Pitt introduces Lyke as new athletic director
Heather Lyke knew the proper way to slide — feet first, under control.
Still, when there was an opportunity for Pitt's new athletic director to take that extra base in a softball game at her alma mater, Glen Oak High School in Canton, Ohio, instinct recklessly took over her mind and body.
She dived head-first, overshot second base and was helpless to prevent the shortstop from falling on her, breaking her collarbone, but not her spirit or will to win.
Jerry Lyke, her dad, remembers the day well.
“She kept playing,” he said Monday after his daughter's introductory news conference at Petersen Events Center. “She has a pretty good pain threshold.”
Asked to explain, Lyke answered with what might become her method of doing business as Pitt's first female athletic director.
“Just toughness, man, toughness,” she said through a wide, white smile. “Grit, toughness, overcoming adversity, just sheer wanting to win. Sometimes, championship players and teams, they do something different. To me, it was enduring a little bit of pain for the opportunity to have success.”
Which might have been what attracted her to Pitt in the first place after 3½ years as athletic director at Eastern Michigan and 15 years in various administrative roles at Ohio State.
She said there's no reason Pitt's recent history of spotty success in athletics should remain.
“People say, ‘How are you going to do it?' ” she said. “Well, why not? How aren't we going to do it. There's nothing that can prevent you from having the level of confidence you need to win at this level.”
After her collarbone healed — doctors forced her to miss the next several games — Lyke, 47, played softball at Michigan, where she was a left-handed first baseman, captain and Big Ten champion.
After getting a law degree at Akron to further her resume, she entered an intercollegiate athletics career that exposed her to broadcasting, marketing, compliance and sports administration.
At Eastern Michigan, she hired football coach Chris Creighton, who led a turnaround from a 1-11 record in 2015 to 7-6 last year and the school's first bowl appearance since 1987.
“We were undeterred in our vision to make it successful,” she said.
Equally important, she connected with the money people on and near Eastern Michigan's Ypsilanti, Mich., campus.
Lyke triggered a 51 percent increase in fund-raising, including an anonymous donor who pledged $6 million, the largest gift in school history.
That's intended to help launch an ongoing $35 million facilities improvement project.
“It's an area where I felt consistently that we could do much better than we've done,” Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said. “We have the fan base that supports these programs. They want to contribute and make a difference.”
That will require a longer stay than Lyke's predecessor, Scott Barnes, who left in February after 20 months to become athletic director at Oregon State.
“We know we are going to love it here,” said Lyke, who was accompanied to Pitt on Monday by her husband, David Catalano, children Elle, Sophie and Eli, parents Jerry and Marilyn and older brother Trevor and his family.
“We flew all night,” said Jerry Lyke, who attended a wedding in Portland, Ore., over the weekend. “Heather called and said, ‘Hey, I want you here.' ”
“It's a place we want to call home,” Heather Lyke said. “It's a chance to put roots down and create memories here and be a part of the culture and the community and the city.”
Of course, how could she resist Gallagher's job offer that arrived late Friday night?
“Anytime you get a call on St. Patrick's Day from a gentleman named Patrick Gallagher, it might be a good sign,” she said.
So many challenges remain for Lyke, who was confronted with the Heinz Field attendance problem both in the interview process and in the news conference. She said she hopes to maintain Pitt's strong relationship with the Steelers to, possibly, help in that regard.
“The experience of coming to Heinz Field for a Pitt football game should be unique and remarkable,” she said. “We have to work hand-in-hand.”
And what if an architect called with plans for an on-campus stadium?
“I'd take the call,” she said. “I don't know enough about the university's landscape and opportunity for growth to intelligently answer that.”
But, she added, “You definitely listen. One of the greatest qualities of people is to be curious as a leader.”