View from EMU on Heather Lyke: 'It's a big step up for her'
March 20, 2017 1:01 PM
Eastern Michigan athletic director Heather Lyke will take the same job at Pitt. The two schools played each other in November 2016.
Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke sits at a podium at her introductory news conference March 20, 2017, at Petersen Events Center in Oakland.
By Brian Batko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
New Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke has spent nearly four years at Eastern Michigan, where the challenges coming into the job were steep and a moribund football program was an albatross for the rest of the athletic department.
Or, as she put it to Detroit Free Press reporter David Jesse a few weeks ago, it was an “anchor” — and one that weighs you down rather than stabilizes.
Jesse (on Twitter @reporterdavidJ), who covers higher education in Michigan including its public universities, colleges and community colleges, was kind enough to answer a few questions about Pitt’s hiring of Lyke and her work at Eastern Michigan. You can also read his story on her departure here. And away we go …
Q: What’s the initial reaction like from the Eastern Michigan fans?
A: “It’s a big step up for Heather. I think that’s kind of how it’s playing. Athletics at Eastern has a really complicated relationship with the rest of the university because of the issues with the money and general fund subsidy and football and all that stuff, so it’s just kind of being sorted out. But everybody sees it as the natural progression for her career.”
Q: With some of that negativity surrounding the football program and especially the athletic spending, is there a sense that she soured on the situation there and decided to leave?
A: “She’s been looking for a little while. I don’t know how much the financial situation played into it. Definitely it’s a tough job here, right? Football here, like at every other university, drives the boat and they just haven’t been good. There’s no way to sugar-coat it. And they had a great year last year, the best, really, in university history, so they’re kind of building off that. There’s a lot of positives. Now’s the time that I guess if she was going to go, you might as well go at the high watermark. The other thing is, Eastern football gets all the headlines, but Eastern’s non-revenue sports — track and field, some of those — are really good and have really good programs. She’s really done a good job of keeping that going and building on that. It’s just the high-profile one, but I’m sure she pointed to [new football coach Chris] Creighton and said, ‘Look, I know how to hire a successful coach.’ ”
Q: In your view then, what’s her legacy at Eastern, is it the coaching hire and helping to maybe get the football program back on track?
A: “I think that’s it. She made a really smart hire in a football coach, she got it turned around. The big question mark, and I think this is part of the legacy, too, was that just a one-year blip type of thing or is there actually a program here? Most schools can point to one or two seasons here and there that were good. Eastern hasn’t been able to do that, so when they have won, it’s celebrated. But to make a program, you’ve got to have multiple years of success. The other thing going on is she’s in the middle of this big $35 million upgrade to facilities. That might not sound like a lot to other schools, but here at Eastern, that’s a big deal, a lot of money. So the big question around here is what happens to that plan?”
Q: From Pitt’s point of view, is it fair to call her a football-centric hire?
A: “I don’t know. She definitely has spent a lot of time on football, but some of that is that’s the program that needed the most help. She’s certainly well aware of what a football program means to a university. We’ve had a number of conversations the last couple years about it — what a bad football team means, what a good football team means — and in our last conversation, in my story about the athletic facilities, she acknowledged the football program was an anchor for the athletic department — and not in a good way — dragging it down. She talked about how she wanted it to be an anchor in a good way, as a cornerstone of the athletic department. She’s definitely well aware — whether she’s football-centric or not — certainly, she knows what a good football program does for a school and on the flipside, what a bad football program does for a school. A lot of the questions about how much Eastern spends from its general fund to athletics, if they had been winning in football, those questions disappear. They weren’t, they were losing, so people were sort of wondering why.”
Q: Lastly, was interacting with fans and trying to improve that a major emphasis for her at Eastern?
A: “Yeah, very concerned about the fan experience. They tried some stuff — bringing in local breweries, beer tents at the football games inside the stadium, and over here that was seen as a pretty big deal. She’s changed around some of the ways they do ticketing and worked on some of that stuff to really try to make it more fan-friendly. So she’s definitely very aware of the experience of going to a game — basketball, football, whatever.”
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