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With Pitt basketball being in a state of flux and undergoing nearly-unparalleled level of roster turnover, new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke’s initial meeting with head coach Kevin Stallings was supposed to last just over an hour.
It ended up going three-and-a-half times that length.
In that meeting, Lyke wanted to find out if Stallings truly “wanted to be here,” and rebuild the program. She came away convinced at his commitment level - and ability to do that.
“There’s a big focus on building the basketball brand back,” Lyke said Tuesday morning. “That’s a necessity, and it’s doable.”
While talking with media Tuesday, Lyke emphasized that one of the most important ways to do that is to “humanize” faces in the program, something she says didn’t happen as much last year.
“It starts with getting to know the people,” Lyke said.
Lyke outlined some simple steps Stallings and the program is taking to get this done.
They intend to host the team’s Midnight Madness event outdoors on Bigelow Boulevard again for the first time since 2012. The coach and his five incoming freshmen met with Pitt’s fan committee to got to know them. Stallings will also throw at a first pitch at a Pirates game later this year, as well.
Amidst the re-introduction tour, Lyke says Stallings and his staff are impressing her with their commitment and work as well.
“I’m working a whole lot of hours, and I’ll tell you, [Stallings] parks right next to me,” Lyke said. “His car is usually here before me when I get here and often still here after 11 p.m. when I leave. His staff is working incredibly hard in a unique and unusual recruiting situation, one we hope to never have to be in again.”
Lyke acknowledged that Stallings will need some time, with only three players returning from last year’s tournament-missing squad.
“If you look at the team, it is a complete rebuild,” Lyke said. “I do think he’s going to need a little time to develop. There are some things we’ve got to get better at. I’ve already seen those things start to happen.”
Lyke also commented on the situation surrounding one of the players who left the roster even further in that state of rebuild, Cam Johnson.
Johnson, a grad transfer with two years of eligibility, fought a public battle with Pitt over the school restricting his right to transfer in conference to UNC without sitting out a year.
Pitt eventually budged and released Johnson because Lyke says the school was told if they didn’t, Johnson would be permanently ineligible. But she still believes, in a departure from current rules, Johnson and other graduate transfers should sit out a season, just like non-graduate transfers.
“I think the transfer rules by the NCAA need to be thoroughly reviewed, studied and evaluated,” Lyke said. “I do think the year of residence rules for graduate transfers and regular transfers should be similar, and they’re not, which we have learned.”
As of now, non-graduates have to establish a year of residence to transfer to another school. Graduate transfers do not have to. Pitt was initially only willing to let Johnson transfer if he established that year of residency at UNC.
Lyke did say that the situation ended as amicably as it possibly could after Pitt eventually allowed for Johnson to immediately transfer to North Carolina, and that she received a nice text from Johnson’s father, Pitt alum Gilbert Johnson.
Despite how publicly the situation played out, she doesn’t expect it to affect Pitt on the recruiting trail.
“When you go recruit kids, we want them to graduate from here,” Lyke said. “To finish here in four years and to expect them to want to go somewhere else, I don’t think we recruit that way. The hope is that they want to be a part of this program.”
With Johnson and others’ departures, as well as the downward trajectory the program’s on-court results have shown of late, Lyke understands the pessimism surrounding the program but says it should also be met with excitement about the future.
"There's realistic concern,” Lyke said. “But there's also realistic confidence."