Proving she did her homework, new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke made sure she made a terrific first impression Monday by mentioning three simple words that surely made Pitt fans everywhere smile. No, not “Hail to Pitt!,” although Lyke did say that in her introductory news conference. “Script Pitt gear.” Lyke must have learned quickly that no fan base in the history of college athletics has cared more about its team uniforms than the Pitt fan base does.
But terrific first impressions go only so far. So does a strong resume, which Lyke clearly has. There is nothing not to like about it. “Incredibly impressive,” Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher called it.
But Lyke’s work in the months and maybe even years ahead will determine if Pitt made the right decision by hiring her as its third athletic director in the past 27 months. She talked at length Monday about “comprehensive excellence” for all of Pitt’s 19 sports teams. That’s fine, but her toughest and most important challenge is to work with Pat Narduzzi to make the football program relevant for the first time since the days of Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill, then keep Narduzzi for the long haul when bigger, better, higher-paying programs inevitably come knocking on his door.
Nothing else at Pitt should really matter until the football program gets it right.
Everything at Pitt will benefit if the football program gets it right.
Lyke is fortunate the Pitt program is light years ahead of where it was when Steve Pederson took over as athletic director late in the 1996 football season and said the crowd was so tiny during his first game against Rutgers at decaying Pitt Stadium that he thought he could shake hands with every fan. It’s also better than it was when Pederson was fired after the 2014 season at the end of a laughable period that saw Pitt go from Dave Wannstedt to Michael Haywood to Todd Graham to Paul Chryst as its football coach in a span of four years. Credit for that goes to Narduzzi, who brought stability, energy and enthusiasm to the program, and to Gallagher for having the wisdom to see all of that in Narduzzi and hire him.
But Pitt still has a long way to go before it becomes a top college football program. It hasn’t lost fewer than three games in any season since 1981, although it did beat eventual Big Ten champion Penn State and eventual national champion Clemson last season with an interesting, exciting team that was frighteningly good on offense and frighteningly bad on defense. (Remember the 76-61 win against Syracuse?). It also continues to struggle to put fannies in the seats at Heinz Field. That harsh reality struck especially hard late last season when Pitt played Duke at home a week after the stunning win at Clemson. The response from the fans? More than 30,000 empty seats at Heinz Field. It was embarrassing for everyone associated with the Pitt program.
Lyke has plenty of work to do.
“It’s a vital issue,” Gallagher said. “All of our coaches will tell you, ‘When those stands are full, our teams play better.’ We’re going to try things. [Lyke] is a real innovator. We’ll keep working on it until we get it right.”
Lyke “revitalized” — Gallagher’s word — the Eastern Michigan football program as the athletic director there. But the Pitt job is a big step up. The ACC is one of the country’s strongest football leagues. Pitt also faces the challenges of being in a pro town and not having an on-campus stadium.
“People ask, ‘How are you going to do it?’ My response is, ‘Why not?’ ” Lyke said of Pitt competing for ACC and national championships.
“The experience of going to Heinz Field should be unique and remarkable.”
The Catch-22 for Lyke and Pitt is that the more successful Narduzzi is, the harder other schools will try to steal him away. It helps that Narduzzi is from Youngstown and says he feels like Pittsburgh is home. I believe him. It also should help that Narduzzi has at least the beginning of a working relationship with Lyke after serving on the 12-person search committee that found her. He described her as “dynamic” Monday.
Lyke said she knows she has to give Pitt’s coaches “the resources they need to win.” That includes appropriate pay, especially for Narduzzi and his assistants. Lyke has a strong background in fund-raising, a significant part of her resume to Gallagher. “That’s an area I have consistently believed that we can do better than we’ve done … [Lyke] is a recognized leader nationally. She has a proven track record of getting things done. I think she’s going to take us to new levels.”
It all starts with football, winning games and filling Heinz Field.
At least there’s one thing Lyke doesn’t have to worry about.
Keeping the script Pitt logo is a given.
Ron Cook: email@example.com and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.