Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke joins the Panthers after a four-year stint as athletic director at Eastern Michigan.
Heather Lyke is a Canton, Ohio, native.
By Brian Batko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a day that was, in many respects, about selling Pitt fans on a new athletic director, Heather Lyke did her best to already begin selling what Pitt athletics can accomplish.
Coming from Eastern Michigan after almost four years in the Mid-American Conference, Lyke made it clear the goals for Pitt sports should be ambitious, and she firmly believes talk of “ACC and national championships” are attainable.
“The only question is, people say, ‘How are you going to do that?’ “ Lyke asked. “Well, why not?”
As Lyke spoke at a news conference Monday afternoon announcing her hiring as the full-time replacement for departed athletic director Scott Barnes, many of the men and women she will lead were watching.
Coaches, administrators, media and even some players listened as she and chancellor Patrick Gallagher fielded questions about what the university’s athletic department might look like under her leadership. Gallagher’s previous hire for this post was Barnes, who left for Oregon State after less than two years on the job. Naturally, finding stability for Pitt at the top was a major factor in the process of bringing aboard Lyke, a native of Canton, Ohio.
“I want Pitt to be a place that’s a destination,” said Gallagher, who praised work done during Barnes’ tenure.
He added that a candidate’s hometown wasn’t a primary criterion in the search process but maintained that Pitt needs to end what could be perceived as a revolving door of athletic directors.
“Because that’s an aspect of not believing in ourselves,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher called her “a turnaround specialist” for those endeavors, and Lyke, too, perhaps hinted at some of the challenges she faced at a school where some faculty and students were reportedly opposed to increased spending on a sport they believed was unable to be fixed.
“I’ll let you in on something chancellor Gallagher shared with me,” Lyke said in her opening remarks. “Athletics is in our DNA at Pitt, and we want it to be a tremendous source of pride.”
That’s the type of expectations-inducing remark Lyke will try to meet when she officially starts her new role March 28.
A former softball player at Michigan, Lyke figured out she wasn’t much for the scales of justice after finishing law school at Akron — at least not compared to the environment of college athletics. She decided to switch gears and careers, initially entering the industry as an NCAA compliance official.
Now, she’s one of four female athletic directors who preside over an entire athletic department at the major-conference level, joining Penn State’s Sandy Barbour, Washington’s Jennifer Cohen and N.C. State’s Debbie Yow, and was asked if that achievement is still a thrill after all these years.
“I don’t know that it wore off,” she said, not long after Gallagher proclaimed “a new barrier has been broken” by making Lyke the first full-time female athletic director in Pitt history.
Her first big break came at Ohio State, where she learned from current athletic director Gene Smith, whom she called a mentor. Eastern Michigan gave her a chance to be a full-time athletic director herself, and now she brings that experience to Pitt.
“I’ve been very strategic and selective about opportunities that have come and am fortunate in this particular case that it’s a perfect fit for me professionally and personally,” Lyke said as her husband and children sat in the front row. “To have the opportunity to work at the quality of institution of this nature, the quality of leader of this particular university and the opportunity to be on a stage and on a platform where coaches compete at the highest level is very attractive to me.
“Personally, it’s a place we want to call home. We have three kids, and 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.”
That’s precisely what she told Gallagher when he asked “What’s your commitment to Pitt?” — just as he did to other interested candidates — but there was also more that helped seal the deal for him.
“It was very important they had a great answer to, ‘Why the University of Pittsburgh?” said Gallagher, who earlier mentioned that previous athletic director experience was a major factor in the hiring process. “Just going to a Power Five conference, that wasn’t a good enough answer. I wanted to know what they could bring to us here.
“What I like about Heather is challenging everyone to expect to win. That’s, I think, our next step.”
Brian Batko: email@example.com and Twitter @BrianBatko.
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