What I’d Lyke to See: A Pitt Athletics Wish List

Pitt AD Heather Lyke

Photo Credit: Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Approaching her first full academic year as Pitt’s first full-time female athletic director, Heather Lyke met with the media recently and volunteered quite a few (blue-and-)golden nuggets of information about the immediate future of Pitt Athletics, and where they’re headed on her watch.

Under Scott Barnes, fundraising was up and coaches widely believed to be splash hires were brought on board in multiple sports, but there’s still work to be done. Fortunately, there are reasons for optimism to be found in Lyke’s answers to a number of questions.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of her media scrum, along with some related items on my Pitt Athletics wish list for 2017–and beyond:

What Lyke said: “I don’t see that as an initial priority right now from a facility standpoint. We have some teams that don’t have adequate practice or competition facilities.” -On whether or not there is land for an on-campus football stadium

What I’d “Lyke” to see: Put down your pitchforks, people. You knew this was coming. The pipe dream that is Pitt Stadium 2.0 was never going to be a priority. Let’s not kid ourselves about that. It’s just too much of a political football for the school to tackle, and it has too much invested in its relationship with the Steelers, and judiciously so.

I get that the Steelers aren’t exempt from criticism. The Rooneys can gussy it up however they want, but Heinz Field, by present-day standards, is Pine-Richland Stadium on steroids–and with different-colored seats (P-R folks: are empty green ones less conspicuous on TV, or nah?). Pitt should seriously consider tarping off the upper deck, at least in part–which, in college football, is not an uncommon thing to do–until it becomes less easy of a target for destructive attendance remarks. Why not use that space to commemorate the nine national championships, like when the Pirates would drape their “banners” over the unsold seats at Three Rivers Stadium?

Having said that, I also get that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The people who pan Heinz don’t give it its due credit as a recruiting tool. Pitt’s players, especially the ones serious about making a living out of that sport, unanimously love the idea of playing in an NFL stadium, especially one that belongs to one of the league’s most celebrated franchises. Even the competition is inclined to agree, including former North Carolina receiver/kick returner Ryan Switzer, who tweeted Heinz was his favorite road venue.

I graduated from a city school that does have on-campus football facilities. There’s a lot to be said for it, just as there’s a lot of things said against being a city school. There are certain perceptions and certain realities that Pitt will always have to fight. Bottom line, when you’re a city school, you have to win, period.

Last year, to wit, I argued, as long as Pitt wins, those leading the charge for an on-campus stadium will be too distracted to die on that–Cardiac–hill. I stand by my words.

Pat Narduzzi had a tough home slate his first year on the job, but his Panthers won six of seven at Heinz last year, and that shouldn’t be too big an ask with a modest home schedule this year. Pitt, in fact, is the only ACC football team that plays neither Clemson, nor Florida State, nor Louisville in 2017. Marquee opponents certainly help sell tickets, but it’s still a results business.

I have fond memories of Pitt Stadium, even as a fan born after the glory years, but I don’t need another. All I need is for Narduzzi’s program to keep up that consistency at home. The tide is slowly turning in Pitt Football’s favor, and the excuses for even the closet fans not to show are slowly running out.

What Lyke said: “He’s had a year to study it, but yes. If you look at the team, it is a complete rebuild, so I do think he is going to need a little time to develop it, but we’ve got to be headed in the right direction. There’s some things that have got to get better and noticeable improvements, and I’ve already seen those things start to happen.” -On Kevin Stallings and the state of the basketball program

What I’d “Lyke” to see: Patience, for starters. From the fans, from the media, from everybody. I, for one, am very interested to see what happens when Pitt’s completely overhauled team takes the floor in November. Beyond that, I desperately want to see Kevin Stallings succeed here, even if for no other reason than because, after one ugly season on the job–and, in some cases, before–so many seem to have made up their minds that they want him to fail.

I’m not here to pooh-pooh the legacy of Jamie Dixon. I desperately wanted to see him get that national championship that never came his way in the early 2000s, when Pitt Basketball’s renaissance was at its zenith, or at least get that Final Four berth that barely eluded him in 2009. Perhaps, at times, I was as guilty as the yinzer front-runners of taking his achievements at Pitt for granted, taking into account both the competition and the current win-at-all-costs climate of college hoops. Ultimately, Jamie is who he is: a great coach who, several years ago, plateaued here. Something had to give.

