Gorman: Pitt hires an athletic director we can Lyke
Heather Lyke didn't just bring a belief system to Pitt with her talk of commitment to comprehensive excellence.
She brought an epidemic.
“Winning is contagious. Confidence is contagious,” Lyke said after being introduced Monday as the university's first full-time female athletic director in 106 years.
“It's an incredible brand. You have a chance to see be on a platform to compete for ACC and national championships. The challenge that you face is believing. You have to instill that belief.”
Lyke instilled it immediately by nailing her interview with Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and the 12-member search committee. Acting athletic director Randy Juhl said Lyke “grabbed it by the throat and never let go.”
Gallagher was even more effusive in his praise of Lyke, whose personality was described as dynamic. As athletic director at Eastern Michigan since 2013, she oversaw a turnaround in the football program, a 100-percent increase in football ticket sales, record-breaking success in academics and fundraising.
To Pitt athletics, she was simply a breath of fresh air.
“I've never seen somebody come in and command a room that quickly,” Gallagher said. “It wasn't just the energy. It was the vision and this idea of creating a contagious belief of success. It just came through in everything she talked about. Every question that was asked was, ‘Is it real?' And it was.
“I think people started realizing this. We were all ready to put on our helmets and chin straps and go out and take the field right afterwards. It was great.”
That attitude matters, especially at Pitt, where Lyke's predecessors are best known for the damage they did to the athletic department.
Steve Pederson changed everything, from the school's name and logo to its colors and uniforms. Jeff Long tried to change everything back, but in a half-hearted attempt by going with the block Pitt.
In Pederson's return, the football program endured a circus of coaching changes. There were seven head coaches, counting the interims. His replacement, Scott Barnes, did his best to make the school's most successful basketball coach leave for his alma mater.
Seriously, you could argue Pitt's best athletic directors have been those who acted in interim roles. Marc Boehm hired Jamie Dixon and Agnus Berenato, who led the women's basketball team to back-to-back NCAA Sweet 16s. Juhl oversaw Pat Narduzzi's hiring as football coach.
Gallagher did something in this athletic director search that his predecessor didn't. When searching to replace Long, who left to become Boss Hog at Arkansas, Mark Nordenberg boasted he became a “one-man search committee” who zeroed in on Pederson.
Gallagher said he benefited from receiving a “well-balanced and deep look at an outstanding group of candidates” presented by a cross-section of the university's athletics and academics.
“It was important to me that we could find somebody who could take that new sense of direction and momentum in our athletics program and now get results,” Gallagher said. “I was looking for somebody that was, first and foremost, focused on the success of the student-athletes. That had to be the starting point. I was looking for somebody who bought into a comprehensive definition of success. That means winning championships. That means graduating with at least one Pitt degree. And that means, ultimately, leading successful lives.”
Lyke would be wise to stick to her introductory message, where she emphasized the need for energy and enthusiasm, innovation and integrity and the belief Pitt can compete with the best. Lyke wasn't shy about talking about Pitt as a “pre-eminent university with academic prestige” or competing for ACC and national championships.
“When we wear the blue and gold, we'll wear it with pride,” Lyke said. “We'll expect to win, and we'll prepare for success.”
Lyke was smart not to get sidetracked about questions about building an off-campus football stadium, instead talking about improving Pitt's partnership with the Steelers, with whom it shares UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side and Heinz Field. The football program appears headed in the right direction. It needs someone to steer it toward success, not interfere.
“A lot of things have been addressed already in the last couple years. There are things we'd like to continue, but you really didn't need to bring in a new AD to continue to do that,” Narduzzi said. “Hopefully, she has some ideas. That's what you want, somebody who also comes in with that vision to say, ‘Hey, Pat, here's a different way to do it. Let's try this.' I want someone who is going to add to the program, not someone who's going to keep it status quo.”
Lyke doesn't seem like the status-quo type, not after working for Bob Goin at Cincinnati and Andy Geiger and Gene Smith at Ohio State. She talked about coming from the world of compliance, where “the great skill set you learn is to get along with people and problem solve.” That's a great trait.
That should be refreshing at Pitt, where athletic directors have been either aloof or authoritarian.
“There's the old saying that culture eats strategy for lunch, so I think it's great having somebody who buys into that and is going to set very high expectations and expect success,” Gallagher said.
“We have a great strategic plan that was built with everyone's input. Now, really it comes down to execution. I think she's going to break it down, take those steps and go sport by sport and say, what do we have to do to be successful? In each sport, the answer is different. She has to get us to the point where we're dominating in our conference.”
That confidence already is proving contagious. Now, Lyke just needs to grab Pitt athletics by the throat and not let go until winning becomes epidemic.