So, heading into her first on-the-job media conference on Monday, there was a lot of ground to cover. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of her Q-and-A session, along with some responses from chancellor Patrick Gallagher, who was sitting alongside Lyke at the Pedersen Event Center.
Q: What did you like about the university during the process, and what things did you think you could change?
I think the things that I liked about the university, which I needed to find out on the interview — the importance of who you work for matters to me. And so the quality of the chancellor, the chance to build a relationship with him and to get to know him was very important. Alignment of leadership at a university, we can’t do it alone. The faculty, the staff, the campus environment has all got to be a part of the solution to building a successful, winning culture.
So that was important. The leadership is primary and incredibly important to me. As for what you have a chance to build upon, it’s an incredible brand. You have a chance to be on a platform to compete for ACC and national championships. The only question is, people say “How are you going to do that?” Well, why not? How aren’t we going to do it? And so I think it’s an incredible opportunity to compete at that level with our student-athletes.
Q: What do you view as the biggest challenges that you’ll face?
I think the challenges that you face is believing. Instilling a belief at a place. I think that there’s been strong tradition, and there’s a history, and there’s a lot of pride that might be a little bit hidden, but you have a chance to instill that level of belief. To analyze, there’s nothing that can prevent you from having the level of confidence you need to win at this level.
To me it’s about analyzing, taking the time to find out what our coaches need to have success, and building a team that is committed to doing that, and helping that.
Q: How important is it to build the football program?
The football program, undoubtedly, gets a huge amount of attention. And it’s an economic engine, at times, for an athletic department. I do believe in the importance of comprehensive excellence. We have 19 teams here, and if we’re gonna wear blue and gold, we want to expect to win. And so we’re gonna prepare to have that level of success across the board.
Winning is contagious. Confidence is contagious. And so I think that will breed [within] the athletic department the more teams that you have competing at a higher level, and it will continue to grow.
Q: What kind of stability do you feel you can bring, and long-term how do you view your role?
I think it’s one of the things that attracted me to the position. I’ve been very strategic and selective about opportunities that have come, and fortunate in this particular case that it’s perfect fit for me, professionally and personally.
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 on 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.
Q: What did you learn as an athletic director at Eastern Michigan, and how do you feel the AD experience contributed to the decision?
I would say that a lot of times when you’re coming up into the business and you have the opportunity to learn — and again, I mentioned the leaders that I’ve learned from, and arguably I think they’re the best of the best — but ultimately, you’ve got to sit in the chair and make decisions. I believe that the last 3 1/2 years have proven my ability to be a transformative and visionary leader.
We set out a vision to build that football program and turn it into something that would instill pride in the university that was dying for it, without a vision, without a plan. And so I think the evidence of the success speaks to that, and it really gave me the opportunity to build a team that believed and headed in that direction, and followed us along the way as far as the vision of where we wanted to take that program. The chance to build your own team and make an impact is really what I think the experience is about.
Gallagher: [AD experience] was not a requirement. We certainly looked at candidates with a wide variety of backgrounds. But I would say it would be an uphill climb to not have that experience. There’s a difference between supporting decision-makers and being one. The kind of learning and things you deal with when it’s your decision in the end that matters, and it’s your staff that you’ve put together that matters, is quite different when you’re part of somebody else’s leadership team.
I think in the end all of us draw from all of those experiences, but I think there’s elements that are simply unique with that sort of hard learning curve that you get when you’re in that leadership position.
Q: What have the last 12-24 hours like been for you?
I’ll say that anytime you get a call on St. Patrick’s Day from a gentleman named Patrick Gallagher, [it] might be a good sign. Late Friday night on St. Patrick’s Day, I got a call from the chancellor offering me the opportunity to be the next athletic director, and I accepted.
Since then, it has just been a whirlwind of excitement and anxiousness to get here. I can’t belabor the world of Eastern Michigan, because those people mean a whole lot to me, and they know that, and they’re in great hands and in great position. But I feel the draw to come here, and I’m just honored to have the opportunity to make an impact. And so it’s been nothing short of exciting, and I’m just thrilled to be here today. I don’t know how much I’ve slept in the last two days. It’s not been a lot … It’s just your mind, and you’re so excited. And so I’m really excited to be here.
Q: With your marketing background, how do you feel equipped to increase attendance at Heinz Field?
The challenge of being in Pittsburgh, a professional market, and trying to develop a strong identity is incredibly important. I think it’s also important to develop a strong partnership with those professional organizations, and I look forward to that. The reason being, is you get a chance — I see them as partners, and an opportunity to connect and build relationships. And find out what they’re doing and what is working, and study that and build upon it. We’ll have to analyze it and how [it fits] at the University of Pittsburgh and our football program, but there’s a whole lot of good ideas. They do some tremendous things, and I think we can learn and work together on some creative ways, and innovative ways to do thinks differently.
