Lyke unveils Victory Heights plan for Pitt Athletics

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Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke discusses the $250 million “Victory Heights” project during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke officially unveiled the long-anticipated “Victory Heights” project — a $250 million transformation of the school’s athletic facilities — at a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the Petersen Events Center in front of members of the media, coaches, alumni and athletes.

Some highlights of Victory Heights — which was originally pitched in April 2018 — include a new 3,500-seat arena, an eight-lane and 300-meter indoor track, multiple practice buildings, a band facility and a strength and conditioning complex. The athletic renovations are just one major part of Pitt’s Campus Master Plan, a 20-30 year road map for the future layout of the school.

“Victory Heights is our demonstrated commitment to comprehensive excellence,” Lyke said. “It’s going to impact 16 of our 19 teams directly, and 84% of our student athletes, and 305 of our marching band members and 75 of our spirit squad members.”

As for how Pitt plans to pay the hefty construction bill, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the University is “debt-financing the project,” guaranteeing funding while the athletic department fundraises to offset the costs. Lyke said there have been 10 individual six- or seven-figure donations made already.

The proposed arena — which does not yet have a name — will serve as the new home for Pitt’s gymnastics, wrestling and volleyball teams. The venue, as well as the strength and conditioning facility, will be built adjacent to the Pete where the grass bowl currently sits, meaning it will not impact any other current Pitt buildings.

The first product of Victory Heights, the new arena, will begin construction in the summer of 2021 with an intended opening in the fall of 2023. The indoor track and band complex will come one year later, Lyke announced, located on the backside of the Cost Sports Center.

“Whether [the track] opens in the fall of 2024 or the spring of 2024 is yet to be determined, but it will be about a year behind the arena and sport performance complex,” she said.

Gallagher singled out one of the press-conference attendees in his speech to signify the occasion — Pitt alumnus Herb Douglas, the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist. Pitt track and field head coach Alonzo Webb, a close friend of Douglas, loved that the 97-year-old legend made it to the event.

“You never know how long he’s going to be around,” Webb said, “but I just pray he’s going to be around long enough to open that place and lead those kids into their new facility.”

Gallagher addressed concerns about the construction’s impact on the surrounding Oakland areas. Both he and Lyke emphasized no neighborhoods will be touched.

“Our community and government relations team has been in our neighborhoods, sharing our plans, soliciting input from our neighbors,” Gallagher said. “Based on those reactions at this point, we think people are pretty excited about it.”

The new arena and practice facilities will replace the current role of the Fitzgerald Field House, located on top of campus. The venue, built in 1951, currently hosts Pitt’s gymnastics, wrestling and volleyball home matches, as well as coaching offices for nearly all of the teams. Lyke said the University still hasn’t decided what to do with the Field House once it becomes obsolete.

The Pitt Sports Dome, however, will come to a close with the track and band complex replacing its location. Lyke pointed out that this will time up well with the opening of a new rec center in the works that would overtake the space currently occupied on middle campus by the O’Hara parking garage.

“As that facility comes offline, the rec center will come online,” she said.

The Victory Heights design also included a lacrosse stadium where the OC lot currently sits, though Lyke said there is no timetable as to when construction of that portion could begin.

Many of Pitt’s coaches shared their support for the project, discussing the benefits it will have on their student athletes. Volleyball head coach Dan Fisher, fresh off signing a seven-year contract extension to start the new year, pointed out how the location of the arena helps out his team.

“There’s times in the season where we’re lifting weights in the Field House, then trudging through the snow to the practice facility [at the Pete], getting cold when we’ve already warmed up,” he said. “[Now,] we’ll have everything in the same spot. They’ll be able to go into study hall, their locker room, a training table and the weight room. Everything’s gonna be in house and they’ll be closer to lower campus, where most of them live.”

The current facilities are often overcrowded, some coaches noted, as many different teams are forced to share practice areas.

“The [current layout] just isn’t big enough,” wrestling head coach Keith Gavin said. “We’ll do practice now where we have the first five weight classes get on the mat, while the other guys are off riding the bike or something because if we do them all together they’ll run into each other and you’ll have some unnecessary injuries. It’s just going to be a lot more efficient for training.”

Pitt gymnastics head coach Samantha Snider said it would be without a doubt the sport’s best arena in the ACC.

“It’s exciting because it’s a challenge for us to fill that arena, but we are definitely growing our fan base,” she said. “It’s going to be exciting for them to see how great this new facility is … To just have that atmosphere on meet day for us is something that’s going to be exceptional.”

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