PITTSBURGH — Heather Lyke spent nearly four years overhauling the athletic department at Eastern Michigan, aggressively courting donors and generating buzz for a program that lacked plenty of both.
The results were startling on the field and off. The football team shook off decades of mediocrity to reach a bowl game for the first time in 30 years last fall. Earlier this year, Lyke secured a $6 million donation, the largest cash gift in school history.
The task at Pittsburgh — which hired Lyke as the school’s first female athletic director today — won’t be to turn things around so much as provide the propulsion necessary to keep pace in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lyke replaces Scott Barnes, who left in January after two years on the job to take the same position at Oregon State.
Lyke, unlike Barnes, has local roots having grown up in Canton, Ohio before embarking on a career that’s included associate athletic director stops at Cincinnati and Ohio State. While chancellor Patrick Gallagher stressed hiring someone familiar with the landscape wasn’t part of the “primary criteria,” he allowed he’s hopeful that Lyke’s arrival can halt what’s become a bit of a revolving door. She’s the school’s third athletic director in less than three years.
“I want Pitt to be a destination,” Gallagher said. “We’ve got to end this sort of (turnover). That’s an aspect of believing in ourselves.”
It’s a virtue Lyke took with her to Eastern Michigan in 2013. Over the last four years the school has produced 17 MAC champions, though her biggest mark came in football. She spearheaded a drive that saw the rebranding of the program, from the school’s signature gray turf field called “The Factory” to the hiring of coach Chris Creighton, who broke out in 2016 when the Eagles went 7-6 and earned a spot in the Bahamas Bowl.
Donations to Eastern Michigan athletics also rose 51 percent during Lyke’s tenure, no small feat considering Big Ten power Michigan sits just 10 miles away. Lyke faces a similar challenge on a considerably larger scale at Pitt.
“It’s an incredible brand, and you have a chance to be on a platform to compete for ACC and national championships,” Lyke said. “And the only question is people say, ‘How are you going to do that?‘ Well, why not? How aren’t we going to do it?‘”
Pittsburgh football coach Pat Narduzzi spent two different stints coaching in the Mid-American Conference and another seven years as an assistant at Michigan State, well aware of Eastern Michigan’s inability to escape the shadow of its conference rivals and establish its own identity in a crowded landscape.
That all changed last fall, when the Eagles reached a bowl game for the first time in nearly 30 years. Narduzzi took notice of the buzz.
“They’re in a bowl game, that shouldn’t happen up there,” Narduzzi said.
Yet it did. A large part of Lyke’s job will be finding ways to fill Heinz Field on fall Saturdays. While Pitt has stabilized itself in football since moving from the Big East to the ACC in 2013, a packed house is a rarity outside of games against longtime rivals like Notre Dame and Penn State.
“The experience of coming to Heinz Field for a University of Pittsburgh football game should be unique and remarkable,” Lyke said. “And so we’ve got to work hand in hand and recognize what they’re doing and how do they build from that and then we’ve got to develop our own identity as well.”
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