The experience of coming to Heinz Field for a University of Pittsburgh football game should be unique and remarkable. And so we’ve got to work hand-in-hand and recognize what [professional teams are] doing, and how do we grow from that — and then we’ve got to develop our own identity as well.
Gallagher: It’s a vital issue for our success, both from the business side and also from the success of our sports programs. Every coach will tell you, when those stands are full, our teams play better. Our program does better. And so it was a big part of the interview process, I wanted to know how candidates thought about this issue. We have unique aspects of the Pittsburgh market with a community that expects to win, and is used to seeing winning teams on the field. And also changes nationally in how people are consuming sports and looking at sports, and we see those trends in attendance.
What impressed me about Heather wasn’t that she had the answer. I think this is gonna be an experimental science. We’re gonna try things, and she’s a real innovator. And she was really excited about taking a look at the things that we could do to create that unique and special fan experience that you couldn’t get anywhere else, unless you came to the game. And we’ll just keep working that until we get it right. Like I said, it’s vital to our success.
Q: The idea of an on-campus stadium has been kicked around. With your commitment at EMU to build new facilities, is that something you’d look into down the road?
I have to get into the job and understand where we are from a facilities standpoint. I came from one place to another, I really haven’t even been much on-campus. But the reality is, we’ve got to assess where the priorities are. And it’ll take a little time to find out exactly where the planning is. And we’ve got to work in collaboration with the rest of the university as well, to find out where we fit within the university’s vision and strategic plan, or facilities master plan, and then [figure out] what are our greatest needs and priorities from a facilities standpoint for the athletic department to continue to elevate across the board.
Gallagher: Between Heather’s job and my job, the big difference is it took me one week before I got that question.
Q: How did the positions you’ve held combine to prepare you take on a job like this?
I think that people matter. Relationships matter. I grew up in the world of compliance. That’s not very traditional, necessarily, to get to the athletic director chair. But in the world of compliance, the greatest skillset you learn is the ability to get along and problem-solve for your coaching staff and administrative staff. And it’s also to build a relationship with everybody in the athletic department and those outside the athletic department.
You have to connect with donors and alumni and educate about that. You’ve got to connect with your facility staff and your equipment staff. So you build this unbelievable skill to build relationships with people in a very genuine and meaningful way. And so I think that foundation allowed me to continue to grow within the athletic department and take on different challenges and responsibilities.
Q: How important is it to build on the fundraising platform that’s been emphasized the last couple years?
I would say that fundraising is an essential responsibility of the athletic department, of the athletic director. And it’s something we love to do. It’s about, again, building relationships and sharing your vision. People who care about the University of Pittsburgh and Pitt athletic program, how they can help you continue to build upon that vision. Outside financial resources are essential. We want to connect donors back in a meaningful way and give them experiences that they might not otherwise have.
I would say that everybody in the athletic department, everybody at our university — we’re all fundraisers. We’re all talking about the extraordinary things that are happening on campus, both academically and athletically. In order to do those extraordinary things and compete at a certain level, you need additional resources. And I love to build those relationships, talk about what we’re doing, and it’s really a result of what the coaches and athletes are doing and sharing that knowledge.
Gallagher: It’s not a surprise that fundraising is a major part of life in a university. It’s the way we broaden the base of support and let ourselves do more to support our students and our programs, without it [coming from] state funding or tuition. I would say that the business side of the athletic director’s job is probably one of the most complex in the university. And some of that has to do with the complexity of the business model for athletics. In addition to fundraising and institutional support, you’ve got ticketing and merchandise and TV revenue, and all of that has to work together
But the fundraising piece is important to us. It’s an area where I’ve felt consistently that we can do much better than we’ve done. We have the fanbase that supports these programs, they want to contribute and make a difference. And I think that if we provide those opportunities we can do that, and in doing so, I think we can give our coaches and student-athletes the tools they need to be successful and to go get those championships that Heather is talking about.
I’m not familiar with the committee, but I’ll certainly learn about it and recognize that it’s vital to understand the fan experience. For us not to listen and learn to those who are coming to our events, we’d be remiss. And so we’ve done similar things at my previous school where you have to get feedback from alumni, from season-ticket holders, from people who’ve been coming for a long time, from former student-athletes who were a part of the program and now come back.
Their perspective is different than ours. The beauty of that is having a diversity of understanding of what that experience has been like, and how you continue to make it better.
Q: Can you speak on the feeling of pride you take from being the fifth Power 5 female AD?
I don’t know that it wore off. Of course there’s a tremendous amount of pride to encourage people to aspire to the highest levels of leadership you can, in any industry. I thank and appreciate all of those many, many women who’ve come before me, and the support they continue to provide. I’ll just say that I think both men and women allowed for that opportunity to happen. I worked for three men who I wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t challenged me and pushed me and seen the level of leader that they saw in me.
I think all of working together have to continue to enhance diversity across the board. Men, women, and in a racial sense as well. An opportunity to give people chances to grow and develop at the highest levels that they aspire to do.
Sean Gentille: email@example.com, on Twitter @seangentille.
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