He got to go, peacefully, to a school where he has roots and, currently, faces much less external pressure to win. Good for him. Better for Pitt. Guess how many reputable Division I coaches would want to come here if his departure were anything less than peaceful? Guess how many reputable Division I coaches will want to come here if Lyke pulls the plug on Stallings now?

zero_point_zero

By all means, be angry at Barnes and his “search firm,” if you wish. By all means, be indignant over Stallings’ sideline antics last season, as if you’ve never said or done something in your career out of emotion or ego that you later wanted back. By all means, be frustrated by players leaving the program like it’s a communicable disease and the Twitter rumblings of recruits shying away. But let’s cut the revisionist crap about how Pitt did wrong by Jamie Dixon.

One thing that became clear through his words, his own recruiting efforts and the play of his later teams is that Jamie never wanted to leave the Big East. It’s clear through Lyke’s words that Stallings never wants to leave the building.

She would do well to stand by her various expressions of solidarity with the Panthers’ beleaguered bench boss, not to mention her call for more community engagement opportunities with the tireless worker and his team. This program needs a ray of PR sunshine anywhere it can find it.

In the meantime, Pitt needs someone running the program who embraces change and gives that level of devotion. It needs someone who’s always chasing the kind of players who could elevate Pitt’s ACC profile, even the ones who we think don’t stand a snowball’s chance in South Oakland of coming here.

I triple-dog dare you to research the list of Dixon recruits who have left Pitt over the past few years, and the list of schools where those players landed. Furthermore, if some McDonald’s All-American in the ESPN Top Whatever were in the middle of Duke territory and didn’t show glaring interest in Pitt, he wasn’t worth it. That’s not how this guy rolls.

Whenever there’s coaching turnover, the players who don’t fit the new system disappear organically and get replaced over time by players who do before the new coach starts going hard after the blue chippers. So far, we’ve seen a little bit of everything, and we’re only one year into Stallings’ regime.

No matter what happened in 2016-17, we’re not going to know for another few years if Pitt is truly “it” in basketball again. So smoke ’em if you got ’em and give those young men your support.

What Lyke said: “I’m curious what you all think. So I would say that the conversation has not not happened.” -On whether or not the retro uniforms will ever become permanent

What I’d “Lyke” to see: It’s fitting that one of the first Pitt ambassadors she spoke with when she took this job was Johnny Majors. As football fashionistas, she and he seem to be on the same wavelength.

It was Majors who helped create not only “The Script,” but also the royal blue and mustard yellow uniforms we all know and love, tweaked slightly every few years over the next two decades, basically because he worried that Pitt looked too much like Notre Dame. Essentially, that sentiment has been echoed by the new AD.

Still, back then, Johnny could give three toots if people were showing up to Pitt Stadium in Tony Dorsett replica jerseys. Administrators, in those days, didn’t care as much about how their teams looked because they didn’t see all the dollars that are up for grabs today. Pitt can no longer afford to mess up branding like it did under Steve Pederson, capped by his clumsy reintroduction of the Script just a couple months before he was canned.

Good for Heather for not being afraid to reopen a subject that seemed to be closed when Barnes’ regime trotted out new unis for every sport and throwback threads for football, then, after he left, ditto basketball. Pitt doesn’t have to be Oregon, wearing different gear every damn game, to sell “enough” merchandise–and good for her for directly acknowledging that as well. It just needs to appreciate what it already has.

Hockey fans went gaga when the Penguins (more on them later) brought back their “Pittsburgh Gold” uniforms for a handful of games and made them permanent during last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a branding coup for the Pens, going back to their roots with a look synonymous with their own rise to glory that began in Mario Lemieux’s heyday, and it continued when their white-based counterparts were resurrected this season.

I wasn’t opposed to Barnes letting the wearing of retro uniforms be more of an event for starters, though it was highly unlikely, had he stayed, that they would ever be anything more. I’m not opposed to Lyke letting her teams wear them for just a couple games this year, either. Leave ’em wanting more. More demand, more merchandise, more revenue. The Penguins waited until the popularity of their merchandise was at a boiling point no business in its right mind would ignore before completing their transition.

As long as she’s welcoming honest feedback, though, once both mainstream programs, football and basketball, are winning consistently and are consistently part of the national conversation, I do want Pitt’s old (“new?”) look to become its everyday look again. You’d be hard-pressed to find another NCAA school in the whole country that garnered such positive attention last year, locally and nationally, for what its teams wore.

C’mon, Heather, just a couple more “retro” days at Heinz or The Pete won’t hurt…and don’t even get me started on those hockey jerseys.

(Once again, more on them later.)

What Lyke said: “I think that the transfer rules in general from the NCAA need to be thoroughly reviewed and studied and evaluated…I do think the transfer rules and the year of residence requirement for graduate and undergraduate transfers should be similar, and they’re not, which we have learned…He did terrific things here, and so we want him to be eligible.” -On the Cam Johnson controversy

What I’d “Lyke” to see: Point blank, just let student-athletes play their sport of choice wherever they want, whenever they want, as long as they can prove they have a place to stay in the city in question. That’s exactly how I would feel if Cam were still at OLSH and his situation were a WPIAL/PIAA matter.

