ohio, which I have a lot of background there because my dad grew up in Canton and my mother grew up in Magnolia, which is considered part of Canton. So there’s a lot of people I know. She worked for Bob Goins and so did I at Cincinnati. She worked with Jim Tressel and I had a relationship with him as well.”
One of the big questions that has surround the Pitt football is the attendance of games at Heinz Field. Following the Penn State game, the highest attended game drew 47,425 on Homecoming vs Georgia Tech October 8th. Despite upsetting #2 Clemson prior to the final 2 home games, attendance dwindled even further, averaging only 35,000 for both games. This will definitely be one of Lyke’s biggest challenges as athletic director. She hopes build an identity that can will prosper in the Pittsburgh market.
“The challenge of being in Pittsburgh in a professional market and trying to develop a strong identity is very important,” Lyke said. “It’s also important to develop a strong partnership with those organizations. I see them as partners and opportunity to connect and build relationships. We can work on creative and innovative ways to do things different. The experience coming to Heinz Field for a University of Pittsburgh football game should be unique and remarkable. So we have to work hand and hand and recognize what they are doing and build upon that but develop our identity as well.”
As for an on-campus stadium, Lyke was candid that she would need to settle into the job first before deciding whether that would be an issue they would tackle in the future. Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher joked it took a little longer for him to be asked that question.
“Between Heather’s job and my job is it took me only one week before I was asked those questions,” Gallagher said.
From the vibe that I was getting off of Lyke, this women is going to do big things at Pitt especially with the football program. She is not only a marketing wiz, but she is tremendous at fundraising, something this athletic program desperately needs, Lyke and Narduzzi are the perfect storm to take Pitt football back to the same level of success they had in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The question is, will they both be around long enough to see it through.