PITTSBURGH — Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke has been on the job for a little over 90 days now, and she’s already established some priorities for where she wants to spend her time and energy as the leader of the Panthers’ athletic depart.
Lyke spent an hour with members of the Pittsburgh media on Tuesday to discuss those plans and also answer questions. In the style of my typical coverage of Pat Narduzzi’s press conferences, I’ll do five takeaways from what Lyke had to say.
While I usually pick the topics for my takeaways, I’ll change it up a little bit for this. Let’s play a game of “Pitt fans’ complaints bingo.” Here’s what Lyke had to say about the things that Pitt fans bring up the most.
Think I missed something? Head on over to the discussion board and we’ll carry the conversation there.
Bring Back an On-Campus Football Stadium
Lyke talked a lot about reworking the just-done facilities master plan to make better use of the area “on top of the hill,” as she put it. She’s referring to the athletic facilities that surround the top of Pitt’s campus and house wrestling, gymnastics, swimming and diving, soccer, baseball and softball.
There’s isn’t a lot of land up there, but Lyke said there is “more than you’d think.” Is there enough land to instead to create an on-campus football stadium? Maybe, but it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen whether the space exists or not.
“I don’t see that as an initial priority from a facility standpoint,” Lyke sad. She also went on to laud Pitt’s partnership with the Steelers both at Heinz Field and on the South Side, calling it “extraordinary.”
“The chance for us to showcase for our recruits and for our student athletes to be around that environment that many of them aspire to be … it’s a very unique relationship,” she added. “They are as good of neighbors and partners in what we do that could be hoped for.
Wear the Throwback Colors All the Time
Pitt will wear their throwback uniforms again in 2017, Lyke revealed. They’ll again wear them two times, and while she didn’t reveal the dates, season ticket holders will get the news first. This year’s season tickets will have a player on each ticket wearing the uniform combination that Pitt will wear that week.
As far going forward, Lyke seemed amenable to Pitt moving to one set of colors long-term, and if anything, seemed to lean toward the throwback look.
“I’m not going to say the conversation has not not happened,” Lyke said in a non-denial denial that would make Sean Spicer blush.
Basically, they’re talking about it. Lyke said that Nike is studying Pitt’s branding to identify some opportunities going forward that include a secondary Panther logo and colors. She expects that process to take 12 to 18 months.
Play Penn State! and West Virginia! and Notre Dame!
Lyke said she has not yet spoken with Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour about negotiating a resumption to the football rivalry between the schools that is currently set to expire after the 2019 season.
“Sandy and I have not had formal discussions yet,” Lyke said. “I know Sandy well. I obviously have a profound respect for her. We would love to continue any type of ongoing football games with Penn State if possible.
“I think there’s great value in the rivalry. I think it’s little bit more on their scheduling philosophy and how we can fit into that scheduling philosophy, but we’re trying to make us as attractive as possible to fit into that scheduling philosophy, because we think it’s incredibly important in the impact that it can have.”
She also acknowledged the struggles Pitt has had with attendance in years when Notre Dame, Penn State and West Virginia aren’t on the schedule, as is the case in 2017.
“Our plan going forward is to line up and have marquee games,” she said. “When you don’t, you have to get more innovated in what we do.”
That philosophy can carry over to basketball, as well. For many years, it seemed that former Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon set out to assemble the least interesting non-conference basketball schedule possible that still somehow always ended up with an above-average RPI.
Under Scott Barnes, that seemed to be changing, as the team re-established its rivalries with Penn State and West Virginia and sought out other opportunities to bring better games to the Petersen Events Center. Lyke seemed to agree with that approach, but preached caution in the near-term.
“In a rebuilding mode, you don’t want to ramp it up this year necessarily, but I think the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia in basketball and across our sports is something worth playing for,” she said. “I think it would be great to continue those across our sports.”
Why doesn’t Pitt have a hockey team? or lacrosse? or ?
Lyke had a lot to say about wanted all 19 teams to be successful. It’s something that Scott Barnes did a lot of work towards and it seems that Lyke is even more serious about wanting Pitt to have more success all the way down the line and not just in football and men’s basketball.
As far as new adding teams — or cutting existing teams — Lyke didn’t reveal any specific details, but seemed to be taking all factors into consideration.
“It’s definitely something that we’re continuing to evaluate — our sport sponsorship,” she said. “We want to put our teams in a position for success. That’s a part of the comprehensive evaluation. If you’re talking about comprehensive excellence, it’s not just about the sport makeup. It’s about how you’re structured. … It’s not to say that we aren’t taking a look at that.”
Other Cool Stuff
Look, I know I said I was addressing complaints, but there were some legitimately cool things that Lyke said that are too good to leave out.
- This coming football season, there will be a James Conner bobblehead night at Heinz Field. She’s also considering adding an athletic hall of fame in order to bring back former greats for induction ceremonies.
- Lyke is taking to Pittsburgh. She got an introductory phone call from Johnny Majors, has met Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin and has spent some time around PPG Paints Arena as the Penguins made a Stanley Cup run. “It’s a place that attracts excellence,” she said.
- Basketball on Bigelow will be Pitt’s new answer to Midnight Madness. At 12 a.m. on the first day that men’s and women’s basketball teams can practice, Pitt’s are going to host an outdoor workout on Bigelow Boulevard in front of the Cathedral of Learning.
- With all of the turnover through the last five athletic department regimes, it’s not like Pitt has a lot of long-timers on the athletic department staff. But Lyke seems serious about cutting waste and bringing in the right people who want to be there and are committed to winning.
While other athletic directors have taken a high-level approach, it seems Lyke will work much more closely with the staff and make sure that she has all the right people in the all the right places before moving forward.