Your college years can produce some of the best times of your life–and take it from me, they go by in a heartbeat. The NCAA has the power to take away a fraction of that heartbeat, just so it can prove…what, exactly? Why does this bureaucracy that has so often ignored its own moral compass even bother? Why do any of us bother losing sleep over kids who don’t want to play for our school?

Since this happened on Heather’s watch, I’ll go right ahead and say she passed her first test. Pitt broke no rules in its dealings with Cam Johnson, and when it realized that, from a PR standpoint, that no longer mattered, it was in the right when it took the high road and let him go to UNC. Johnson was a great outside shooter, a good teammate and a better student, and I wish him nothing but the best–except, obviously, when the Panthers visit the Tar Heels next season, on which day, keeping this strictly business, I hope they beat him like he stole something.

If Stallings had come here and Calipari’d or Boeheim’d his way to a championship right away, talking heads from four-letter networks would have been slobbering all over him throughout the Cam Johnson saga. If losing Johnson to a conference rival is the worst thing that happens to him this year, we’ve got a lot less to worry about. What we should worry about, amid any transfer situation, are players who choose to be here and wear their Pitt uniforms as badges of honor, not prison issue.

What I “Lyke” about you, Heather, if you’re reading this, is that you earnestly want our teams to win, but want them to do so in a manner we can be proud of. Even Pederson, for all his shortcomings, saw eye to eye with me there.

I would rather Pitt stink with dignity than succeed with dishonor seven days of the week out of seven. People can bleat all they want about inequities in the NCAA’s relationship with its student-athletes, and I hope you make Pitt a front-runner in the crusade to rectify those. For now, though, you just keep playing these little you-know-what contests by the rules, and you’ll be just fine, in my book.

And whether or not my laissez-faire vision is ever brought to light, the sooner those rules are rewritten, the better.

What Lyke said: “Sandy and I have not had formal discussions yet. But I know Sandy well. I have, obviously, profound respect for her. And we would love to continue any type of ongoing football games with Penn State, as possible.” -On the future of the Pitt-PSU series

What I’d “Lyke” to see: That’s nice. Does Sandy know that?

Interestingly, Heather’s statement flies in the face of a rumor from a reliable, albeit civilian, source that the two were about to have dinner to discuss this very subject.

If you follow me on social media with any degree of regularity, you don’t need to be Dick Tracy to figure out where I stand on this issue, nor is it required to surmise the Penn State viewpoint if you know anything about that fan base.

But tell me more about how this isn’t a rivalry…

Or how it isn’t absurd that this “non-rivalry” was dormant for 16 years…

Or how the celebration of your 1982 national championship team during this year’s meeting at Beaver Stadium–where that team beat a top-5 Pitt team, en route to the Sugar Bowl–has nothing to do with the “non-rivalry”…

The key phrase in Heather Lyke’s aforementioned quote is “as possible.” Effectively, Lyke concedes that PSU is more set in its ways and in its scheduling approach, which, in its mind, works for its program. Better listen up, Penn State folks; this Pitt gal is trying to meet you halfway, and so am I. If you don’t want an annual date with Pitt, so be it, but it just isn’t right to let this series die all over again.

Wouldn’t it be nice, Nittany Lion faithful, if you could get that vaunted “107K,” or however many “K” the kids like these days, for a marquee non-conference matchup, too? It seems you’ve been coming up a tad short with those riveting PSU-Kent and PSU-Buffalo affairs over the years (I ain’t sayin’, I’m just sayin’!). Isn’t it time to examine the very real possibility that Pitt can help you, even if you only “need” that help on a part-time basis?

In defense of Penn State, one of the hardest parts of any athletic director’s job these days is figuring out how to have his or her cake and eat it with regard to football scheduling. While I was thrilled to hear Heather match our excitement about both the Pitt-PSU football series and the return of the Backyard basketball Brawl this season, her remarks about the equal importance of keeping cupcake games on the football schedule, however unpopular those opponents, are justifiable.

NFL players get a preseason. Even high school teams are allowed to scrimmage other teams before their season starts; in fact, since the radical realignment of WPIAL football, holding another scrimmage in lieu of an extra regular-season game is optional. College football doesn’t get a preseason of any kind. Schools need to throw in a Youngstown State, Villanova or FBS equivalent every year so their teams can have at least one theoretical tune-up game. In addition, until the ACC gets the gumption to tell Notre Dame to defecate or get off the pot, the Irish will always be an x-factor. Furthermore, what’s to stop the B1G/ACC powers-that-be from mandating more conference games someday (even though, in Pitt’s case, eight per year seems just right)?

