Powerful Women of the World: Heather Lyke

Story and photograph by Sierra Smith

Historically, women, as a community of athletes and sports fans, have faced overwhelming adversity when compared to their male counterparts. Just looking at a basic timeline of female “firsts” in sports becomes a task in disappointment, as many of these firsts occurred in the late 2000s up through the present. But, as women continue to carve out their niche in one of the most notoriously male-dominated industries in our country, rather than dwell on the negative, these Powerful Women of the World look to the bright future ahead, beginning with the recent influx of female athletic administrators.

In 1982, Mary Alice Hill was named the acting athletic director (AD) of San Diego State University (SDSU), becoming the first female to hold such a position at a Division I football-playing school. After two years serving as acting AD, a contingency placed upon her by SDSU administration to ensure the community would accept a woman in a so-called “man’s role,” she was permanently instated in 1984. Beyond her momentous appointment, she made significant strides for student-athletes by establishing the first athletic scholarships for females in the country, helping to integrate women into the NCAA, and creating one of the first Drug and Alcohol Education Programs for college athletes, among innumerable other accomplishments. Yet, despite all of the progress Hill was able to make, the next female AD wouldn’t be hired for another 10 years.

Nevertheless, she was hired. And today, out of 354 DI All-Conference schools in the country, women hold 40 AD positions, accounting for 10 percent of all collegiate ADs.

It was a cold Sunday in late March when the University of Pittsburgh broke Heather Lyke’s story: for the first time in the 106 years, Pitt Athletics would be led by a female AD. It had been a typical night in the news office where I worked, but when our sports editor announced the new appointment, the excitement of the editorial staff was explosive. And in the coming weeks, as more reports and stories were published on Lyke’s athletic and profession past, the excitement within the Pitt community continued to grow — we knew she was the perfect person for the job. “Pitt is a place that’s striving to be the best,” Lyke says. “It’s a place where you can compete at the highest level, and I think it’s a really great fit.”

A native of Canton, Ohio, Lyke played volleyball, basketball, and softball at GlenOak High School before accepting an offer to play DI softball at University of Michigan under Carol Hutchins, the winningest coach in Michigan history and in NCAA softball history. “She’s a legend of the game,” Lyke says. “She made me better in so many ways, not just as an athlete, but as a person and a leader as well.” During her collegiate career, Lyke received All-Academic honors from the Big Ten, lettered four years as a first basemen, served as a two-time team captain, and helped the Wolverines secure the 1992 Big Ten championship. “My student-athlete experience was extraordinary,” Lyke says. “So when I think about what we do here at Pitt, I want being a student-athlete at Pitt to be one of the most extraordinary experiences.”

After graduating from Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in education, Lyke earned her Juris Doctorate from University of Akron School of Law. She worked as an intern at the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis before taking a position in the compliance department at the University of Cincinnati in 1996. Two years later, she accepted a position at the Ohio State University, in the largest athletic department in the country. Those 15 years spent at Ohio State served as her formative years professionally, Lyke says, and she credits her mentors for preparing her to lead a DI athletic program like Pitt. “I worked for three extraordinary athletic directors [Bob Goin at Cincinnati and Andy Geiger and Gene Smith at Ohio State] who invested in me, who cared about my professional development, who encouraged me and gave me opportunities to grow and learn from them.” She remained with Ohio State until 2013, when she accepted the AD position with Eastern Michigan University.

With gender inequalities a hot-button issue in collegiate athletics, Lyke was an extremely welcome choice for Pitt Athletics. Today, she’s known nationally as the first female director of two collegiate athletic programs, but she lets her professional achievements speak for themselves. “I don’t see myself as a female athletic director, I just see myself as an athletic director,” says Lyke. “It’s important to think of people as hard-working, inspiring individuals as opposed to ‘female’ and ‘male.’”

In her first six months with Pitt, Lyke has focused her energy on laying the essential foundation to create a stronger, more resilient athletic program. “We’re building a cohesive team that’s focused on comprehensive excellence,” Lyke says. “Everyone in the athletics department is important to our mission. My focus is on everybody making a difference and raising their performance and raising their game.” With that kind of attitude, Pitt’s future certainly holds promises of more wins. The program can also look forward to plans for new athletic and recreational facilities and an exciting sports-broadcasting opportunity for students come 2019. “My time at Pitt has been exceptional so far,” she says. “I love that people have great pride in Pitt.”

Moving forward, Lyke intends to continue propelling Pitt Athletics upwards, toward what she and the student-athletes defined as The Gold Standard: “Being the best you can be every day and being better than you were yesterday.”

University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department, pittsburghpanthers.com.

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