Football coach Pat Narduzzi sat on the committee charged with finding a new athletic director for Pittsburgh. His favorite candidate, Heather Lyke, ended up getting the job.
Narduzzi rattles off the reasons she stood out. “Heather’s really sharp. She’s very passionate, she’s got energy. She’s got vision and she’s not close-minded. She understands every situation’s different. She’s a former athlete. Where she’s worked in the past has developed her into a great AD.”
A few minutes later, he adds something more. “Did you hear about how she got passports for the entire Eastern Michigan program?”
Lyke got her first athletic director job at Eastern Michigan in 2013. The football program ranked as one of the worst in the entire country. Among her first hires was football coach Chris Creighton. He had a vision for the program and Lyke shared it. They both believed they could win there despite the years and years of losing, and losing badly.
How do you instill that same belief in players? Especially after another 1-11 season in 2015? The two looked at the MAC bowl lineup and thought perhaps the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl could be a goal for the players. To get to the Bahamas, everyone would need passports. So Lyke ordered everybody associated with the football program, plus staff, to start applying well before the 2016 season began.
Eastern Michigan started winning. Then Eastern Michigan became bowl-eligible in early November. Lyke sat on a MAC bowl call later that month when somebody in the league office asked, “Who’s ready to go to the Bahamas?” Lyke immediately answered, “We are!”
To surprise the players with the bowl announcement, she had staff members go to a nearby Popeye’s and bring back 115 empty boxes, normally used for chicken meals. Other staff members went to nearby stores to find anything beach-related, quite an endeavor in Michigan during early December. They filled the boxes with the beach trinkets, then gift-wrapped each one.
The boxes were placed under the seats in the team meeting room. Early the following morning, Creighton called a team meeting. Players were shown a video put together just for that moment, then they unwrapped the boxes to find their bowl destination.
“I knew if we did something like that, it would be a difference-maker, in the sense that the players would say, ‘You bought us passports because you believe we could go?’ So that’s what it was all about,” Lyke recalled recently. “It was about supporting the coach in what they were trying to accomplish and helping to try to create a unique way to instill belief in a team. I believed we could do it. Why not?”
"It's not how you handle football. It's how you handle people. She knows how to handle people."
Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi, on new AD Heather Lyke
In a roundabout way, that question relates to Lyke and her rise toward becoming an athletic director, just the fourth female currently on the Power 5 level. Why not hire a female to run an athletic department? What Lyke did for the Eastern Michigan football program illustrates that gender has nothing to do with qualifications to oversee athletics.
Yet it has been incredibly difficult for women to get consideration for those jobs, and one reason why it relates to stereotypes about whether a woman has the ability to oversee football. Those misperceptions have dwindled, but they are still out there.
For example, former Auburn coach Pat Dye gave voice to that antiquated notion when he criticized the selection of Condoleezza Rice to the College Football selection committee in 2013, saying, “All she knows about football is what somebody told her.” Lyke has had the good fortune of bypassing overtly sexist statements like that one during the interview processes at Pitt and Eastern Michigan.
Yet the double standard does exist.
“At Ohio State, Gene [Smith] has never gotten in a boat and rowed, so how do you manage a rowing program?” she says as a counterpoint. “It’s really not a very astute observation because it’s a people business. It’s a lot about building relationships with people. There’s very little time that you question X's and O's. How you work with coaches to create a culture where they can have success, that’s the athletic director’s job, to provide them the resources, the tools, the structure, the administrative team that can help them.”
Football never even came up during the Pitt committee interview.
“We’re in a different era,” Narduzzi said. “It’s not how you handle football. It’s how you handle people. She knows how to handle people. She’ll be able to manage people the right way and she gets it, and she’s got a strong personality and I think it comes down to that.”
If there is any hope for females to make more progress on the Power 5 level, it has to be getting rid of the nonsensical idea that only men are qualified because they "get football." Among the top 15 football programs a year ago, three had female athletic directors: Jen Cohen at Washington, Sandy Barbour at Penn State and Kathy Beauregard at Western Michigan.
The ACC has been somewhat of a flag-bearer in this regard. Not only is the conference the only one on the FBS level with two female athletic directors, as Lyke joins trailblazer Debbie Yow at NC State, it also is the only one with an important trifecta. Multiple women hold jobs as athletic directors and deputy athletic directors overseeing football. Virginia Tech has a female director of football operations.
Plus, two former ACC staff members are now commissioners (Bernadette McGlade in the Atlantic 10 and Amy Huchthausen in the America East).
“While there’s still work to be done and the numbers aren't where they should be, progress is being made,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “More and more women are in leadership positions, and it’s important that there continues to be more opportunities for female administrators to gain the experience that best positions them to be ADs and commissioners.”
That is something Smith did for Lyke during her time at Ohio State. He saw the leadership qualities in her that would make her a successful athletic director, and told her so in a meeting they had. Once she decided she wanted to become an AD, he did everything he could to get her the experience she needed. Eastern Michigan was her first in-person interview to be an athletic director, and they hired her.
“You want to do a great job for future women,” Lyke said. “That’s the responsibility you feel, to do the best job you possibly can so you can help eliminate those potential thoughts that don’t make much sense, that are not overly relevant. But there’s a perception, so you have to work really hard to overcome that.”
Lyke has done that, along with all the other women who have proven themselves on the highest level. The goal should be for more teams and conferences to follow the ACC’s lead.