Bob Jeffrey, a Pitt alumnus, runs a Pitt Football Facebook page that’s always full of delightfully nostalgic images, including photos of old schedules as seen on programs, media guides and whatnot. Can you imagine the present-day uproar if Baylor, UCLA and Oklahoma came to town the same year (pretty sure that happened, too)?!

There are obstacles, no doubt. And then there are excuses. Ever since the post-Paterno revelation that there’s another Power Five football program in Pennsylvania (and–get this–they have needs, too!), Pitt fans have grown weary of the excuses. This renewal can and should be done because, emotionally, economically and geographically, it makes too much sense.

Now imagine the uproar if, one day, Michigan stopped playing Michigan State. Or if Washington stopped playing Washington State. Or if Florida stopped playing Florida State. Or if Alabama stopped playing Auburn.

I only hope, when Heather meets Sandy, their new boss doesn’t prove to be the same as the old boss.

What Lyke said: “It’s definitely something we’re continuing to evaluate, our sports sponsorship. But we want to put our teams in the position for success, so that’s a part of our comprehensive evaluation.” -On the possibility of Pitt Athletics adding programs under her administration

What I’d “Lyke” to see: Some time ago, that little birdie who used to tweet to Myron Cope said Pitt is very interested in starting a Division I lacrosse program, and Heather has already approached one ACC school about being a consultant. This would stand to reason, as she was the first female head of the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Committee.

Here’s something else that stands to reason, as far as out-of-mainstream sports are concerned. Hockey is more popular in western Pennsylvania than ever before, and if Pitt wants to get Division I-serious about #cawlidgehawkey, now is the time to plant that seed.

In fact, shouldn’t it have happened already?

Lyke isn’t just going to sit around and wait for a New York oil tycoon to breeze into town and dump his life savings into a college hockey program (though if one wants to build a rink better than Harmarville’s, just tell me where to send my donation). Nor should she, because, in Pitt’s case, it shouldn’t have come to something like that, according to Tab Douglas, a weekend host and former colleague at The Fan.

He argues that Pitt, if only Pederson had the vision, could have retro-fit The Pete for NCAA hockey, which is an interesting theory I hadn’t previously considered. The capacity seems reasonable, and the dimensions, to the stark naked eye, seem just big enough. I’m no architect, but I am salivating over the idea of an Earth-2 on which Pitt became relevant in D1 hockey before Robert Morris and Penn State.

Some RMU alumni wrinkled their nose at Lyke’s comment that Pitt officials had visited the Penguins in the general vicinity of their Stanley Cup championship run. Some worry about the middling state of their own program, and about how much support they’re actually getting from the NHL club these days. Honestly, though, that comment could mean anything to anybody. It could be something as simple as the new administration wanting a few pointers from an exemplary sports organization.

The Penguins’ support of scholastic and amateur hockey in the area, though, at times, misappropriated, has been, overall, fantastic. They’ve hosted a Frozen Four and are slated to do so again. Predictably, the Three Rivers Classic, which began during the 2012 NHL lockout, lost some popularity after that labor dispute was settled, but it’s still a fixture for RMU and PSU and still attracts some of the nation’s most accomplished programs and players. The more people who show up for those guys, the more people who get to see the regional teams in action with them. So isn’t it in everyone’s best interest for college hockey’s footprint to be as big here as possible?

Once again, there are certain things that city schools are always going to have to fight. In Pittsburgh, the biggest battle is the one Pitt faces against the city itself. Our entertainment dollar is constantly being stretched in Pittsburgh.

The other, arguably bigger, battle is the one to build, renovate or otherwise obtain a viable, affordable and marketable facility. Wonder no more why college hockey has caught on in rural State College, or in suburban Coraopolis, without our help. PSU’s Peg checks off all the boxes, and RMU’s Island Sports Center fits that student body like a goalie glove.

One battle that Pitt can always win is the one on the recruiting trail. Derek Schooley and Guy Gadowski are very shrewd and upstanding salesmen, but with the growth of high school hockey, the cupboard will never be bare if and when Pitt launches a D1 program. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League has spawned a number of stars who recently led the Panthers to a national club championship. Surely there were at least a couple NCAA-caliber skaters in that locker room?

Until Pitt gets that bigger, better rink, Division I hockey won’t happen overnight, or in the next year, or maybe even in the next 5-10 years. Nevertheless, I want to see Heather Lyke and her braintrust come up with a plan to make it a thing, even if it means sinking more money into the Petersen Center, as Tab suggested. If they’ve got the tools, western PA will supply the talent.

And you know I know a thing or two about that.

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