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Saunders: It’s Time to Stop Underestimating Heather Lyke



After hiring Florida State assistant Mike Bell as head baseball coach on Wednesday, Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke has one more opening to fill, as the Panthers are in need of a softball coach to replace departed Holly Aprille, who left to take the same position at Louisville.

It will be the seventh hire Lyke has made in less than a year and a half at the helm. She has already made new hires in wrestling, gymnastics, women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball.

She’s also essentially totally re-vamped the upper levels of Pitt’s athletic department. Of the eight deputy and associate athletic directors that report directly to Lyke, half are new hires. Very few of the people that have left were outright fired, but it’s pretty clear, given the trend, what Lyke’s intention has been.

Some will see the level of turnover as a negative, particularly when a popular coach leaves to lead a conference opponent and the words “stepping stone” start getting thrown around. That just isn’t the case here.

Take men’s basketball for example. When it came to the decision on whether or not to fire former Pitt basketball coach Kevin Stallings after a winless 2017-18 ACC season, I wasn’t in favor.

I didn’t think Pitt had the money, the resources or the panache to pull off the kind of hire it was going to take to make an immediate and necessary upgrade, so I thought it would be best to give Stallings and his staff one more year.

I was wrong, because I underestimated Lyke. Jeff Capel was a phenomenal hire that has already made enormous strides in turning around the Pitt program that I wasn’t even sure were possible, let alone in a matter of months.

But don’t take that to mean I underestimated Pitt. If anything, Pitt earned every bit of my lack of faith. Of the last dozen hires at the three most important positions in the athletic department, athletic director, football coach and men’s basketball coach, a solid half have been total flops. Some of the rest rose to the level of average. But outside of promoting young assistant Jamie Dixon in 2003, there have been very few home runs.

Until Lyke. Since her arrival, almost every single vacancy has been filled with a candidate whose qualifications jump off the page. There doesn’t seem to be any acceptance for excuse-making for Pitt not being competitive in any sport. The hires she’s made have been reflective of that.

Aprille and the softball team had a good year. They were one out from being ACC champions and Aprille was named ACC Coach of the Year. That doesn’t sound like a good time to make a change.

But Aprille’s contract was up, and especially in softball of all sports, where Lyke was a four-year letter winner at Michigan and worked for the Big Ten Network as an analyst, my days of looking foolish for underestimating her are over. Much like the six other hires she’s made, I expect Lyke will find an attractive candidate that exceeds expectations.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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