Trent Leonard | Contributing Editor
Addressing members of the local media during a Zoom conference Thursday afternoon, Athletic Director Heather Lyke fielded questions regarding how Pitt is adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the primary topics of discussion was the fall football season, which many have pegged as the next realistic opportunity for sports to continue as normal.
Lyke, though optimistic as possible throughout the virtual meeting, was careful not to speak in absolutes or put specific timelines on any venture, citing the fact that no one knows for sure when face-to-face interactions like sports can commence.
“About every 24 hours you’re hearing a new wave of something happening, so I would be remiss, I think, by projecting what was going to happen in the fall, and exactly how many games we feel would be a ‘worthwhile’ football season.”
In the last 24-hour cycle, the biggest development in the fight against COVID-19 happened right on Pitt’s campus, when a group of UPMC scientists developed a vaccine that saw sufficient results in test mice. Lyke acknowledged that this and other breakthroughs could move the timeline up, though to what degree is still anyone’s guess.
Lyke did express confidence in one point — that football games will not be played until it’s also safe for fans to congregate in the stands. Contingency plans for some sports have included teams competing in empty stadiums, but Lyke said she finds this an unrealistic option.
“Obviously, if we’re playing the game, I think we’ll be playing it in front of fans,” she said. “Because if there’s a concern about, you know, human contact, we wouldn’t be playing the game. The social distancing, if those orders are still in place in the fall, we won’t be having games.”
While Pitt football has seen its spring practice season cut short by 12 sessions, Lyke says it hasn’t affected the work ethic of those within the program. Head coach Pat Narduzzi is still waking up early each morning and keeping a daily routine of meeting remotely with his staff and players to analyze film and discuss game plans.
“They are still having their 6:30 or 7:30 staff meetings, all on Zoom,” Lyke said. “Narduzzi’s not, like, out playing bocce in the backyard.”
In discussing the economic consequences of cancelling the spring sports season, like losing the sizable revenue typically generated from the NCAA Tournament and other spring sports, Lyke maintained confidence that the ACC and Pitt have the fiscal responsibility to weather the storm and minimize damage.
Some schools, like Iowa State, have already announced pay cuts across the board for members of their athletic departments. Lyke said that Pitt has not yet discussed taking similar measures within its own department, but that they are “monitoring the issue very closely.”
The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament — which makes up 80% of all of the revenue for NCAA Division I, Division II and Division III athletics — has schools everywhere scrambling for cash. However, Lyke made it clear that one crucial part of Pitt’s future — the $250 million Victory Heights project set to break ground in 2021 — was not reliant on the NCAA’s tournament allocations and can therefore proceed as expected.
“At this point … this does not impact that, because Victory Heights is not scheduled to be funded out of those allocations,” Lyke said. “We’ve relied a lot on private support and we’re grateful for all of our donors who have given and supported that project.”
Though athletic departments — as well as institutions of every kind — everywhere face economic uncertainty, Lyke made sure to point out the silver linings in an otherwise bleak scenario. For one, the cancelled spring season means less revenue but also less expenses for travel and maintenance.
“There’s obviously a lot of expenses that we are not incurring because of the pandemic, you know, all the spring sports are not traveling, conferences and meetings and things of the like,” she said.
The increase in methods of communication like texting and video chat — along with newfound spare time — has actually given members within the administration the chance to connect more than ever, according to Lyke. Pitt’s head coaches, in particular, have taken advantage of the opportunity.
“We’ve probably increased the amount of communication, frankly, with our executive team, our leadership team,” Lyke said. “Our head coaches group, one of the silver linings is that group here at Pitt is much more connected in a serious and a fun way. They have a group text, and all sorts of motivational quotes, videos, fun things and competitive little games.”
If there was one overarching message to Lyke’s conference, it was that this issue encompasses far more than just college athletics and all most of us can do is stay safe, wait and see. But as far as the sports landscape goes, a fall return to action is the optimal outcome.
“It’s a big, global health care concern, there’s an economic concern and it’s really, pretty difficult to predict,” she said. “But we’re very hopeful. And I hope that we’re in a good position come the fall.”