Pitt AD Heather Lyke defends widespread coaching changes
Heather Lyke did not back down when the question was put to her Friday. In fact, her voice was firm, to the point and absolutely committed to the words.
All around her, there is change. So why not ask Pitt’s athletic director, “Is change a good thing?”
The answer came without hesitation:
“When it’s needed, yes,” she said.
In Lyke’s 17 months on the job, seven coaches and trainer Tony Salesi, who had been at Pitt for more than three decades, have either retired or been fired. She has hired seven coaches, introducing baseball’s Mike Bell on Friday. A replacement for softball coach Holly Aprile, who made an unusual inter-conference move by accepting the same job at Louisville, probably will emerge before the end of the month and become No. 8.
To explain why so much change in such a short period of time was necessary, Lyke told a story.
“I was talking to a student-athlete who had gone through this (coaching) transition,” she said, declining to name the person or the sport. “It’s hard on them. They don’t know what to expect. There’s anticipation and concern.
“I asked this student-athlete how’s it going since the transition. This person was a rising senior.”
Lyke noticed a sullen look on the person’s face and knew immediately what was happening, “I said, ‘Oh, no, it’s not going well.’ “And the person just said to me, ‘I wish I was a freshman again.’ ”
Victories and defeats matter to all athletic directors, and Lyke keeps score as much as any of them.
“This should be one of the most extraordinary experiences in their life, and when I see that’s not happening, not because (the athlete is) not playing … it’s all the rest of it.
“Having competitive success is a part of that picture. Coaches who come in and make them better, that matters to the kids.
“Most importantly, it’s about the student-athlete experience. When I see that the quality of the student-athlete experience isn’t what it should be or can be, then you start to wonder.”
Most of the coaches who have left since Lyke’s arrival were not winning with enough regularity.
• Men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings and women’s soccer coach Greg Miller were winless in the ACC last season.
• Joe Jordano, who in 21 years was the winningest baseball coach in Pitt history (588 victories), had an overall ACC record of 50-98.
• Women’s basketball coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, born and raised in Pittsburgh and a U.S. Olympic gold medalist, was 22-58 in five seasons in the ACC.
That’s not to imply these coaches were not impacting lives.
When baseball pitcher Chris Gomez, who joined teammate Dave Yanni on the search committee that helped hire Bell, heard Jordano was leaving, he reacted immediately.
“I reached out to him right away and thanked him,” he said.
The replacements hired by Lyke all come with strong credentials.
• Soccer coach Randy Waldrum won two national titles at Notre Dame and coaches the U-23 U.S. national team.
• Wrestling coach Keith Gavin was a two-time Pitt All-American and an assistant at Oklahoma and Virginia. (Gavin’s predecessor Jason Peters was ousted by former AD Scott Barnes after what the university called “an incident” during a tournament in Evanston, Ill., in December 2016.)
• Katie Hazelton coached 10 national champion divers with the Duke Diving Club.
• Gymnastics coach Samantha Snider was an assistant coach at Arkansas.
• New athletic trainer Jennifer Brown, who was with Lyke at Eastern Michigan, was at Northwestern for 11 years where she worked with the football team. Lyke said Friday others were offered the job before Brown was hired.
• Bell has been one of the most successful assistant coaches in the ACC, coaching eight All-Americans and 47 MLB Draft picks at Florida State.
There was no direct reference to Jordano during Bell’s news conference Friday. He retained some continuity in the program by hiring Jordano’s pitching coach Jerry Oakes.
Otherwise, Bell said, “They get to start with a blank canvas. Whatever problems they had, dislikes, they get to start fresh.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.