PITTSBURGH — New Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke was introduced to the media on Monday and I took the opportunity to attempt to get to know her a little bit before passing judgement on the hire.
I came away impressed.
Lyke is passionate about the role of college athletics in building up the public image and internal esprit de corps of an institution. She’s energetic, well-spoken and smart. Her resume, as I discussed on Monday, is pretty much flawless. I picked out five reasons that I think she will be a good fit at Pitt and why Panthers fans will appreciate this move.
Lyke is a Canton, Ohio native, and while that isn’t exactly next door, it’s certainly close enough for her to remain close to her parents, who still live in that area and were in attendance on Monday. Those that hail from that area — including head football coach Pat Narduzzi — have a blue-collar mentality that is a perfect fit for Pittsburgh. Lyke said “it’s not a silver-spoon area” and she said that as a positive. That’s a refreshing change in the somewhat stuffy world of academia.
After growing up in Northeast Ohio, Lyke hasn’t traveled all that far, going to school at Michigan and Akron and working at Cincinnati, the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Ohio State in Columbus and Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti. She’s pretty firmly established herself in that region and outside of Michigan or Ohio State, there aren’t a lot of better jobs in that area than Pitt.
She also has three children between the ages of eight and 16, and she seemed honestly eager to find a place for them to settle down and establish some roots after moving to Michigan three years ago. By all accounts, this should be a place she will want to stay for a while. That should be welcome news for a school on its third athletic director in three years.
Lyke: “Personally, it’s a place where we want to call home. We have three kids and it’s a chance to put roots down and create memories here and be a part of the culture in the community and the city.”
Though some may roll their eyes at Eastern Michigan, her three years in Ypsilanti gave Lyke something that other candidates for the job lacked: real-world experience as a decision maker. She was a high-level associate AD at Ohio State. That alone would probably have been enough to get her on the list as a candidate. But combining her experience at Ohio State with the tough decisions she was faced with at EMU gives Pitt a more-rounded leader than someone that has only ever been in a support role.
I asked Lyke and chancellor Patrick Gallagher about how important that experience was to her development and how desirable she was for the role.
Lyke: “Ultimately you’ve got to sit in the chair and make the decisions, and I believe that the last three and a half years have proven my ability to be a transformative and visionary leader. We set out a vision to build that football program and to turn it into something that would instill pride in a university that was dying for it without a vision, without a plan. I think the evidence of the success speaks to that, and it really gave me the opportunity to build a team that believed and headed in that direction and followed us along the way as far as the vision of where we wanted to take that program. The chance to build your own team and make an impact is really I think what the experience is all about.”
Gallagher: “It was not a requirement. We certainly looked at candidates with a wide variety of backgrounds. But I would say it would be an uphill climb to not have that experience. There’s a difference between supporting decision makers and being one. The kind of learning and things you deal with when it’s your decision in the end that matters and it’s your staff that you’ve put together that matters is quite different from when you’re part of somebody else’s leadership team. I think in the end all of us draw from all of those experiences, but I think there’s elements that are simply unique with that sort of hard learning curve that you get when you’re in that leadership position .”
Lyke’s background is in softball, but make no mistake about, this hire is a football move. Narduzzi enthusiastically recommended Lyke, calling her “the best person for the job,” and the two shared a bond in their common Ohio roots.
At EMU, Lyke made the football team a priority in a place that it never had been before and oversaw a dramatic turnaround from one of the worst-performing teams in FBS to the program’s first bowl bid in nearly 30 years.
At Pitt, she was quick to point out both the challenge and opportunity that playing in a pro city and in a pro venue present and how important the success of the football team is to the rest of the department and university.
Lyke: “You know, the challenge of being in Pittsburgh in a professional market and trying to develop a strong identity is incredibly important. I think it’s also important to develop a strong partnership with those professional organizations, and I look forward to that. I mean I see them as partners and an opportunity to connect and build relationships and find out and be innovative with them. You know, find out what they’re doing and what is working and study that and build upon it. We’ll have to analyze it and how does it fit for the University of Pittsburgh and our football program.
“They do some tremendous things, and I think we can learn and work together on some creative ways to do things and innovative ways to do things different. The experience of coming to Heinz Field for a University of Pittsburgh football game should be unique and remarkable. And so we’ve got to work hand in hand and recognize what they’re doing and how do they build from that and then we’ve gotta develop our own identity as well.”
There’s not really a way to quantify this, but Lyke is a winner. At Michigan, she famously played through a broken collarbone on what would become a Big Ten champion softball team. That’s the kind of mindset she brings to the athletic director position.
She’s developed a championship mentality from her time at Ohio State and saw that though to fruition with EMU, where the Eagles won six MAC titles in 2015-16. She sees an opportunity for Pitt to build a winning atmosphere with success not only in the ultra-competitive venues of ACC football and basketball but in all of the school’s 19 sports.
Lyke: “I do believe in the importance of comprehensive excellence, and we have 19 teams here, and if we’re going to wear blue and gold, we want to expect to win. And so we’re going to prepare to have that level of success across the board.
“We’ve got to figure out why it’s not been happening and make changes if there are changes that need to be made. If there are opportunities to help our coaches and provide them with stronger support systems around them to provide success, then we need to do that. Everybody in the whole organization matters. There’s no question we have that opportunity and we will focus on that, as well. We’ve got 19 teams and I want them all to be able to compete at the highest level.”
Lyke will become the fifth female athletic director of a Power Five program. Thanks to Title IX, nearly half of all Division I athletes are female, yet only five of the 65 schools are led by a woman. There’s obviously a benefit in promoting diversity as an end result, but there could be a supplemental advantage, as well.
Title IX has been around since the 1970’s, which means if you figure that an athletic director is going to be a former Division I athlete, almost half the pool should be women. Pitt is basically tapping into a nearly untapped market in a sense that only the most qualified or most connected women have been hired as athletic directors, while the market for male candidates in much more heavily contested.
Head basketball coach Suzie McConnell-Serio: “It’s an exciting day. When you look at hiring an athletic director, they sought the best person for the job. Having met with her along with the other head coaches here, I was immediately impressed. She’s very passionate and motivated and I’m excited to have the opportunity to work for her. She seems like an incredible leader.”