On Tuesday, Jan. 14, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Director of Athletics Heather Lyke unveiled plans for Victory Heights: a large-scale development project to create top-of-the-line facilities for Pitt’s student-athletes and their coaches.
Victory Heights will rethink the current campus spaces where Trees Hall, Fitzgerald Field House—a 1951 facility used by 16 of Pitt’s 19 teams—and the OC Lot are currently situated. The project includes plans for a new indoor track, a new 3,500 seat arena, training spaces and an athletic performance center, all situated within the University's current footprint.
@Pitt spoke to Lyke—who’s approaching her third year at the helm of Pitt Athletics—about the strategy behind the Victory Heights initiative and the positive impact she sees it having on not just student-athletes, but all Pitt students, staff, faculty, alumni and the greater Pittsburgh community.
How did the idea of Victory Heights come about?
“A leader’s role is to assess the reality of where we are. I’ve been here for not quite three years, and when I came here, we were 15th out of 15 schools—at the bottom—in competition in the ACC. We have to ask, ‘How do you close the competition gap?’
The facilities where our student-athletes train and compete in are where they live and learn, and we need to create better learning and living environments for them. The football and basketball teams haven’t had to worry about where they compete because they have fantastic facilities, but the other 16 teams have been far behind. For example, more than 80% of our student-athletes practice in the Fitzgerald Field House. There’s a lot of history and tradition, but it’s a 1950s-era facility. We have 19 teams and we want each of them to be as successful as they can be. We have to look at how to become excellent, just as we do with academics. An example is how we have a first-class medical school, but we don’t stop there in pursuing excellence in all of our academic programs.”
How does this project fit into your overall vision for the Athletics program?
“Victory Heights is critical and essential to expanding and reaching goals moving forward. It will elevate and demonstrate the commitment we’re putting behind each of our sports. It shows that every student-athlete matters, that every sport matters.
It will also impact our recruiting efforts for both student-athletes and coaches. It will impact how we recruit and retain coaches.”
It's easy to see the benefits that such an investment will bring to student-athletes and to Pitt Athletics. Do you see ways that Victory Heights can enhance and enrich the Pitt experiences of the non-student-athlete community, including staff, faculty and external Oakland-neighborhood residents?
Visit Pitt Panthers’ website to see renderings of the new facilities, which include a new arena and training space, an athletic performance center and an indoor track and multipurpose complex.
“My perspective in regards to students is to look at how strong the Oakland Zoo is with basketball. You can see how much pride students have based on their engagement at basketball and football games. Athletics are a measuring stick in terms of how the school is competing against their peers. We haven’t hosted a home track meet on our campus in 21 years. New facilities will bring more expanded opportunities for our other sports to have a chance to build mini Oakland Zoos and to have an even stronger sense of pride.
From a community standpoint, new facilities will provide a huge advantage for the University to host camps, clinics and other events open to the community on campus. Think about all of the families and the Pitt alumni that live in Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities, and the kind exposure we can give to young people—bringing them to campus, exposing them to the college environment.
Pitt Studios is a new venue in the Pete where Pitt students are getting hands-on experience producing media and broadcasts. The new facility created more opportunities for this production experience for students. It also helped in creating a new academic program and allow us to recruit and hire a talented faculty member to teach the broadcast and media production courses.”
What does being in the ACC mean to student-athletes in sports like volleyball, track and field and wrestling that will benefit from these new facilities? How will this project help Pitt compete in those sports?
“The ACC is the premier academic and athletic conference in the country. When you look at our peers in the conference, these schools have the quality of academics and athletics that we want to be in company with. Victory Heights will elevate our profile in the conference.
New facilities will help us on three critical fronts: recruiting a high-caliber student-athlete, retaining coaches and hosting events. It’s hard to attend a volleyball game in the field house in the month of August when there’s no air conditioning.”
You're coming up on your third year at Pitt. What have you found to be most challenging in your role here? Most rewarding?
“In my first year, I focused a lot on instilling internally the belief that we’re better than we have been. The first year was making sure that our staff and our coaches knew and believed this. Then, I could turn and share this message externally. It’s hard because everyone wants to be good tomorrow, to be good right away. Being patient has been our biggest challenge. Great programs and great facilities take time to build. We have to be patient.
What’s been most rewarding are the relationships I’ve been able to build here, with not just student-athletes but students, faculty, staff and donors. I’ve tried to create an environment and transform a department where there’s a great sense of pride.
Also, I love getting to meet and work with students. The college experience is a transformative period in their lives. I want students to look back on their time here and say, ‘That was the most extraordinary experience of my life,’ whether they were a student-athlete or not. People tell me about the memories they have of coming to Pitt games with their parents when they were kids. Being part of the Oakland Zoo is incredible. People feel a connection to their experiences at our games, and through Victory Heights, we have an opportunity to build on that connection. This helps connect people back to Pitt and gives them a way to be part of it, give back and support our program.”
What's something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
“I’m sure that everyone in our department knows that I don’t have a slow speed. I’m driven, I’m self-motivated and I’m not the most patient.
I run on hot chocolate. I don’t drink coffee—I’m afraid of what I might do on coffee!”