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Heather Lyke has worked on both sides of the football spectrum, serving as an administrator at a powerhouse like Ohio State as well as rebuilding a program from the bottom up at Eastern Michigan.
At her new job as Pitt Athletic Director, she sees head coach Pat Narduzzi’s program as much closer to the former.
“I’d say [Pitt’s] closer to the top and on the right trajectory” Lyke said Tuesday. “I think Coach Narduzzi’s vision and energy and what we’ve done the past two seasons are extraordinary, but I don’t think it’s the ceiling at all.”
The football program is coming off back-to-back 8-4 regular seasons after four consecutive 6-6 regular seasons , but her goals are still as lofty as possible.
“I think we should have the opportunity to compete in the College Football Playoff; that’s what we all want to see” Lyke said. “And I don’t think we’re that far off.”
Lyke lauded Narduzzi and his staff’s efforts thus far, but if Narduzzi somehow delivers on that big of an objective - or comes close to it - he’ll likely be a top target for coaching openings elsewhere.
The new athletic director is confident that, unlike the program’s last two coaches, Narduzzi will remain at Pitt.
“Coach Narduzzi loves Pittsburgh,” Lyke said. “I think as long as he knows we’re committed to making him and his program as successful as possible, then he is going to be incredible committed here.”
Lyke says to look no further than how Narduzzi ended up in Pittsburgh as a signal of his dedication to the program,
“You never know what will come up, but he was very intentional about his decision to come here, and very happy about the decision and the timing.” Lyke said. “He, I’m sure, turned down lots of jobs before he accepted this job.”
One of the key factors to continuing that trajectory will be to fill Heinz Field for games, which Lyke says is crucial not only for financial purposes but for stability in recruiting as well.
“It goes back to [keeping Pat Narduzzi]; every person that adores him and loves everything he’s doing, then come to the games,” Lyke said. “The more we fill Heinz Field, the better the recruiting experience it is for our student-athletes.
“The biggest challenge in recruiting is to have that experience like when Penn State was here. Consistent support like that is important.”
Without an ultra-marquee home game this season like Penn State or Notre Dame, Lyke and her staff are getting creative to put fans in the seats.
“That’s the question,” Lyke said. “How do you distinguish going to a Pitt football game from any other school in the country?”
The administration is planning “theme games” for home games and hinted at a James Conner bobblehead, although she wouldn’t reveal the date of the game for that giveaway. Lyke also said Pitt is hoping to improve and formalize the Heinz Field tailgating experience.
She also wants to create a Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame, where an induction would take place at a football game.
Lyke does want to line up more of those marquee games, though, particularly the Penn State series, which ends in 2019.
“We haven’t had formal discussions, but I know [Penn State AD] Sandy [Barbour] well,” Lyke said. “We would love to continue playing football games against Penn State. There’s great value in the rivalry; it’s a little bit more on their scheduling philosophy and how we can fit into their scheduling philosophy. And we’re trying to make us as attractive as possible to fit into their scheduling philosophy.”
Pitt will also try to continue avoiding home-and-homes against Group of Five schools, but Lyke admitted that there might be some kinks due to the upcoming ACC Network deal.
Just don’t expect Pitt’s games to take place at a stadium other than Heinz Field anytime soon. Like her predecessors, an on-campus stadium isn’t on Lyke’s radar.
“I don’t see that as an initial priority right now, from a facilities standpoint,” Lyke said. “We have some teams that don’t have practice and competition facilities.”